Like most things these days, the inspiration for this post came from Twitter. Following the St. Louis Cardinals' loss Tuesday, I saw a tweet positing that the recent struggles of the team paired with Colby Rasmus's surge would surely lead to a number of 'the Cardinals should have kept Rasmus' articles. While I've been keeping tabs on Rasmus in Toronto and have obviously seen firsthand the Cardinals' impotent offense, it got me to thinking: just how much might the 2012 Cardinals be missing the 2012 Rasmus?
Last week, I touched on the idea that sometimes a prospect or player is most valuable to a team as a trade chip. Such was the case with Rasmus in 2011. By moving Rasmus and some spare parts, the Cardinals were able to add a mid-level starting pitcher at a time when makeshift starter Kyle McClellan was faltering, a right-handed reliever to stabilize a bullpen that relied entirely too much on Miguel Batista and a lefty specialist who allowed Brian Tallet to return to his position as general in the Confederate Army. And, uh, Corey Patterson.
The trade was panned nationally at the time. Rasmus was the kind of collection of tools that prospect guys love; the Cardinals' return was an underwhelming collection of names and past performances that nobody loves. But winning a championship is the ultimate example of the adage, "the end justifies the means." No matter how much or little impact you think the trade had on the Cardinals - and honestly, if you think it was negligible then you weren't paying attention - you can't separate the trade from the championship.
What the trade did going forward, though, is considerably weaken the team's depth in center field. The team made the trade because they were dealing from a position of strength - Jon Jay was outperforming Rasmus before the trade, and the deal served the dual purpose of acquiring help and freeing up an everyday role for Jay. And Jay has continued to perform in a way that suggests the organization's faith is justified.
He's performed well when healthy, that is. After playing in 159 games in 2011, Jay has only been a part of 27 of the Cardinals' 69 games in 2012. His return seems imminent; he's currently hitting and running and catching on a rehab assignment at AAA Memphis, and he might even be back with the Cardinals before the end of the road trip.
In his stead, five different Cardinals (including a few Memphis Redbirds) have filled in. Shane Robinson, one of those Redbirds, has logged the most plate appearances as the Cardinals center fielder, making 88 plate appearances over 24 games. Skip Schumaker, Adron Chambers, Carlos Beltran and the fleeting Erik Komatsu have also made cameos in center in Jay's absence.
Perhaps not surprisingly, center field hasn't been a source of much offense in 2012. Even with Jay's gaudy early-season numbers, Cardinals center fielders have posted a .317 wOBA this year. (I had to do this number by hand using the computations for wOBA from the 2011 season, so allow for some variance. Still, it's specific enough to make the point.) The league average for center fielders in 2012 is .329. (Hat tip to my internet best friend Rui Xu.) The Cardinals' number represents the second-lowest wOBA of any position on the team besides pitcher, ahead of only the chronically bad production received from second base.
Rasmus, on the other hand, has excelled in his first full season above the border. He started slow but has rebounded in recent weeks, as evidenced by his .348 wOBA. (Again, to be fair to the integrity of the post I did this math by hand using the same parameters as with the Cardinals center fielders - if the numbers are off, at least they're off by the same amount.) By FanGraphs' count, Rasmus has also played above average defense in centre (in Canada they spell things wrong) and has been a positive on the basepaths. If there was concern about giving up on a talent like Rasmus so relatively soon, he's showing why.
The good news is that relief is on the way. According to those in the know, Jay could be back with the Cardinals by the time you read this. As previously stated, Jay was hitting everything pre-injury, so while he can't be expected to continue putting up those numbers it's fair to assume the Cardinals will receive more production from center field in the coming months. The impact Jay's return will have to the top of the order, where Rafael Furcal has been struggling mightily of late, can't be understated either.
Teams make trades because you have a need and, often, are dealing from a surplus. The Cardinals identified that they had multiple needs and two above average center fielders and acted accordingly. On July 27, 2011, the Cardinals had no way of knowing Jay would run into a wall 10 months later. Would the Cardinals have liked to have Rasmus back, especially while cycling random journeymen and minor leaguers in and out of center field? Sure. And if the team misses the playoffs in 2012 due at least in part to a bad stretch in early June, center field will be one of the areas that led to the team's demise.
But 2011 may not have happened, either. And you'd be hard-pressed to find many Cardinals fans willing to trade a 2011 championship, no matter how much a 2012 Rasmus might help.