St. Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers

Not satisfied with the current product, the Cardinals are trying to change center fielder Colby Rasmus

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A follow-up to this post can be found right HERE.

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The drama continues between the Cardinals’ coaching staff and young outfielder Colby Rasmus.

It was only six months ago that the now 24-year-old Rasmus requested a trade away from St. Louis because of a tarnished relationship with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.  And it was only three months ago that Albert Pujols said the organization should “figure out a way to get him out of here.”

Colby didn’t feel that he was being treated like an everyday player and didn’t agree with La Russa’s philosophies on hitting.  Rasmus views himself as a power hitter — a 30-homer guy who just happens to steal bases.  La Russa, meanwhile, has preached that Rasmus try to become a more gap-to-gap type of batter and to use his legs to produce runs.

La Russa is apparently driving home that philosophy this winter with the help of an offseason program designed by Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire.  It calls for Rasmus to slim down, to stay off the weights, and to work on his quick-twitch leg muscles.

Brian Walton of The Cardinal Nation Blog gathered a couple of revealing comments on the program Thursday from Tony Rasmus, father of Colby and highly successful high school baseball coach in Alabama:

“Colby has been working on spraying the ball around the field this offseason via the Big Mac approach. Hasn’t been lifting since the plan is to be a slap hitter so there is no need for the added muscle. The goal I hear is to hit .300 and hit more ground balls and line drives the other way.”

While it’s odd to discourage any young hitter from trying to drive the ball deep, Rasmus has struggled with high strikeout numbers and has posted some rather alarming flyball rates in his first two major league seasons.  In 2010, he had the 11th-highest flyball percentage in the game, lofting batted balls 48.6% of the time.  McGwire and La Russa are probably thinking that a more contact-minded approach at the plate will help Rasmus become a better all-around hitter.

Of course, there’s the other side.  The side suggesting that a flyball rate might not always be a bad thing.  Jose Bautista and Adam Dunn ranked in the Top 10 for flyball rates this past year and still had highly productive offensive seasons.  Pujols had a 44.5% flyball rate.  Jayson Werth clocked in at 45.4%.  Paul Konerko’s was 45.0%.

Those guys are bonafide sluggers, but they can also be defined simply as great hitters.  Rasmus isn’t quite to that level, but he’s moving in that direction.  Or, he was, until La Russa and Mac decided this winter — or probably this past summer — to make a change in the young man.  More from Tony Rasmus:

“[Colby] weighed in yesterday at 180 lbs and is running 5 miles a day trying to get quicker and lose a little more. Wants to be at 175 by spring training. He is working the abs but nothing else in the weight room. Gonna try to be a Brett Gardner slap it and run.

Gardner is a nice player.  He swiped 47 bases in 56 chances this year for the Yankees and made himself into an undeniable full-timer.  The Yanks barely looked at free agent outfielder Carl Crawford this winter because they’ve become so comfortable with Gardner’s contributions.

Rasmus, though, can be far better.  He can drive the ball out of the park with the best of baseball’s young outfielders and that’s an ability that should not be diminished.  The home run, after all, is the best outcome for a hitter in any plate appearance.  Yes, any plate appearance.  More from Tony Rasmus:

“I’m curious to see this new hitting style at work. What they’re telling me is Colby most likely won’t hit 10 jacks this year but will be more consistent. I’m told that he will look alot like Jon Jay without all the pre swing motion. More like the Skip Schumaker and Jay stuff to left field. IT will be curious to watch.”

Colby most likely won’t hit 10 jacks.”  It’s not too difficult to read through the lines on that remark and to recognize that the elder Rasmus does not agree with the the Cards’ new approach. Especially when he names a guy like Schumaker, one of the least productive regulars in baseball.

Tony Rasmus coached his son from birth until the draft, and probably even after draft.  He’s one of those all-in amateur baseball coaches who tight-ropes along the line of passion and over-involvement.  And the biggest prize of his coaching career — his son — is playing for the National League’s most successful franchise, and under a Hall of Fame manager with a reputation for high-strung hardheadedness.  That’s two hardheaded baseball men with two very different philosophies on what is best for young Colby.

La Russa might have the resume, but who knows Colby’s swing better than his father, a lifetime observer of his son’s flaws and fine points?

There might not be a great answer to that.  What is for certain is that the situation is sticky, maybe even awkward.  What if the elder Rasmus was the one behind that June trade request?  And what if that same request is made next summer, when the younger Rasmus is at single-digit “jacks” around the trade deadline?

It’s usually best to simply let the good ones play.

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UPDATE: Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has suggested that Tony Rasmus’ comments were part of a “hoax” or meant as tongue-in-cheek.  In fact, Strauss told me that I should take this story down.

I can’t do that.  Strauss has confirmed that it was indeed Rasmus’ father who made those remarks.  Whether they were sincere and Colby is working on a new approach, or whether they were made in an entirely facetious manner, it’s all very toxic.

Either the Cardinals are really trying to change his son’s batting style or Tony Rasmus is publicly mocking La Russa and McGwire.  I might argue that the latter is worse, given that Colby requested a trade just last summer and his father has butted heads with Cardinals coaches in the past.

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UPDATE: Strauss says that Tony Rasmus’ comments were made in a completely tongue-in-cheek manner and that Rasmus isn’t actually being asked to become a slap hitter.  Still, this feels a bit strange.  As Strauss notes, the comments read like a “joke with teeth.”

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez defected to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.