Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Rasmus The Blue JayPosted by Jeffrey Gross at 2:20pm
Earlier today, Colby Rasmus was acquired by the Blue Jays in yet another shrewd "if you don't like 'em, we'll take 'em" move by the unabashedly aggressive Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos.
Formally an eight-player deal between the Blue Jays and the Cardinals, the deal is practically a three-team triangle trade involving 11 players and the White Sox, who managed get rid of Mark Teahen, save $9 million and net No. 2 starter-type pitching prospect Zack Stewart. Similar in form to last year's deal between the Blue Jays and Braves for Yunel Escobar, this move has the potential to be a major win for the Blue Jays if Rasmus pans out. But will he develop as anything more than just a clubhouse headache for Tony LaRussa?
Only just about to turn 25, there is plenty of upside for Rasmus, but his ceiling and "projectable" room to grow shrinks more and more with each passing year and every major league at-bat that pins down his true talent level. Hitters tend to peak around age 25 and 26, while fielders tend to peak a couple of years earlier. Rasmus is right in that "sweet spot" between 24 and 26 where hitters tend to make their biggest leaps forward offensively and retain most of their fielding value.
I am neither a scout nor a forecaster. That "magic leap" forward is not an easy thing to predict, and it is certainly not something I will pretend to know how to do. All that my expertise can tell you is that as a player gets older, his peak potential attenuates into plateau probability. Our own Brian Cartwright and his Oliver Forecasting engine (half-season subscriptions are now available for only $7.50) does a fantastic job at forecasting younger players. Here is what Oliver forecasted for Rasmus, per 600 plate appearances, through age 30:
Those are pretty good numbers, let alone for a center fielder. In our brave new world of the pitcher, where the league-average OPS and wOBA are .711 and .315, respectively, those numbers look even better. Still, an .800 OPS, 20-ish home run hitter* is probably on the low-end of the type hitter Cardinals' fans expected their former first-round pick to develop into just a few short years ago.
*In the preseason, I boldly predicted Rasmus would not reach 25 home runs this year and was skeptical of him eclipsing 20. Some, mostly Cardinals fans, called me crazy, but with only 11 on the season and fewer than 60 games remaining in the Cardinals schedule, I seem destined to win this wager.
The Rogers Center is much different from Busch Stadium. For example, whereas Busch has depressed lefty home runs by about nine percent over the past three years according to the 2011 Bill James Handbook, the Rogers Center is a dead-neutral park, with a lefty batter home run park index of 100 on the dot. The differences is the parks can be observed, courtesy of Katron.org, by mapping out Rasmus' batted ball data at Busch Stadium over the Rogers Center:
Last year's map of data, when Rasmus was hitting for better power, looks much better:
Had Rasmus been a righty, rather than a lefty, the change in setting for Rasmus would likely have a more substantial impact than it will. Being a lefty, however, Rasmus' move north is postured to give him a small boost in power with some offset in walks. If we boldly and fallaciously assume James' park factors from 2008-2010 will remain constant for the next six years, here is how Rasmus' age 2012-2017 seasons might look:
Comparing the two charts, you might notice a roughly +.010 point, or 1.25 percent, change in Rasmus' expected OPS. That is improved raw production overall, but nothing substantial. On-base is more valuable than slugging, so the change in wOBA caused by the change in parks is likely to be nil. Thus, if we look at what to expect, Rasmus will probably be the same low-.800 OPS player for Toronto he was in St. Louis unless he takes that "magic leap" forward.
This is not to be overly critical, however, because .800-OPS types have been getting scarcer and scarcer over the past two seasons. Rasmus is capable of playing a good-enough, though not elite, center field to stick and provide plenty of positional value, as well. Despite a relatively high strikeout rate that offsets a good walk rate, Rasmus should be capable of producing a combined +10-15 WAR over the next three seasons for the Jays before hitting the free agency market.
That is a lot of potential value, and all it really cost the Jays was pitching prospect Zach Stewart, who could be pretty good, but is still just a prospect, and prospects are always fickle. I will also always take three-plus years of team control for a young .800 OPS hitter, let alone center fielder, over six years of a pitching prospect.
All in all, this was a good move for Alex A., and if the Jays are able to lock Rasmus up for the next six years (through age 30) at, say, $35 million, it could be a steal for the Jays, who have become a very strong up the middle team over the past 12 months. But what does it mean for fantasy owners?
As a fantasy hitter, Ramus is still overrated, particularly in 5x5 standard leagues. Rasmus is more likely to remain a 20-25 home run hitter going forward, but he is still only a .260/23 HR/11 SB type batter. That kind of production is valuable, but probably not top-36 (OF3) material. Rasmus is a brand-name player who was drafted as a top-25 outfielder and top-100 overall player this year, and given that kind of love, he is unlikely to be someone to turn a profit and is probably capable of returning a loss.
Ramus takes a good number of walks (11.7 percent BB rate over the past two seasons), but strikes out too much (20 percent of the time this year, 22 percent career) given his power output (.185 career ISO), and that will keep his potential batting average—and in turn on-base percentage—lower than what it could be.
Rasmus has good instincts on the basepaths (+13.9 UBR over his 385-game career), but just average-ish speed (career +5.3 speed score) that, paired with a good-but-not-great on-base rate, will not lead to much more than ten stolen bases a year.
If another owner is your league is excited about Rasmus and willing to pay for him at preseason rates, I would recommend exploiting the opportunity. Rasmus does not particularly overwhelm as a keeper, particularly at his probable preseason price. Good, reasonably attainable outfielder trade targets for Rasmus include B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, and Michael Morse. If post-trade Rasmus does not meet up to the hype surrounding his name at the trade deadline, do not be surprised.
Jeffrey Gross is an attorney (and die-hard Cubs fan) who currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he also reviews tasty adult beverages as part of a side project titled "saBEERmetrics." He previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at saBEERmetrics AT gmail DOT com.