Will Rasmus' Big Pay Day Come With The Blue Jays?
Colby Rasmus will enter his final year of arbitration this offseason.
Expectations have always been high for Colby Rasmus. After all, the St. Louis Cardinals made him a first-round draft pick in 2005, and he went on to make his major league debut at the age of 22.
He initially delivered on the promise, stringing together a solid rookie campaign in 2009 before busting out the following year. Rasmus hit .276/.361/.498/.859 with 23 homers and was 4 wins above replacement in 2010, and on the fast track to stardom.
But he soon fell out of favor in St. Louis and was moved to the Blue Jays at the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline. In that 2011 year and in his '12 season, Rasmus was unable to replicate the potential he flashed early on. Rasmus hit a combined .224/.293/.396/.689, and, as a player heading into his final year of arbitration who played the same position as one of Toronto's top prospects in Anthony Gose, there left a lot for him to prove this season.
And he has done just that.
Rasmus is having his best season since that career year in 2010, hitting .275/.336/.478/.814 with 17 homers, and is 3.8 WAR. He's two doubles (26) shy of his career high, and defensive metrics -- which seem to alternate in its assessment of him on a yearly basis -- love him, again.
(NOTE: Defensive metrics have limitations, and, like offensive stats, it's always better to look at larger samples. And since 2009, Rasmus ranks among the top 10 center fielders in both Defensive Runs Saved and UZR/150.)
He's striking out, though, at a career-high rate (29.6%), and his walk rate (7.7%) is basically what is was last season (7.5%), and way down from the two seasons before that. The only time his strikeout rate approached this season's mark was his 2010 year. But that year, he also had a walk rate four percent higher than he does in 2013.
The one thing that jumps out when looking at Rasmus' career numbers is his batting average on balls in play.
Rasmus' BABIP -- which is .299 for his career -- over his five big-league seasons:
2010: .354 (6th highest among major league qualifiers)
2012: .259 (9th lowest)
2013: .364 (12th highest)
Are Rasmus' two best years, to some degree, the product of some batted ball luck? There is nothing uncommon about yearly spikes in BABIP, but a mark of .364 is unsustainable moving forward. If Rasmus' 2013 BABIP was at his career mark -- which also happens to be in line with the league-average rate -- it would still be better than three of his four seasons, but it would also put a dent in his numbers. How many more seasons is Rasmus going to post a .350-plus BABIP?
Perhaps a better question would be: Can Rasmus put up these numbers without an extremely high BABIP? Likely not with a K rate that is the seventh highest in baseball, and a BB rate which is slightly below league average. Cutting down on the strikeouts would allow him to put more balls in play, which could ultimately lead to more hits. And improving his walk rate would help offset the drop in on-base percentage he would experience with a lower BABIP. Without increasing his walk rate, Rasmus -- a career .248 hitter with a .316 OBP -- is unlikely to hit enough to even approach the .336 OBP he has this season.
One thing he does have going for him, which partially helps explain his BABIP, is that he's hitting line drives at a career-high rate, and liners are the most likeliest of balls to fall for hits.
My eyes tell me one thing, though, and it’s that Rasmus is an extremely gifted player who has put a lot together this season. But the numbers don't exactly scream out that this is a guy who can play at this level over the course of the next few seasons, which, at a soon-to-be 27 years old, are likely to be his best. That's not to say Rasmus doesn't have some big years ahead of him, because I am certain he does.
But it leads to the next question: What should the Blue Jays do with him?
As mentioned above, Rasmus is arbitration eligible for the final time this offseason, and will get a nice raise from the $4.675 million he is making this season -- perhaps close to double that. If he has a similar season in 2014, we are looking at a player -- who also provides value on the defensive end -- that will be looking for a contract with an average annual value (AAV) north of $10 million. At age 28 and as a free agent for the first time, he will also assure himself some long-term security. The guy making just under $5 million this year is set to become an expensive player.
Last month, Andrew Stoeten of Drunk Jays Fans wrote an excellent post looking at this exact topic and took care of a lot of the work I would have otherwise done, comparing Rasmus to a crop of center fielders who recently signed multi-year deals. And, you know what? I'd take Rasmus over any of them, save for maybe Adam Jones, even when factoring in the defensive metrics which flog the Orioles' center fielder. But I don't think Rasmus is going to get Jones money, so a cheaper player with similar production would certainly be a plus. That's not to say that Rasmus is going to be cheap, though, as Jones signed a very rich extension last season (six years, $85 million).
Jones is somewhat of a punching bag due to his poor defensive metrics and low walk rates, but he is in the midst of a career year, a season after posting his best offensive numbers. He has also been much more consistent at the plate over his career than Rasmus has.
Gose, meanwhile, has been a major disappointment this season and hasn't done much at Triple-A, a level he is repeating for the second time (the first one did come in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, though). Melky Cabrera is still under contract for another year and, as I recently wrote, it's tough to imagine the Blue Jays could find a taker for him, if there was any thought of finding room for both Gose and Rasmus in the same outfield. Gose's value would take a big hit sliding to the corner, and I don't think the Blue Jays are ready to move Rasmus from center field.
Will Gose repeat Triple-A for the third time next season while the Blue Jays decide the future of Rasmus? Will the Blue Jays attempt to sign Rasmus to an extension in the offseason and buy out his final year of arbitration? Will they let Rasmus become a free agent? Keeping Rasmus around for 2014, at the very least, is a must, so will the club move Gose in the offseason for starting pitching?
None of these decisions are easy. And call me pessimistic, but Rasmus' inconsistency, massive fluctuations in BABIP, and K/BB rates are somewhat worrisome.
It's a tough question and if the Blue Jays wait until the 2014 offseason to decide, they will be competing with 29 other clubs for his services.
h/t Fangraphs for stats