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August 2, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL Central

Colby Goes to Canada

by Larry Granillo

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On Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Colby Rasmus and three relief pitchers to the Toronto Blue Jays for a few major-league arms (Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski), three PTBNLs, and Corey Patterson. The Rasmus Era, which began in 2009 with a promising rookie campaign, finally came to an end after two-plus seasons of sniping and seemingly unmet expectations.

Rasmus was a 22-year-old center fielder and the team’s top prospect in 2009 when he won a spot in the starting lineup for the second game of the season. In 143 games, Rasmus batted .251/.307/.407 with 16 home runs and 72 runs scored. That was only good enough for a .248 True Average, but his strong defense in center (4.3 FRAA) earned Rasmus 1.7 WARP for the season. There might have been some growing pains along the way—there was one game against the Royals where Rasmus moved slowly in the outfield, allowing the runner to stretch a single into a double, that drew some comments from management—but Rasmus looked like a future building block for St. Louis following his rookie campaign.

Things changed a bit in 2010, when a disagreement between Rasmus and manager Tony La Russa about Rasmus's hitting approach (and the use of Rasmus' father, Tony, as a personal hitting coach) opened a rift between the two men. The incident took place in July, but it was talked about well into the season (and beyond). In an August 31, 2010, St. Louis Today article, La Russa and Rasmus were still talking about it:

"Colby believes he needs to hit for power to make a mark," La Russa said. "I stress to him if he can hit .300, he'll help us a lot more than that. In that .300, there will be home runs. But there will also be going first to third, stealing bases, using his legs. He's young. In the back of his mind, he knows if he catches one, it's going.

Rasmus said there have been times when he's taken comments or actions more personally than he should, and that he spent much of his rookie season seeking approval...

"I believe this is something I've learned this year: to make the team good, you've got to take care of yourself," Rasmus said. "Not let an umpire making a call on me get me to throw a couple at-bats or something that somebody says, going and taking that the wrong way... This time that I've had, just being around, I've learned something about respect for the game, for teammates and for coming in and not letting things beyond my control affect the daily work I have to do."

Statistically, Rasmus grew in just about every way in 2010, except one: defense. He raised his slashline to .276/.361/.498 with 22 home runs in the same 143 games. That was enough to boost his TAv. all the way to .300, giving Rasmus the Cardinals' third-best offensive year in 2010 behind only Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. However, Rasmus' defense, as measured by FRAA, sunk like a stone, from +4.3 runs in 2009 to -18.8 in 2010. Defensive stats, however, aren't the most accurate when looking at one-year samples, so conclusions about Rasmus' defense after 2010 were still a little premature. Even with the plummeting defense, Rasmus was able to improve his 2010 WARP to 2.3 thanks to his bat.

By the standards that he set in his first two years in the league, Rasmus' 2011 season isn't going very well. At the time of his trade, Rasmus was batting only .246 for the Cardinals. His on-base percentage had dropped as well, but only as a result of the lower batting average. Rasmus' "isolated patience" (the difference between OBP and AVG) had actually increased by a point, from .085 to .086.

The power that Rasmus showed in 2010 hasn't been as steady, with his isolated power dropping from .221 to .174 this year. In 93 games with the Cardinals, Rasmus hit 11 home runs and 14 doubles. Combined with defense that continues to rate below average (though not nearly to the same extent as his 2010 season), Rasmus earned only 1.2 WARP in 2011 before being shipped off to Toronto. That was an improvement over his rookie season, but the step back from 2010 is hard for certain baseball types to stomach. Without a direct, unbiased account of what the St. Louis brass said as they shopped around Rasmus, it's impossible to know if it was his friction with the staff or his slumping play that ultimately sent him to Canada.

Tony La Russa hasn't exactly been a saint to talented players in his time in St. Louis. Just this past offseason, Brendan Ryan was traded away from the Cardinals and replaced by a lesser shortstop due to personality issues. J.D. Drew was famously at odds with the manager. In his book about La Russa, 3 Nights in August, author Buzz Bissinger wrote down the manager’s thoughts on Drew. According to Bissinger, La Russa felt there was a "bittersweet tragedy to [the then-27-year-old] Drew," juxtaposed between both the "poster boy of scrappy," Bo Hart, and "the charming, self-destructive, preoccupied poster boy of distraction," Jose Canseco, and that he didn't see Drew as a competitor. La Russa is also quoted as saying that Drew was comfortable "settling" for 75 percent of his potential. Despite a career .282/.377/.498 line in five-plus years with the Cardinals, Drew was happily shipped to the Braves one year shy of free agency.

Most famous, though, is the feud between La Russa and former third baseman Scott Rolen. In Game 2 of the 2006 NLCS, La Russa left Rolen's name off the lineup card without speaking with him. This came only a few weeks after La Russa "benched" Rolen in a start versus Houston's Roy Oswalt, much to Rolen’s dismay. Rolen had started the postseason in a 1-for-14 rut, but even at 31 years old, he was the club's biggest offensive threat not named Albert Pujols and its best defender.

The Cardinals would go on to win the World Series—thanks, in part, to the big run Rolen would go on after returning to the lineup—but it wasn't enough. Months later, it was clear that there was still some resentment between the two men when it was revealed they hadn't spoken since the postseason. By the time Rolen requested a trade following the 2007 season, the situation was beyond repair, with La Russa telling reporters that "if he plays hard and he plays as well as he can, he plays. And if he doesn't, he can sit. If he doesn't like it, he can quit."

The Rasmus situation hasn't been quite as public as some of La Russa's past spats, but it does have many of the same hallmarks. Coming through the system, Rasmus was a top prospect who was immensely talented. Much like Drew, Rasmus often doesn't appear to be trying as hard as others. Though Rasmus may not be as injury-prone as Drew and Rolen were, he does spend a day or two out of the lineup on occasion. And while Rolen was also criticized for not always listening to his coaches about his approach at the plate, that seems to be the biggest complaint against Rasmus. There were also hints that Pujols himself didn't get along with Rolen or Rasmus. As a supporter of La Russa and the best player in baseball, Pujols' opinion certainly carries weight.

The biggest difference between the Rasmus trade and the trades that shipped out J.D. Drew and Scott Rolen is the timing. Drew was traded after his age-27 season, five years into his six years of club control. Rolen was 32 years old and set to make $33 million. Rasmus is still only 24 years old and has not even reached his arbitration years yet. The Drew and Rolen trades also netted much more valuable pieces. Drew cost the Braves Ray King, Jason Marquis, and a 22-year-old Adam Wainwright. Rolen was traded straight up for Troy Glaus, a near-clone of the third baseman. Rasmus, who was traded at a much younger age and with a much more club-friendly contract, netted a couple of useful pitchers—and Corey Patterson.

Of course, it takes much more than five days before trades can be fully analyzed. There are many ways in which La Russa and the Cardinals could come out ahead in this trade. From Rasmus getting injured or playing himself out of the big leagues to the Cards making a deep run into October or Rzepczynski blossoming into the pitcher some are predicting, the future is not set in stone. The chances of those outcomes occurring, though, and the risks involved in hoping for them, are too hard to pinpoint—especially when one can't shake the feeling that Rasmus was traded because he didn't get along with La Russa.

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jj0501

The dime store psychology on this is LaRussa's own career as an over achiever who is hardest on those with tools not
being fully deployed. Tony was a Descalso type in his day.

Aug 02, 2011 04:49 AM
rating: 2
 
jetson
(660)

It's funny that I usually stereotype a guy who acts like Larussa as some sort of old school hardscrabble type - but given Larussa's educational pedigree, I'll go with arrogant mother for $200, Alex.

It will be interesting to watch Rasmus - I'm not aware of any further personality clashes of note had by either Rolen or Drew.

Aug 02, 2011 06:52 AM
rating: 0
 
roarke

Well, Rolen did sort of famously complain his way out of Philadelphia earlier in his career and Drew gets similar complaints from Boston fans, but LaRussa seems to be much more willing to air his greivances in public (which damages his teams trading leverage).

My question is whether Rzepczynski has a legitimate chance at being a starting pitcher down the road. If not, all the Cardinals will have after this season is a middle reliever and Type B compensation for Jackson to show for Rasmus.

Aug 02, 2011 07:27 AM
rating: 0
 
ddrezner

Drew gets complaints from Boston fans, but that's for being undemonstrative, taking too many called third strikes, and seeming as if he's not hustling in the field (that last complaint is a total crock). As someone who follows the Red Sox, I've never seen a whisper of complaint from his teammates in the press. He's stunk this year, but after Josh Reddick supplanted him in the starting lineup, he was a total class act about it.

Aug 02, 2011 08:02 AM
rating: 1
 
redsfan1470

I thought that Rolen was basically run out of Philly by Dallas Green and Larry Bowa because he had the audacity to not be as good as Mike Schmidt.

Aug 02, 2011 08:53 AM
rating: 3
 
bigbart

Not equating the two, but didn't Keith Hernandez get run out of that town a long long time ago?

Aug 02, 2011 07:47 AM
rating: 0
 
formersd

I think Hernandez's cocaine use was the key factor in that situation.

Aug 02, 2011 08:18 AM
rating: 3
 
Lou Doench

Rasmus reminds me a little of a young Reggie Sanders, another player who clashed with hard headed ,angers in his early years. The scary thing is that he's probably twice the player upside wise than Reggie was. I'm glad to see him out of the division...

Aug 02, 2011 08:46 AM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

Managers, not angers... ;?

Aug 02, 2011 08:47 AM
rating: 2
 
drawbb

Admittedly I haven't seen much of Rasmus yet, but do you really think he has twice the upside of Reggie Sanders?

Nobody is ever going to remember Sanders as a forgotten great or anything, but the man is a member of the very small 300 HR/300 SB club so he obviously accomplished quite a bit nonetheless. A player's upside would have to be high indeed to have a chance at clearing that bar.

Aug 03, 2011 02:00 AM
rating: 0
 
tweicheld

I'm not familiar enough with the Rasmus situation to have an opinion as to whether La Russa's to blame. Given the way Rolen and Drew have bounced from club to club seems to indicate THEY are the problem, not La Russa. I've always loved watching Rolen play, great fielder, great baserunner but now on the decline. He has never seemed happy where he is (well, maybe he was happy in St. Louis for a while). How about it Cardinals fans - are you satisfied with your manager's results since 2006? Don't forget last year's second half collapse when answering.

Aug 02, 2011 09:41 AM
rating: -2
 
SGreenwell

I think to an extent, with fans and baseball people, there is still a bias toward guys who "look" like they're not trying that hard. It's a different sport, but the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Marcus Dupree (The Best That Never Was) covers the same sort of issue much more in-depth.

Just because a guy doesn't look like he's busting hard out there doesn't mean he's not trying. In fact, I wonder if it's a positive to a team to have a few players like Drew and Rolen on the roster, to balance out all the grinders. They do both have World Series rings, so their attitudes obviously can't be so toxic that it sinks a team.

Aug 02, 2011 19:40 PM
rating: 0
 
PeterBNYC

You can twist and turn and contort yourself into a Moebius Strip, and there is still no way to justify trading away a player like Rasmus, in his 3rd year in the league at 24, with 5 years of club control left, who over less than three sesasons has a .271 TAV, 50 HR and has averaged nearly 2.0 WARP. No way. Whatever Rasmus's problems were- immaturity, the Dad thing, inability to connect with LaRussa, who knows - there is no way this is not a dramatic failure on LaRussa's part as well. Is Rasmus a spoiled, sullen non-productive child? Time will tell. But Rasmus is fairly clearly not Gregg Jefferies, Milton Bradley or Jeff Kent. Over time, we will get to see who is right. But for me this is the final downgrade on LaRussa: in my book, he's now Dallas Green with a better press.

Aug 02, 2011 13:12 PM
rating: 5
 
rwp9843

Have any of you seen LaRussa's post game press conferences? If not, consider youself fortunate. They are like having a tooth pulled without anesthesia. Lately his teams have been moribund - uninspired and uninspiring. Not unlike his personality. And the Cardinals are paying $4-$5 million per year for this. That's almost as asinine as the Rasmus trade. LaRussa, who clearly wields tremendous influence within the Cardinals organization, is a cancer that needs to be removed. His affinity for over-priced, declining, but supposedly gritty veterans (aka winners) and floundering, high-payroll teams are strong indicators of a manager past his expiration date. The Cardinals are fortunate they play in the NL Central, where they can underperform and still compete for the division title. I think the Cardinals are more interested in capitalizing on LaRussa's HOF mystique and seeing him enter as a Cardinal than in improving as an organization. And their most recent trades, and the circumstances surrounding them, offer no evidence to the contrary. In all likelihood, the younger and hungrier Brewers will outplay LaRussa's lifeless bunch the remainder of the season and win the division.

Aug 02, 2011 19:24 PM
rating: 1
 
griggshi1

LaRussa @ the Redbirds will prevail AGAIN!!! IN 2011

Aug 03, 2011 10:28 AM
rating: -3
 
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