In which direction will Colby Rasmus' career trend in 2011?
In a word, "up," and it actually shouldn't be much of a debate (at least not beyond a discussion of how far upward it's headed).
But the question is entirely understandable. There's a perception that, for all his superstar-caliber talent, Colby Rasmus has many weaknesses that threaten his prospects in the immediate future. I'd argue, however, that any such perception isn't entirely deserved, and much of it is a product of misconception, bad press or both.
Let's first get to the "bad press," which involves a report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch late last season that Rasmus and his manager, Tony La Russa, weren't seeing eye-to-eye and that the 24-year-old outfielder had requested a trade early in 2010 due to frustrations with his manager. According to that September report, La Russa confirmed that Rasmus had indeed asked to be traded, both early last season and during the outfielder's rookie year of 2009, but that he believed Rasmus' feelings had changed by that point. Yet in the same report, when asked whether he wanted to remain with the St. Louis Cardinals beyond the 2010 season, Rasmus replied, "I'm not going to say either way."
The winter passed, both La Russa and Rasmus stayed put and, with spring training nearing its final stages, there has been nary a whisper of conflict since. The Cardinals brought in no competition for Rasmus' job, were never seriously linked to trade rumors involving him and have offered no indication that anything has changed; he's projected to be their starting center fielder.
The "misconception," meanwhile, is that Rasmus is incapable of hitting left-handers, is a candidate for a platoon, and that the Cardinals have a need for a right-handed backup for center field. At one point during the exhibition season, La Russa even started Tyler Greene, a right-handed utility infielder, in center field. Whether that means Rasmus is a serious candidate to be platooned is unclear; what's clear is that such a platoon is unnecessary.
Check out Rasmus' lifetime splits versus left- and right-handed pitchers (minor league data per MinorLeagueSplits.com and major league data per FanGraphs):
Colby Rasmus: Left-handed
Colby Rasmus: Right-handed
It seems Rasmus' critics -- and La Russa, if he's truly considering a platoon -- are being misled by his dreadful, 115-plate appearance performance against southpaws during his rookie season of 2009. There are two problems with doing that: One, it ignores that 115 PAs is a terribly small sample size. Two, it discounts the difficulty a young hitter faces adapting to tougher, big-league competition, especially at a time where Rasmus was in the lineup on only 22 of 49 (44.9 percent) of the Cardinals' games against left-handed starters. He hardly received consistent enough opportunities to get comfortable against his weaker side.
Conversely, it's a mistake to read too much into Rasmus' similarly small sample size of success against southpaws from 2010, though what's encouraging about it are both his line-drive and walk rates, which were well within range of his numbers against right-handers. There was little doubt that, as a sophomore, Rasmus made great strides in his performance against lefties.
Rasmus' professional totals against left-handers represent a sample of healthy proportions, however, and as you can see above, there's not nearly the substantial split that people seem to fear. He can take a walk, can stroke a line drive and can drive the ball (.168 isolated power) against that side, and certainly his skills against southpaws are significantly improved upon those of, say, the light-hitting Greene (.222/.300/.325 career hitter overall).
That's not to say Rasmus is guaranteed 150 starts or more -- he made 114 and 124 starts respectively in his first two seasons -- simply because it's impossible to tell how often La Russa might sit him against a lefty (or righty on a day off). La Russa should play Rasmus as often as he can, but that possible misconception, or simple regression to the mean in such a small sample, might be enough to keep Rasmus from reaching such heights as 150-plus.
But what if Rasmus gets off to a torrid start, continues to rake even against his theoretical "weaker side," and forces La Russa's hand to the point that he does play that often? The sky's the limit in that case, because the other significant development in his 2010 season was the boost in power Rasmus displayed.
Rasmus set a career high with 23 home runs last season, but more importantly, his .222 isolated power actually ranked him 24th among hitters who qualified for the batting title. He made substantial advances in terms of driving the ball; per Fangraphs, he had a 48.6-percent fly-ball rate, the 11th-highest in the game. In fact, Rasmus' 48.6-percent number was the highest rate by any player under the age of 25 in a single season since FanGraphs first had data available (2002), and was the 48th-highest rate during those nine seasons of players of any age.
This is the kind of young hitter who knows how to put a charge into the ball, and whose .306/.388/.559 road rates in 2010 hint at future growth, considering the increased challenge for offensive players at Busch Stadium. To say Rasmus is a burgeoning 30-homer source is not a stretch.
Speed has also been a strength for Rasmus in the past, in spite of his 15 stolen bases combined or 62.5-percent success rate on steals attempts during his two full seasons in the majors. This is a player who once stole 28 bases in a single year (2006, in Class A ball), averaged 18.5 steals per season and had an 81.3-percent success rate as a minor leaguer. One of Rasmus' problems in the category at the big-league level has been his lineup spot; in his 97 starts from 2009-10 as either a No. 1 or 2 hitter, he was afforded only two steals attempts, understandable when the two hitters behind him were Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. In fact, 152 players were judged to have more stolen base opportunities in 2010 than Rasmus, per Baseball-Reference.com, despite the fact that his .361 on-base percentage ranked 38th among 151 qualified hitters. The chances simply weren't there.
Where Rasmus resides in the Cardinals' 2011 lineup will have a lot to say about his base-stealing potential, of course, as well as his runs scored and RBI totals. As a No. 2 hitter -- which sounds like his most likely role against a right-handed starter -- Rasmus could be a 100-run candidate, but barely crack double digits in steals. As a No. 6 hitter behind Pujols, Holliday and Lance Berkman -- which might be his role against left-handers and the occasional righty -- he could be a 100-RBI candidate with 20-steal potential, which would prove even more valuable.
But the Rasmus package isn't all positive, and there are some weaknesses with a legitimate basis to (partly) fuel a negative perception.
One of them is his strikeout rate. Rasmus had the fifth-worst strikeout rate among qualified hitters in 2010 (31.9 percent), and as a pro has struck out in 23.9 percent of his at-bats. Players who whiff at that high a rate are almost destined to be a problem in the batting average category and, sure enough, Rasmus is a .263 hitter in his two big-league seasons combined, was a .272 hitter during his minor league career and has never batted better than .288 in any complete pro season. Rasmus could repeat or exceed slightly his .276 batting average of 2010, but the chances of him finishing with worse than that are high. In fact, there's a legitimate chance that he could struggle to hit much higher than .250.
Streakiness, therefore, becomes a greater problem, which fuels concerns about La Russa's interest in a reliable backup. Even during his impressive sophomore campaign, Rasmus was terribly streaky, posting a .900 OPS or greater in three different months (April, June and September), but also a sub-.700 OPS in the other three (May, July and August). He might be a frustrating player to own in head-to-head formats, and one who requires a great deal of patience overall.
Is the complete package worth it?
Considering scouts always raved about Rasmus' potential throughout his steady climb to the majors -- he was a top-five prospect overall as judged by Baseball America entering both 2008 and 2009 -- and that he took a noticeable step forward as a 23-year-old in 2010, the seeds for something substantially greater are there. Remember, Rasmus finished 2010 the 96th-best player overall on our Player Rater. He was already judged one of fantasy's top 100 players.
Rasmus is currently being picked 100th overall, or right about where he finished last season. Ask yourself this: Do you believe he'll merely spin his wheels, or perhaps take a small step backwards, in 2011?
I don't. I think it's time to shed this negative perception and expect the next step.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.