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Missing pieces

In Baseball on September 2, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Colby Rasmus visited Busch Stadium twice on July 27 — once to clear out his locker and once to say goodbye to his teammates. The telephone call had come earlier in the day: The 24-year-old center fielder had been traded.

John Mozeliak had been diplomatic during their brief exchange, listing the organization’s reasons for trading away one of its star players: “We had to shore up the bullpen,” “The starting rotation was thin,” “You’ll have a fresh start in Toronto.” But those weren’t the words of a Major League Baseball general manager. Mozeliak’s voice more closely resembled that of a college undergraduate trying to soothe the feelings of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. The implication was clear to Rasmus — “the Cardinals would like to win the World Series. Your services will no longer be required.”

For every team not named the New York Yankees, winning a World Series is a rare opportunity. It can take years for the perfect combination of youth and age, experience and hustle, talent and luck to coalesce into that singular moment on a cold night in October when baseball discovers its champion. For teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, a playoff run can breathe new life into a moribund franchise, even if those hopes begin to fade after August 1. All that matters is the possibility — the potential — of doing something great.

It was with October dreams in mind that John Mozeliak sent Colby Rasmus — and relievers Brian Tallet and Trever Miller — off to the Great White North for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, outfielder Corey Patterson and relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel. It was a decisive action from a man who more closely resembles an academic at a chalkboard than a general manager — the Cardinals were going to go for it.

But, like all decisive actions, Mozeliak’s gamble came at a price. Yes, the Cardinals needed pitching help. Other general managers could mock the National League Central as an inferior division, but the one thing it did have was pitching. Milwaukee had traded for a Cy Young award-winner in Zack Grienke, and a potential winner in Shaun Marcum. The Reds’ rotation could beat you five days in a row if they pitched to their potential. Even the Pirates had a tough staff. Adam Wainwright had been lost for the season with Tommy John surgery, forcing the Cardinals to shift the responsibility of winning big games from Wainwright’s shoulders to the surgically repaired arms of Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia. “Flags fly forever,” goes the old baseball saying, but for the Cardinals, that flag would have to come without Rasmus’s help.

Baseball trades are always easier to judge and harder to understand as the season goes on. Every general manager makes a bad trade eventually. A few become infamous for their sheer one-sidedness: Brock for Broglio, Heathcliff Slocumb and Jay Buhner come to mind. But those moments of carelessness often fade into the background as October dreams and spring hopes fill the minds of fans and players alike. Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “If you can make one heap of all your winnings / And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, / And lose, and start again at your beginnings / And never breath a word about your loss.” Kipling was writing about honor and courage in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, bad baseball trades don’t send teams back to their beginnings, ready for a fresh start. They strip teams to their foundations and leave them praying for a second chance.

Trading Rasmus didn’t cause irreparable damage to St. Louis — Busch Stadium, the Arch and the Anheuser-Busch brewery all still stand — but it did mortgage the 2012 Cardinals to benefit marginally the 2011 version. On July 27, the Cardinals boasted a 55-48 record and were in first place in the NL Central. Since then, they have been unwaveringly average, going 16-16 and dropping to second place — 9.5 games behind a surging Milwaukee club. Edwin Jackson has been a slight improvement over Kyle McClellan, whom he replaced in the St. Louis rotation. In 45.1 innings pitched with the Cardinals, Jackson has produced an ERA+ of 103 — better than average, but barely. He’s surrendering nearly a full home run more per nine innings with the Cardinals than he did in half a season with the White Sox, and his K/9 ratio has dropped by nearly two. Immediately after making the deal official, Mozeliak said, “He’s a power arm, a different look from what we roll out there. He has the capability of being a dominant pitcher.” He is also a free agent after the season. The Cardinals traded for dominance. They received adequacy.

In reality, the lesser-known players in the deal have had the greatest effect on the team. Rzepczynski has been unhittable against left-handed batters, and he has an astronomical ERA+ of 463, nearly 300 points higher than average. But the sample size is far too small, 11 innings, to declare him the son of Spahn and Koufax — no one really believes that a quarterback who throws a touchdown in the game’s first two minutes will actually throw 30 of them. Octavio Dotel has proven that he can still be a serviceable reliever when used sparingly. And Corey Patterson has shown that he can be on a major league roster despite his crippling lack of talent.

Jon Jay, Rasmus’s replacement in center field, has demonstrated that he can be a starting center fielder in major league baseball instead of a utility player. Through 365 at-bats, Jay has carried a .296 batting average, a .764 OPS and an OPS+ of 113. He occasionally exhibits flashes of brilliance, with a spectacular catch or a clutch hit, but his moments of excellence will likely remain occasional. Jay is a known commodity, playing up to his skill level — maybe even above it. The so-called “regression to the mean” should raise some concerns for the Cardinals, but Jay continues to produce at a steady rate. He is also an inexpensive commodity, with a major league minimum salary. The Cardinals will need payroll flexibility as they face the looming free agency of Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Albert Pujols. But Rasmus was also cheap. He was also talented. Even when mired in a season-long slump, Rasmus’s OPS was within a few points of Jay’s. Essentially, the Cardinals traded unrealized potential for known competency.

Rasmus didn’t help his cause in St. Louis through his perpetual stage fright with fans and the media. And his time with the Blue Jays has been nothing short of failure: 22 strikeouts, 3 walks, a .637 OPS and a .216 batting average. But Toronto didn’t trade for an established star. They traded for potential — a young, unpolished player who didn’t quite fit in with his original team, who clashed with a notoriously temperamental manager and who never lived up to St. Louis’s overly romantic vision of the Hobbsian ballplayer.

That’s the saddest part of Rasmus’s departure from the Cardinals. St. Louis needed him to be Colby Rasmus — power hitter, fleet fielder, superstar. But all he could be, all that he knew how to be, was Colby Rasmus — gangly kid from Seale, Alabama who had a gift.

“You can interpret what you want. You can write whatever you want. But that’s not what I said. It’s not saying no, either. I mean, yeah, I’d like to be here. But there’s no telling what’s going to happen. I’d rather say nothing, so that way you’ll write nothing.”

The second time he left the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium July 27, a few reporters caught up with Rasmus. He was no longer a Cardinal but a ballplayer caught in purgatory — playing for a different team in a different city in a different country, but still facing the media that so petrified him. His father had already addressed Rasmus’s new local newspaper, the Toronto Sun. “Put a kid on the field. If he’s not good enough to play, put his ass on the bench. Never mind all this other stuff.” Pujols had already publicly called for what amounted to baseball exile, and Tony La Russa would soon announce that the team was better off without him. The St. Louis reporters asked Rasmus what his final thoughts were on his time in St. Louis, his unrealized potential, but mainly his feud with La Russa. Rasmus paused. “I hope he’s happy.”


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