Will Colby Rasmus ever live up to expectations?
So much for the fresh start north of the border.
Things weren't going particularly well for Colby Rasmus before the St. Louis Cardinals shipped him to the Toronto Blue Jays in a three-team deal at the trade deadline last year, and they only got worse in the aftermath of the trade. After batting .246 with 11 home runs and 46 RBIs in 338 at-bats with the Cardinals before the swap, the disgruntled center fielder hit just .173 with a .201 OBP and three homers and 13 RBIs in 133 at-bats upon joining the Blue Jays.
Drafted by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2005 draft, Rasmus was widely considered to be a future star. Baseball America ranked him as the fifth-best prospect in baseball in 2008 and the third-best in 2009. There was a time when, from an offensive perspective, Rasmus appeared to possess a power/speed skill set similar to Grady Sizemore's. Sizemore hasn't been fantasy-relevant for a few years due to injury issues, but he used to be one of the most coveted outfielders in fantasy, producing three 20/20 campaigns and once going 30/30. Rasmus has obviously fallen well short of those aspirations thus far, and while last season's struggles shouldn't lead fantasy owners to give up on the former Cardinal, it's fair to say he's lost some of his sheen from just a few years ago.
If you're in a forgiving mood, there are reasons we should perhaps give Rasmus a free pass for his poor performance last year. It's always difficult to know how much to take off-field issues into account when evaluating players, but it's no secret that the young outfielder had a tumultuous relationship with manager Tony La Russa in St. Louis and didn't respond well to the skipper's management style. According to a recent story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rasmus never felt comfortable in St. Louis, never felt a part of the team, felt the media was always on him and "couldn't relax and play." Rasmus' outspoken father, who often voiced his dissenting opinion about the Cardinals' coaching methods, probably didn't help matters.
Whether Rasmus' sentiments were justified or not, it's certainly reasonable to think that these distractions, to some degree, affected his performance last year. Then again, does this say something about Rasmus' mental makeup and how he may handle (or not handle) future adversity? Time will tell. As for his struggles after the Cardinals traded him, well, we can always chalk that up to small sample size and the adjustment period often experienced by players changing leagues. A wrist injury suffered in late August could have attributed to some of his struggles in Toronto, too.
Even if we cut Rasmus some slack because of his drama-filled season, though, this is still a very flawed player. While he was once lauded for his power/speed combo, he's never really hit for average in his professional career. Rasmus was a .277 hitter over 1,533 minor league at-bats, and he batted just .255 at Triple-A. In fact, the only times he hit better than .275 were back in Rookie ball and Low-A. He did hit a respectable .276 with the Cardinals in 2010, though his .354 batting average on balls in play can at least be partly thanked for that.
Rasmus also doesn't make consistent contact, sporting a 68 percent contact rate in 2010 and a 75 percent rate last year. The danger, of course, is if his contact rate this season drifts closer to what it was in 2010 rather than 2011. That would put him in the territory of a guy like Carlos Pena, whose highest batting average over the last three seasons is .227. In addition, Rasmus' line-drive rate is in a three-year decline, going from 20 percent in 2009 to 16 percent last year. He did strike out less last season compared to 2010, but he also walked less, so his plate discipline isn't necessarily improving. And again, adjustment period or not, both metrics got worse last season after he joined the Jays: his strikeout rate went up, his walk rate went down.
Finally, Rasmus hasn't proved he can hit left-handers consistently, as he holds just a .217 batting average against them in his big league career. That's a poor clip to begin with, and he may have trouble improving that mark in 2012 considering that lefties like CC Sabathia, Jon Lester, David Price and Matt Moore all reside in the AL East. The most intimidating southpaws Rasmus had to face in the NL Central were probably Wandy Rodriguez and Randy Wolf. Not exactly an even trade. In short, this is all just a long-winded way of saying that because Rasmus has never hit for average past A-ball, there's little reason to think that will change in 2012, outside of a completely new approach at the plate. The most likely scenario is that Rasmus' batting average hurts you more than it helps.
Stolen bases are becoming less a part of Rasmus' repertoire, too. He stole bases consistently in the minors, as he swiped 15 or more bags three times, including 27 steals between Low-A and High-A in 2006. While he stole 12 bags in 2010, he was caught eight times, and last year he stole only five bases and didn't make a single stolen-base attempt in 35 games with Toronto. Rasmus could still flirt with double-digit bags in the future, which is plenty valuable in fantasy, but he's not the threat on the basepaths we once hoped he'd be.
The one somewhat consistent part of Rasmus' game is his power. While his 14 home runs last year were a disappointment, he hit 23 home runs in fewer than 500 at-bats with the Cardinals in 2010, and he jacked a professional-high 29 dingers back at Double-A in 2007. Even if the rest of his game doesn't come together, Rasmus can probably be a cheap source of power with the Blue Jays. When he belted his 23 homers two years ago, his HR/FB rate was 14.8 percent, which looks like an outlier when compared to his 9.4 mark in 2009 and 8.3 mark in 2011. Still, the Rogers Centre is much more homer-friendly than Busch Stadium (the two parks ranked sixth and 27th, respectively, according to ESPN Park Factors last year), so his power should translate just fine to the American League.
Most fantasy owners taking a chance on Rasmus in the mid-to-late rounds on draft day -- he's being drafted as the 53rd outfielder on average, according to Mock Draft Central (ESPN live draft information will be available in early March) -- are hoping he'll put everything together and be a true difference-maker in fantasy. That's probably not a realistic expectation. At least not yet. There are too many holes in his game.
Of course, we have to remember that Rasmus is still only 25 and has loads of talent, so there's still time for him to make adjustments and realize at least some -- if not all -- of his potential. In fact, according to MLB.com, the Jays' coaching staff noticed that the outfielder's high leg kick may have affected his timing at the plate last year, and that's something Rasmus worked on over the offseason, so maybe that'll be the first of many small steps to bigger and better things.
At the very least, Rasmus should provide some pop and a decent number of runs hitting near the top of the Jays' batting order, and there's value in that, especially with where he's being drafted. And for all of his blemishes discussed above, I'd still rather take a shot on the Jays center fielder over guys like Vernon Wells and Josh Willingham, who are being drafted in the same vicinity, because of the possibility that there's still some untapped upside in his bat.
Still, I'm skeptical of the thought that Rasmus will eventually put everything together and reach "fantasy star" status. Former first-round pick or not, there's just too much evidence at this point that says otherwise.