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July 27, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Centers of Attention UPDATED

by Jay Jaffe

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The July 31 trading deadline traditionally turns the spotlight on pending free agents that can shore up a contender's roster for the stretch run. Carlos Beltran and Hiroki Kuroda are the belles of the quick-fix ball this year, and if they don't sound tremendously enticing, it helps explain why so much talk is focused elsewhere, on younger and more affordable players still under club control. Ubaldo Jimenez and Hunter Pence fit that bill, even if their respective teams' willingness to trade them is something of a head-scratcher. More puzzling is how B.J. Upton and Colby Rasmus have arrived at this juncture, particularly given the big things projected for them just a few years ago. On the other hand, maybe that explains exactly why they're here.

Both center fielders are viewed as underachievers these days, talented players whose shortcomings have not only become more apparent, but have come to overshadow them. Acquiring them is less about what they can contribute immediately and more about whether they can restore their lost promise with a change of scenery—though to some contenders, merely league average-ish production in center field, or even in left, would constitute a considerable upgrade.

Upton is the older of the two, and while it feels as though he's been around for a decade, he's actually less than four weeks shy of his 27th birthday. The second overall pick of the 2002 draft—the only one of that year's first six picks to amount to much—he reached the majors in late 2004, three weeks shy of his 20th birthday. Erratic glove work at shortstop and then third base sent him back to the minors for all of 2005 and kept him there for most of 2006 as well, which didn't matter since the Devil Rays weren't going anywhere.

In 2007, Upton broke camp as Tampa's starting second baseman and he hit—Lord, did he hit. Despite missing a month due to a quad strain, striking out 154 times, and a midseason move to center field, Upton batted .300/.386/.508 with 24 homers and 22 steals. All told, he was worth 4.6 WARP in that age-22 season, a season that casts a long shadow over Upton's career. Aside from higher stolen-base totals, nothing he's done since has measured up. He's never reached 20 homers, slugged .500, or hit .300 either in the batting average or True Average departments.

Why that is remains a mystery. In 2008, Upton played through a torn labrum in his left shoulder from May 1 onward, and his numbers bear the stamp of that injury. He batted .273/.383/.401, dropping to nine homers despite more playing time. On the other hand, he jumped from 65 to 97 walks, because taking a pitch was less painful than swinging. Upton's high on-base percentage and strong play afield (5 FRAA) helped the newly-exorcised Rays shake off a decade of futility to reach the postseason for the first time in franchise history. There Upton caught fire, bashing three homers in the Division Series against the White Sox, then adding four more against the Red Sox in the ALCS. Anticipation ran high that he'd be back on the track to stardom following off-season surgery.

Instead, Upton's performance at the plate has only eroded. He has hit a combined .239/.318/.403 since then, including .229/.310/.399 this year, the average and OBP his lowest full-season marks. It's not that he hasn't regained some of his lost power (.163 ISO) or maintained reasonable patience (10 percent walk rate), it's that he's still striking out 25 percent of the time—a big drawback for a speed player given his ability to leg out infield hits. Worse, his batting average on balls in play is now in its fourth straight year of decline, from an unsustainable .393 in 2007, to .344, .310, .304, and finally .273 this season.

Upton's numbers are depressed only somewhat by Tropicana Field; for his career, he's at .249/.338/.402 at home, .263/.344/.421 on the road; post-surgery, he's dead even except for the slugging percentages: .235/.317/.389 at the Trop, .238/.315/.407 elsewhere. His platoon split isn't massive, but it is noticeable: .264/.372/.433 against lefties, .253/.328/.403 against righties, a problem given that he's hitting against the latter 70 percent of the time. Since the surgery, he's basically been a league-average hitter (.261 TAv) playing average defense in center field, worth about 2.0 WARP per year if you prorate this season to 162 games.

For a second overall pick who starred at 22 and was a playoff hero at 23, you can see why anything less would appear to be a disappointment, particularly when it's been coupled with repeated benchings, some for disciplinary reasons, others because of matchups. Given the number of times such sittings have happened—generally for failures to hustle on the basepaths or in the field—you'd think the Rays would have run him out of town on a rail, but manager Joe Maddon and the rest of the organization have generally handled him with a light touch—some might say too light. The fan base is another matter; he's been characterized as lazy, and at least one Rays listener reports that the team's radio broadcasters have fueled the fire.

The Rays' light touch may be because Upton's departure has been pending for awhile now. He isn't making much in the grand scheme of things ($4.825 million), but his salary is 12 percent of this year's Opening Day payroll, and he has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining. With Carl Crawford departing over the winter, the Rays had the opportunity to promote top hitting prospect Desmond Jennings—a natural center fielder—and play him alongside Upton in the outfield. In the wake of Manny Ramirez's suspension and retirement, they've chosen to scrimp and scuffle along with Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano, and Johnny Damon getting most of the playing time in left, a plan that's given the team less production from the corner (.251/.303/.407) than from center (.238/.316/.410)—not an isolated occurrence around the majors this season. Mindful of Jennings' service-time total as it pertains to Super Two arbitration status, they've left Jennings to cool his heels at Triple-A Durham, continuing a posting that's now lasted nearly a thousand plate appearances in between injuries.

You can certainly quibble with the way the Rays have handled that situation; Fuld hit .396/.431/.604 through April 18, played outstanding defense, and gained cult status in the process. Since then, he's been a Vortex of Suck, batting a sub-replacement level .206/.267/.308 as the team has fallen further and further behind in the AL East and wild-card races; they came into Tuesday 7 ½ behind the Yankees in both. Punting the opportunity to push a team that might be good for 90 wins even higher because of a worry over the extra dollars Jennings' status might cost following the 2013 season is just silly; you're wasting prime seasons in the careers of David Price, James Shields, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, and many others, and if you think it's hard competing on a $40 million payroll in 2011, just wait until that nucleus is occupying a bigger chunk of payroll while the fans in Tampa Bay grow even more listless.

What remains notable is that for whatever the Rays' dissatisfactions with Upton, they have avoided airing their dirty laundry in public. Some of that may have to do with Maddon's general positivity; this is a skipper who back in 2007 campaigned for Delmon Young to win AL Rookie of the Year despite having chewed him out privately for hustle-related incidents multiple times that season.

Such treatment is a stark contrast when compared with the Cardinals' ongoing battles with Rasmus, their soon-to-be 25-year-old center fielder. Chosen with the 28th pick of the 2005 draft, he came into the 2008 season hailed as the eighth-best prospect on our Top 100 Prospects list—the same as Upton had been four years earlier. Despite a strong spring, he was shipped to Triple-A Memphis, and while he heated up after a slow start, a knee sprain cost him a month. He played a half-dozen games in the low minors upon returning, but didn't make it back to Memphis, and the Cardinals opted not to promote him that September when rosters expanded. "He hasn't been playing," said manager Tony La Russa. "He hasn't earned it. Injuries are injuries, but you can't reward somebody because of it."

Again ranked eighth on our Top 100 Prospects list coming into 2009, Rasmus broke camp with the big club, but his rookie season was far from spectacular. A heel injury took a big bite out of his late-season production, and he wound up hitting .251/.307/.407, for a .248 True Average; with slightly above average defense, he was worth 1.7 WARP. Southpaws were a real problem for the lefty swinger, as he hit a desiccated .160/.219/.255 in 115 plate appearances against them, compared to a healthier .277/.332/.451 against righties.

Rasmus blossomed as a hitter last season, batting .276/.361/.498 for a .300 TAv, though significantly subpar defense limited him to just 2.3 WARP. His unintentional walk rate jumped from six percent to 10 percent, and his line against lefties was a healthy .270/.349/.461 in 131 plate appearances. There was plenty to like about his performance, yet it left behind a sour taste in some mouths. The July recall of Jon Jay cost Rasmus a bit of playing time, but most of that came during the second half of August, when he was hampered by a calf strain. Notably, the Cardinals went 4-8 during a stretch of 12 straight Jay starts. They dropped from two games out of first place to seven, the coup de grâce on their season.

By early September, reports had surfaced that Rasmus had requested a trade during a heated July 24 exchange with La Russa, a rather brazen thing for a second-year player to do. The Cardinals didn't protect their player; instead they exposed him. La Russa confirmed that the request had been made, but Rasmus denied it, and pointedly avoided questions about whether he hoped to be part of the team the following season: "I'm not going to say either way." Apparently, that wasn't even Rasmus' first trade request; he had made one following the 2009 season as well.

One factor in the rift between Rasmus and La Russa is the player's father, Tony Rasmus, who coached his son to championships in the Little League World Series and in high school. With the team's blessing, Rasmus has been allowed to call upon his father as a swing doctor. Alas, the senior Rasmus has become more meddlesome than that, taking jabs at the organization on a fan blog, and even openly agitating for a trade.

Rasmus' numbers are down again; he's hitting .245/.332/.421 with 11 homers, for a respectable .269 True Average, but after hitting .278/.382/.443 through May, he's at just .199/.260/.390 since June 1; notably, Daddy Rasmus' most recent missive on his son's relocation surfaced during this time. The situation regarding his instruction appears to be deteriorating, with La Russa hinting and then reiterating that the player was shutting out team hitting coach Mark McGwire and assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete and seeking advice only from his father.

Interestingly enough, Rasmus' performance against lefties has improved yet again (.256/.374/.451 in 100 PA), but now he's struggling against righties (.241/.318/.411). Counterintuitively, when La Russa started the lefty-swinging Jay ahead of Rasmus seven times in a recent 12-game stretch, four of them came against southpaws; all five of Rasmus' starts came against righties. A 2006 second-round pick, Jay is a slappy hitter who lacks the power to play a corner position, and he's generally been held to lack the range to play center field. He owns a career .305/.367/.374 line in 150 PA against lefties, compared to .306/.359/.449 against righties; for what it's worth, his defensive numbers are basically average to slightly above, better than Rasmus across FRAA, UZR, Plus/Minus, and Total Zone. Given that right fielder Lance Berkman is solidly below average across the systems as well, you can understand the choice for a better defender. You can also understand the Cardinals' desire to escape the drama and the headaches associated with a father who's stage-managing his son's career to an extent that lacks a recent parallel. I'm pretty sure that neither Ken Griffey nor Bobby Bonds intervened in their sons' handling, and both players developed into stars.

Just the same, even with his stock taking a recent hit, you'd have to be crazy simply to punt a player of Rasmus' talent, particularly given the minimal expense; he won't even be arbitration-eligible until after this season. ESPN's Dave Schoenfield ran a comparison of center fielders since 1980 who had played anywhere from 250 to 600 games through their age-24 seasons (the upper bound eliminates prodigies such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones). It's a list whose upper third in terms of OPS+ includes not only contemporaries such as Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, and Matt Kemp, but also guys like Grady Sizemore, Ellis Burks, Chili Davis, Carlos Beltran, and Bernie Williams—guys who became stars. Rasmus' 111 OPS+ ranks eighth out of the 44 players fitting the bill, significantly ahead of Beltran and Williams, even further ahead of Adam Jones (97) and Johnny Damon (89). This is a player you build around, unless you get a king's ransom to move him.

Reports conflict as to whether the Cardinals are actively shopping Rasmus, with general manager John Moleziak telling MLB Network Radio's Jim Bowden that they're not, and big-name reporters like the New York Post's Joel Sherman and CBS Sports' Danny Knobler hearing otherwise from various teams. The Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss reported over the weekend that the White Sox were talking to the Cardinals, with Edwin Jackson and Matt Thornton among the potential returns, naming the Rays and Nationals as interested parties. Sherman quotes one AL official as saying the Cardinals "are asking for a ton," which sounds as though no move is imminent.

The Rays are much more serious about dealing Upton now. The Braves, Giants, Nationals, and Pirates are said to be his strongest suitors, with the Indians, Reds, and Cardinals possibly interested as well, depending upon whom you ask, though the latter presumes a Rasmus trade. It's not inconceivable the two teams could simply swap headaches, particularly since the Rays are known to have inquired about Rasmus in the past, but it sounds as though there would have to be more incentive for the Cardinals to make the move than for the Rays.

 Growing up in public, playing for contenders in the high-pressure environment of major-league baseball, is no easy thing, and many a talented young player has gotten hung up somewhere along the way. The problems of Upton and Rasmus may extend beyond injuries and mechanical flaws, though exactly how far is tough to read through the fog of conjecture. We do know that their respective teams have handled them very differently, the Rays protecting Upton despite his occasional lapses, Cardinals exposing Rasmus. Neither is necessarily the wrong approach; as young men who make good money and stand to make a great deal more, accountability is the order of the day. Despite the lack of a burning reason to trade either, particularly when their values are depressed, both appear to need changes of scenery to restore their paths to stardom. We'll soon know where those will be.  

UPDATE: Mere hours after publishing this, the White Sox, Cardinals, and Blue Jays effectively a three-way deal which sends Rasmus to Toronto and nets the Cardinals the peripatetic trio of Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Corey Patterson plus lefty Marc Rzepczynski, with thee other St. louis relievers of various distinction headed on the outbound as well. For the Blue Jays it appears to be a smart buy-low move along the lines of what the Jays pulled off last year in acquiring Yunel Escobar from the Braves. If it seems like a less than stellar return for the Cardinals, they can chalk it up to their failures to find a comfortable middle ground with a valuable commodity. Ben Lindbergh and R.J. Anderson have more analysis here.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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