Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners: Colby Rasmus

In past offseasons the Mariners have been more active in the trade market than the free agent market, especially top-tier free agents (excluding Chone Figgins). Offseason trades have brought in Franklin Gutierrez, Jason Vargas, Cliff Lee, David Aardsma, Brandon League, and Milton Bradley. Also, the team hasn’t been afraid to take on another team’s damaged goods (Bradley, Dan Cortes, Josh Lueke), or spare parts (Gutierrez, Justin Smoak).

One would hardly be genuine when calling Colby Rasmus damaged goods or a spare part, but either way, he may have worn out his welcome in St. Louis. Earlier this week, it was reported that Rasmus had requested a trade earlier in the season. The team’s, and maybe baseball’s best player Albert Pujols came out in support of the franchise, and was quoted as saying:

“If he doesn’t want to be here next year, we need to figure out a way to get him out of here and find somebody that wants to be here and play,” said the nine-time All-Star. “That’s a reality.

“That’ll show you right there a young player that doesn’t respect what he’s got,” Pujols added. “He needs to find out the talent and ability that he has and pretty much keep his mouth shut and play the game. Let the organization make those decisions, not himself.”

So Rasmus has a tough offseason ahead of him. He’s denied making a trade request, and Tony La Russa has been on record describing what could be Rasmus’ change of heart, and re-commitment to the franchise. But if that isn’t the case, then Rasmus may find himself in a less favorable scenario than being a productive, albeit disgruntled outfielder for the Cardinals.

But who is Colby Rasmus?

The Cardinals drafted Rasmus out of high school in the first round of the 2005 draft. An athletic fielder, Rasmus was also touted for his power. His minor league career was no disappointment. In his first year at AA, his age 20 season in 2007, Rasmus posted a .275/.381/.551 line, good for a 152 wRC+.

The following season, in 90 AAA games, Rasmus saw his power plummet (.145, down from .275), but his strikeout and walk rates remained fairly even. A lower batting average was caused by a drop in power production and a decreased BABIP (.287 from .300). Neither BABIP is damningly good or bad, and its easy to write off Rasmus’ 2008 season as a product of adjusting to a new level.

Rasmus wouldn’t get a second chance at AAA, as he never played a game outside of top level in 2009, and hasn’t played a minor league game since. In his first big league season, Rasmus saw his walk rates plummet (6.9, down from around 12 in most minor league seasons). The growing pains didn’t stop at his walk rates, as yet another higher level left Rasmus power around average. He posted a 91 wRC+ his rookie season.

2010 has been very different for Rasmus.  Despite seeing his strikeout rate rise above 30 percent, Rasmus has been more patient at the plate, and more productive when he actually makes contact. One of the accepted truths about guys that walk a lot is that they see more pitches, and find themselves in two strike counts more frequently. In 2009, in 520 plate appearances, Rasmus saw two strikes in 226 plate appearances or 43.5 percent of his plate appearances, and three balls in 93 plate appearances or 17.9 percent. With two strikes he posted a .204/.252/.351 slash line, and with three balls he posted a .182/.505/.273 slash line. In 2010 however, in 442 plate appearances to this point, he’s seen two strike counts in 55.2 percent of his plate appearances, and three balls in 26.7 percent. His line with two strikes has been .174/.275/.338, but his most marked improvement has been with three balls, where he’s patient, and punishes the ball when he hits it for a .212/.559/.470 line.

All that has led to Rasmus seeing an extra half pitch per plate appearance, meaning that this year he’s seen about an extra 220 pitches compared to his rate from last year.

All that power and patience fits the mold that the Mariners are looking for from their players, but it doesn’t come at the sacrifice of his defense. Rasmus plays a plus center field, and could presumably take over for Franklin Gutierrez in the event that age, injury, or fatigue knock Gutierrez out of center for any amount of time. But in left field, if we presume a 10 UZR/150 increase, Rasmus projects as a 14.3 UZR/150 left fielder. That would put him well ahead of Michael Saunders displayed performance, and with a much more accomplished bat.

So what is Rasmus worth?

Dave Cameron ranked Rasmus as the player 14th most trade value in baseball in mid-July, but that was before recent reports that Rasmus has requested a trade. The Mariners have made acquiring other teams’ talented trash a habit at this point, and typically at a very reduced price tag.

Jayson Stark recently reported that the Cardinals would receive “60 to 70 cents on the dollar” if they were to trade Rasmus now.

The reality is that the Mariners’ Michael Saunders represents a nearly perfect example of that ratio. Each Saunders and Rasmus have ceilings above their present performance, with Rasmus’ ceiling generally a notch better in every category. But each is a similar style of player, and Saunders could probably step into center field in St. Louis and play competently.

A straight-up trade may be unrealistic, but it is far from unheard of to trade an outfielder for an outfielder. Saunders figures to have one more year of team control, and the two are basically the same age (both will be in their age 25 seasons next year, though Saunders is 3 months younger).

In 2009 the Nationals traded malcontent Lastings Milledge, once a top prospect in the Mets organization, along with Joel Hanrahan for then-good-guy Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett. In terms of potential, the Nationals got the far shorter end of the stick.

Rasmus certainly doesn’t fall into the same category as Milledge in terms of negative behavior, but if the Cardinals are intent on trading him in the offseason the Mariners may not have to give up much more than Saunders.