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August 2, 2011
Divide and Conquer, NL Central
Colby Goes to Canada
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:
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.