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Friday, March 12, 2010
30 Questions: St. Louis Cardinals

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Is Colby Rasmus a mixed-league option?

I'm sitting here looking at the 2008 version of Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. It has Jay Bruce, Clayton Kershaw, Cameron Maybin and Franklin Morales on the cover, and on the most coveted lists at the books' front -- the "Top 50 Prospects" as submitted by BA's four experts -- another name is a constant in everyone's top 10: Colby Rasmus. Remember him? Only Bruce and Evan Longoria were consensus better overall future players than Rasmus back in '08. Rasmus was the St. Louis Cardinals' clear No. 1 prospect, and BA touted the fact that he set an Alabama schoolboy record for homers in a season (previously owned by Bo Jackson), called him a "potential big league All-Star" and indicated that "his speed and savvy on the basepaths could mean 20-20 seasons for St. Louis" and that he could "possibly win Gold Gloves" in center field.

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How quickly does the bloom come off these guys' roses, anyway?

A couple years later, after just one season in the majors and at age 23 (he turns 24 in August), Rasmus seems to be an afterthought. In ESPN.com mock drafts, he's the 65th outfielder being selected, on average in the 23rd round of a 25-round draft. He's being overlooked in favor of such luminaries as Matt Diaz, J.D. Drew, Jeff Francoeur and Delmon Young. I know Rasmus has only 474 big league at-bats, and I'm usually the first one to tell you not to pay for a young player's career upside very early in his career. But this isn't a Justin Upton style case, in which you're being asked to pay a second-round pick for a kid. If there's one high-upside guy out there who I think embodies the "post-hype prospect" category, it's Rasmus.

I mean, my heavens. We're willing to give Young and Alex Gordon their fourth chances, and we're not willing to grant Rasmus a second? The kid acquitted himself fairly well in '09. He led all rookies in games played (with 147) despite being yanked around in what was a crowded Cardinals outfield last season. There's little question that his first full major league season wore him down; he hit just .216 after the All-Star break. But shouldn't that get better now that he knows what to expect? In early July, his OPS was above .800 and he had 11 homers in 270 at-bats. Plus the Cardinals didn't let him run at all: He had exactly four stolen-base attempts, and was successful on three of them. This is a guy who averaged 23 homers and 27 steals per 150 games played in the minors. He can run. We know this.

Colby Rasmus
After a relatively quiet rookie year, Colby Rasmus has lost most of his hype, but that makes him even more of a sleeper.

The biggest red flag Rasmus has is his performance against lefties. In his rookie year, it was execrable: a .160 batting average, a .219 on-base percentage and a .474 OPS. That has to get more respectable soon, or his path to fantasy relevance -- especially as an outfielder -- is likely to be a long and winding one. But I'm not ready to say he can't make this transition in 2010. In his minor league career, Rasmus was a .278 hitter against righties and a .275 hitter against lefties, and was often playing in an advanced league for his age. He doesn't have any inherent mechanical or physical flaw that renders him utterly incapable of being successful in lefty-on-lefty situations. To my mind, it's a matter of getting used to another level adjustment. He can do it, though I'm not promising he will.

I'm also intrigued by Rasmus' spot in that Cardinals batting order. In '09, he had 296 at-bats as the team's No. 2 hitter, and 178 elsewhere in the lineup. As the second-place hitter, he posted a .284 average and a .766 OPS. Hitting in other spots, he hit .197 with a .564 OPS. Now, of course that's a partly specious argument, since often the reason Tony La Russa moved Rasmus out of the two-hole was that the Cardinals were facing a lefty, and La Russa knew how badly his rookie was struggling against southpaws. Still, with Rick Ankiel gone to Kansas City, it seems that La Russa almost has to be more committed to Rasmus this year, and hopefully that commitment means giving the kid more rope higher in the lineup when the team faces a lefty. Why is it significant if Rasmus can hit second every day, no matter which pitcher the team faces? Because the No. 3 hitter in that lineup is some guy named Albert Pujols.

Seriously, if Rasmus can stick at No. 2, hitting ahead of both Pujols and Matt Holliday, how does he not see an awful lot of good pitches, get on base more and score a bunch of runs? The Cardinals know how badly the kid scuffled against southpaws in '09, and dispatched Mark McGwire to work with him on that this winter and spring. The prospect of an entire season spent in front of a Pujols/Holliday duo is enticing, indeed.

I'm not saying Rasmus is a sure thing, and I'm not telling you to draft him in the 10th round of your mixed-league draft. But to my way of thinking, he should be going a far sight higher than the 23rd round. Sure, if you're convinced the numbers he posted in his rookie season are pretty much what you'll get in his sophomore campaign (and that is well within the realm of possibility), he's not worth more than the outfielders being drafted in his neighborhood. But in figuring a second-year player's value, one whose speed potential was thoroughly untapped last year and one who is known to be a terrific natural talent, don't we have to work significant upside into his valuation? I mean, Matt Diaz is 32, and he can't hit righties. Don't we pretty much know exactly what guys like Diaz and Drew and Josh Willingham and Mike Cameron and Francoeur and Juan Rivera are?

If you're going to take a reserve outfielder -- especially in a mixed league where those unexciting veteran replacements are always going to be readily available in your free-agent pool -- don't you want a guy who could "come out of nowhere" and surprise? Don't you want a guy like Carlos Quentin, a post-hype guy with tons of as-yet-untapped skill who might figure it all out and inject himself into your starting lineup?

If you do, then I humbly suggest: You want Colby Rasmus.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.