In two-plus years as the general manager of the Blue Jays, Alex Anthopoulos has shown a penchant for buying low on other teams’ undervalued players. He did it with Yunel Escobar, who delivered a 3.7 WARP season last year. He did it with Brett Lawrie, who emerged as one of baseball’s top prospects, and then batted a remarkable .293/.373/.580 in 171 plate appearances in 2011. Most recently, he did it with Colby Rasmus and Kelly Johnson last summer, though the returns on those two investments are thus far unclear.
Once viewed as a potential star center fielder, the 25-year-old Rasmus has a much greater role to play in the Jays’ future than Johnson. Rasmus was a 2.3 WARP player—mostly thanks to a .276/.361/.498 triple-slash, because his fielding was 18.8 runs below average—in 2010, and he was expected to blossom into one of the National League’s best players.
Those hopes were derailed during a lowly 0.4 WARP 2011 campaign, and Rasmus’ production actually went south after he was shipped north on July 27. He hit just .173/.201/.316 in 140 plate appearances with Toronto, while Tony La Russa and the Cardinals got the last laugh in the World Series.
Rasmus has all the baseball tools in the world. He ranked among the top 10 prospects in baseball heading into the 2009 season—ahead of fellow outfielders Andrew McCutchen, Mike Stanton, and Dexter Fowler, who have since passed him on the road to stardom. There is no purely baseball-related explanation. Most often, Rasmus’ stunted development is tied to one of two things—the undue influence of his father or his own immaturity—or a combination of them.
The former was cited in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, where Rasmus mentioned that he has asked his father to step aside and let him grow. Many believed that an antagonistic ménage-a-trois between Rasmus, his father, and La Russa was an obstacle in St. Louis, and that the move to Toronto would clear the path. Anthopoulos certainly bought into that theory when he opted to give Rasmus the much-needed change of scenery last July.
But Rasmus’ own maturity may be as much of a roadblock as his father was. I witnessed that immaturity first-hand in May of Rasmus’ rookie season, when the Cardinals were playing the Giants at AT&T Park. Fans in the San Francisco bleachers can be relentless when it comes to heckling opposing outfielders and, at least on this particular night, they got into Rasmus’ head. After a few innings of being called “Razzmatazz,” he turned around and began to make faces at the crowd. In the sixth inning, he snapped, and casually flipped the bird at a particularly vocal fan in the front row, inciting even angrier taunts that he struggled to tune out.
Everyone is entitled to a bad day, and while Rasmus’ antics were unprofessional, other players might be given a pass for that sort of slip-up. The problem is that for Rasmus, that anecdote adds to a pile of evidence suggesting a lack of mental toughness, whereas for other players, it would be an easily forgettable exception. I have sat in the AT&T Park bleachers dozens of times and have seen plenty of outfielders react to the hecklers, but the only example I could immediately name and recount is the aforementioned one with Rasmus. For better or worse, that was my first impression of him as a player.
A focused Rasmus who gets back on track in 2012 and resumes his ascent can be a difference-maker for a team on the rise. Anthopoulos and the Jays are counting on him to be a key cog on a contender in the next few years—a contender built largely from the team’s stable of prospects and the other buy-low acquisitions they have made in the past two years.
If Rasmus can do that, his history in St. Louis, from the spat with La Russa to the iffy makeup, will be forgotten. If he can’t, those issues and the reputation they created may forever dog what once seemed to be an extremely promising career.