Colby Rasmus: A Sleeper in 2010?

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Colby Rasmus: A Sleeper in 2010?
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Amidst all the excitement swirling around a possible Cy Young winner, the MVP-type season for Albert Pujols and the re-signing of Matt Holliday, the Cardinals’ individual success stories this season aren’t just related to their big-name players. There are some, like Colby Rasmus, who are trying to establish their own name in the major leagues.

While he wasn’t be a frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award, Rasmus was one of the better first-year players this season. The plethora of exceptional young talent this year in the National League has certainly overshadowed a positive (though not jaw-dropping) inaugural season for the young Cardinals center fielder. Let’s take a look at how he fared:

478 At Bats
.251 Batting Average (119 Hits)
16 Home Runs
52 RBI
72 Runs
3 Stolen Bases
.307 On Base Percentage
.407 Slugging Percentage
.284 Batting Average on Balls in Play

You look at those numbers and even though you can’t say they are particularly noteworthy, Rasmus held his own in his first season at the big leagues. Heck, some young players look overwhelmed and don’t last the whole season with their parent club right off the bat. Rasmus, at least initially, had to fight for playing time in a crowded outfield with players like Ryan Ludwick, Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, and Skip Schumaker. Granted, most of these players became non-factors by the end of the year and Duncan was dealt to the Red Sox.

Early on, Rasmus had to move around between all three outfield positions to get at-bats, before settling down to play 127 games in center. Despite the crowded outfield situation and some bumps and bruises, Rasmus proved rather durable, which is nice to see after groin and knee injuries cut his season short in 2008.

MLB’s third best prospect and the Cards’ best coming into this season, Rasmus didn’t show the steady production we’d like to see, but he did show glimpses of his possible future impact. Looking at his statistics this season, there are a few glaring numbers: the batting average, OBP and SLG to an extent.

Fantasy owners can deal with the OBP for now, as long as he shows some improvement next season. What many can’t deal with is that .251 AVG, which is held down for a variety of reasons. Striking out 20 percent of the time plays a role, but it’s not a terrible rate, especially for someone who’s 22-years old. What hurts Rasmus the most is his tendency to hit the fly-ball, 45.7 percent of the time, yet only convert on 9.4 percent of those fly-balls for home runs.

Out of 35 players with fly-ball rates of at least 43 percent, Rasmus ranks in the middle, which wouldn’t be a problem if he could plant a few more of those balls in the bleachers of the outfield. Further, the only players out of that sample with HR/FB rates lower than Rasmus’ are Bengie Molina (.265 AVG, 20 HR) and Marco Scutaro (.282 AVG, 12 HR). If you’re going to have a rate as low as Rasmus’ you’re going to have to get pretty lucky on the rest of the balls you hit in order to maintain a respectable batting average.

Though if you look at Rasmus’ .284 BABIP, you can tell he was a bit unlucky on the balls he hit into play. It’s important to note, unless fly-ball hitters have off-the-chart HR/FB rates, they are more prone to lower BABIP because it’s much easier for a fielder to make an out on a fly-ball then it is if the hitter was more of a line-drive/groundball hitter. Still, Rasmus was a bit unlucky on that side of things this year, even compared to his minor league rate of .321 he totaled in 1,569 (including short spring training stints) at-bats.

While he maintained a rather high 48.3 percent fly-ball rate in the minors, an increase in batting average next year isn’t a sure thing. For one, his BABIP returning closer to his minor league number will increase his average. Yet it’s doubtful it increases all that much because of his reliance on the longball to pad his average. Besides the 2007 season when Rasmus hit 29 homeruns in Double-A, his career-high was 16, though in 90 at-bats last year in Triple-A he hit 11.  His power has fluctuated, but fantasy owners have to hope the power progression is for real. Call me a believer.

Lately, Rasmus’ trademark for his career has been slow starts. He had a chance for a big-league job last season, but got off to a dreadful start. Then this year saw him bat .254, but have no home runs and just four RBI in the first month. Rasmus also struggled, batting .216, with just five home runs after the break.

The productivity of next season will be dependent on Rasmus hitting lefties better as well. He posted a .160 AVG against southpaws this year, though a career minor league rate of .275 against lefties should lead to a better fortune next year.

Next season should see Rasmus not only become more comfortable at the plate, but also on the basepaths. He swiped only three bags this year, but he averaged 13 to 28 steals per year in the minors.

Ultimately, I’d expect slight improvements for Rasmus next season. Don’t expect a batting title; he’s only batted over .300 once in the minors. Still, he’s got a year of experience under his belt and should be acclimated to life at the big league level now. Plus, you’re not dubbed an elite level prospect for no reason.

My projections: .260 AVG, 19 HR, 76 RBI, 14 SB, 80 R.

What does everyone think? Will Rasmus improve next season? Or will he face the dreaded sophomore slump?

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