… If they can get a No. 3 starter or better.
Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus was drafted in 2005 as a five-tool high school outfielder, the first marquee selection by highly regarded and so-far-successful farm director Jeff Luhnow, a high-IQ guy hired out of the business world in 2003.
Rasmus’ arm hasn’t developed as quickly as the organization had hoped and he’s played hesitant defense at times since arriving in St. Louis in 2009. The power has been there, but only in spurts, and he hasn’t been aggressive on the basepaths in his two-plus major league seasons, trying only 31 steals.
That doesn’t mean Rasmus won’t suddenly put it all together. He had a productive .859 OPS in 144 games last season at the age of 23 and he registered a .391 on-base percentage this April, tallying 10 extra-base hits in 26 games. Rasmus is a comet going from first-to-third. He takes great at-bats and draws walks in bunches when he’s playing with confidence. As a young, productive, cost-controlled center fielder with tools and upside, the 24-year-old is a rare and valuable commodity in modern Major League Baseball.
But Rasmus hasn’t been a major difference-maker this year in the Cardinals’ quest to recapture the National League Central crown and that doesn’t seem to likely to change. Trading him, if the return is right, could mean not only a better a shot at the division title, but also a better chance at making a late postseason run.
In 2004 second-round pick Jon Jay, the Redbirds have a pre-packaged replacement. He doesn’t have nearly the upside of Rasmus, but the 26-year-old former Miami Hurricane has been a steady presence all over the St. Louis outfield this season with Allen Craig, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols each spending time on the disabled list. As an active fourth outfielder in 2010, Jay managed a cool .300/.359/.422 rookie batting line. This year, he’s hitting .304/.352/.438 with seven home runs and five stolen bases in 248 plate appearances.
Jay is quick, takes good jumps in the outfield, and plays more confidently near stadium walls than Rasmus. He never made a Baseball America Top 100 prospects list, but he had multiple productive seasons during his time in the Cards’ minor league system and his career on-base percentage in the big leagues (.356) is quite a bit higher than Rasmus’ (.333). Jay’s career OPS in the majors (.785) is also better than Rasmus’ (.775).
Though most would agree that it’s a fact bound to change, Jay is a better all-around major league outfielder than Rasmus here in mid-July, 2011. And that matters for a variety of reasons.
Lance Berkman is on a one-year contract and Pujols is an impending free agent. If the Cardinals want right-hander Chris Carpenter back, it might have to mean picking up his $15 million club option for 2012. The team will be buoyed by other contributors and a big spending budget if all three depart in the offseason, but there should be a small element of urgency sweeping through the Busch Stadium front office this summer.
As it stands, the Cardinals don’t have the starting pitching to thrive in October. Adam Wainwright isn’t going to be cleared to return from Tommy John surgery until next season and Kyle McClellan’s conversion to the rotation has hit a few recent roadbumps. Carpenter has shown remarkable determination in turning his season around, but his stuff simply isn’t what it used to be. Jake Westbrook has struggled to keep his sinker down. Jaime Garcia only seems to operate well at home. And Kyle Lohse is due for a regression.
If trading Rasmus means acquiring a starting pitcher who can finish strong in the regular season, factor into the postseason rotation, and remain under team control through 2013 or longer, the risk is worth it. McClellan could be moved back to his more familiar setup role, where he possesses a 3.22 career ERA.
With Pujols, Berkman, Holliday and David Freese all finally healthy, and Yadier Molina slugging .415, the Cardinals have ample offense. But they need a pitcher with the ability to go six or seven quality innings every five days in order to break away from the Brewers, Reds and Pirates in the second half. And they’ll need that reliable starter again when it comes time to face the Phillies, or Giants, or Braves in a playoff series.
The Cardinals no longer have a fruitless farm system. Jay and Craig are proof of that, as is utilityman Daniel Descalso, who looks ready defensively at the age of 24. Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez and Fernando Salas appear to have bright futures in relief, and they’re all four homebred. Add to that the fact that three Cardinals pitching prospects made Keith Law’s midseason Top 50 list, released Thursday.
The Cardinals don’t have to fret about entering a period without cost-controlled talent. It’s now almost plentiful. And if one of those young arms needs to be moved to upgrade the outfield down the road, so be it.
St. Louis’ decision-makers should not feel beholden to the desire to make a bright-futured guy like Rasmus “work,” or “fit.” They’ve performed too well in recent drafts and on the international market to worry about taking risks with young talent, and they’ve certainly put up with babysitting for long enough. Colby has twice issued a request to be shipped out of town. If a high-impact starter can be had, and if that pitcher comes with a reasonable, multi-year contract, the Cardinals should grant the Rasmus family’s wish before the end of July.