As the Cardinals slide farther and farther out of the National League Central race, it’s hard not to notice that one of their best players hasn’t been in the lineup for over two weeks. Young center fielder Colby Rasmus hasn’t had more than one plate appearance in a game since August 14th; since then, his only action has been as either a pinch hitter or defensive replacement. In that time, Rasmus has had all of four plate appearances, as his job has effectively gone to Jon Jay, especially given this quote from manager Tony La Russa (h/t Viva El Birdos)
“He’s had all the work,” La Russa said. “He’s never backed off the work, taking batting practice. I think it all has to do with what his concentration is, and what his focus is. I do believe that, you just watch his swings in batting practice and in the game, I think he is convinced that he helps us more if he just yanks the ball out of the park. That normally is not the case, because you’re limiting yourself to a side of the park and you’re vulnerable to too many pitches. We really push, ‘Just play the game.’ That’s what Jon [Jay] does. He plays the game. take a single, take a walk, let the home runs come.”
From this quote, it is obvious that La Russa takes issue with Colby Rasmus’s approach. I don’t particularly doubt that La Russa understands how a MLB player should approach an at-bat. But Rasmus’s poor approach has still resulted in a .268/.352/.501 line, which translates to a .364 wOBA and a 130 wRC+. Basically, Rasmus has been an excellent hitter, and most evidence points to Rasmus supporting that line with an average to above average glove in center field. Even though Rasmus’s line is boosted by a likely unsustainable .341 BABIP, ZiPS projects Rasmus as a .341 wOBA hitter, which is good for a slick fielding center fielder. The wOBA projects Rasmus as a 3-4 WAR player with upside.
The aversion to playing Rasmus goes farther back than merely the past two weeks. Rasmus has 403 plate appearances on the season and has started only 93 of the club’s 138 games, despite the fact that he hasn’t missed significant time before his recent injury. As a result of La Russa’s anti-Rasmus tendencies, along with the midseason trade of Ryan Ludwick, a grand total of 591 plate appearances have gone to Jay, Joe Mather, Randy Winn, Allen Craig, and Nick Stavinoha. This group, despite a .315 collective BABIP, have posted a meager .317 wOBA, and none of them provide the kind of defense Rasmus does.
The apparently superior approaches that La Russa has favored haven’t produced more than Rasmus to date and there’s nary a crystal ball that suggests that they will, even if the group is limited to Jay and Winn or Jay and Craig. Jay’s line, particularly once his .376 BABIP normalizes, screams average, and Craig’s isn’t much better. Winn is at replacement level this season and even at that level ZiPS suggests that he’s playing over his head.
Tony La Russa has been around long enough to suggest that he’s a good major league manager, but right now, it’s clear that his decisions are resulting in an inferior St. Louis Cardinals team on the field. Colby Rasmus is a 3-4 WAR player right now with 4-5 WAR potential, and in his stead, La Russa is fielding players at the league average or below. The Cardinals need to utilize every weapon they have to catch the Reds; the Cardinals are now six games back of the Reds, three games back of the Phillies, and have playoff odds below 25%. Without Rasmus on the field the Cardinals are killing their chances at October. As time goes on, one has to wonder if La Russa and his whopping .535 career winning percentage is worth keeping around if he will let personal feelings or just simply misguided judgments of talent keep players like Rasmus off the field. The questionable move has certainly cost the Cardinals in 2010 and if the Cardinals organization isn’t careful, they could lose out on a player who looks to be one of the premiere center field talents in baseball.