Trying To Recharge

After disappointing '08, Rasmus aims for a different '09

Scan any winter league roster—the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico—and his name is nowhere to be found. And don't bother Google-searching lists for the Arizona Fall League, or even Hawaii Winter Baseball.

Colby Rasmus, the Cardinals' top prospect despite a mostly forgettable 2008 season, is sitting this one out.

Colby Rasmus
Instead, Rasmus is back in his southeastern Alabama hometown, living in the home he bought for his parents, working out at the local gym and sometimes cruising the old streets of his youth. On occasion, he slips out of the city limits to nearby Auburn University for a football weekend with old buddies.

Baseball is definitely on the back burner.

There are no plans to grab a bat and step in the cage, nor a short session set aside to play catch.

"I'm going to get the body rested up for next season," Rasmus said in a recent phone interview. "I thought about going to play winter ball, but I thought this would be the best thing for me to do."

The Storybook Ends

Rasmus' winter hibernation, coming on the heels of a surprise decision to rebuff the Cardinals' offseason wishes, marks the latest twist in what before this year had been a nearly flawless, all-American, feel-good story.

A 2005 first-round pick, Rasmus ranked as the top prospect of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, the second year in a row that Baseball America rated Rasmus atop a circuit (last year it was in the Double-A Texas League).

That came thanks greatly to a stellar June that was sandwiched around a longer-than-usual, two-month cold spell at the beginning of the season and a nearly month-long stay on the disabled list at the end of the season in order to nurse an MCL sprain on his left knee.

In 331 at-bats with Memphis, his truncated season finished at .251/.346/.396 with 11 home runs, 15 doubles and 36 RBIs. But he suffered a sprain trying to check his swing on July 22 and never returned to the Memphis lineup, forcing him to relinquish his Team USA roster spot ahead of this year's Beijing Games.

The stats were worrisome enough. Along the way, a posting on an Internet fan message board seen as critical of Cardinals decisions—Rasmus' dad Tony says the author was neither Colby nor him—created a brief firestorm.

Both Rasmus' dad and the Cardinals insist the issue is dead, but it did give any St. Louis follower a moment of pause.

What is clear is that Rasmus is a changed man, even at 22. Where before excitement and optimism overflowed from a deep voice, the tenor of his conversations follows a more cautious and guarded path.

"I'm a lot different now than I was at the beginning of the season," Rasmus said. "Early in the season, I was playing to have fun. I didn't look at the business side of baseball.

"Now I'm going to go to the field to do what I've got to get done, and that'll be it. Triple-A wasn't really what I expected it to be."

A Big Difference

What a difference a year makes.

Last winter, Rasmus was coming off a 29-homer, 72-RBI season at Double-A Springfield and a stint in the Arizona Fall League and then for Team USA in an Olympic qualifier.

At the time, Rasmus was deemed off-limits in trade talks and, when the Cardinals traded Jim Edmonds to the Padres for third baseman David Freese, it appeared the organization was willing to give Rasmus a serious look in big league camp.

The face of the Cardinals' Manhattan Project to replenish the farm system and move its baseball model more toward winning with homegrown talent, Rasmus seemed on his way.

He was one of the star attractions at the team's annual winter warmup fan fest in January.

Having risen from a modest upbringing and having exhausted some of his signing bonus money to purchase a home for his parents, Rasmus had become a fan favorite at Springfield. He would almost always sign autographs after games, sometimes for a half hour, and it came in a season in which he batted third for most of the year and then accepted the leadoff spot when the team's table-setter headed to the disabled list.

However, his star apparently has diminished, with a fan base more willing to part with Rasmus. In late October, the St. Louis  Post-Dispatch posted an unscientific Web poll asking fans whether he should be dealt away for Padres righthander Jake Peavy, despite center fielder Rick Ankiel having missed the final two months of the season because of a abdominal muscle problem.

The response in trading Rasmus was a resounding yes.

How odd it seems as winter takes hold.

"Logic will prevail," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said, offering a more realistic assessment, although he did not fully commit to deeming Rasmus as an untouchable.

Of Rasmus' decision not to play this winter, Mozeliak expressed both understanding and disappointment.

After the knee injury, Rasmus returned only for six late-season games combined in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and at high Class A Palm Beach.

His average sitting at .179 on May 21, Rasmus had hit .337/.442/.535 in June.

By not playing winter ball, Rasmus appears to be all but conceding he will open next year back in Memphis. Mozeliak said Rasmus would get a look in camp for the St. Louis roster.

"I think anybody that goes to winter ball has to go with the mindset of wanting to compete and not to appease your coaches or your agent," Mozeliak said. "If you're heart's not into it, it's probably not the right place to be."

However, Mozeliak later added, "I thought it would have been good for him, with next year in mind, to go play winter ball."

Looking Ahead

All that said, a key to Rasmus' 2009 centers on his willingness to accept the past season as a learning experience.

"Colby's got a chance to be an all-star," a National League scout said. "He's sort of a cross between a (Steve) Finley and a (Grady) Sizemore. He's got surprising power, can run. He's going to be a five-tool player.

"I think he's got to learn the strike zone better and not chase. But he shows great adaptability."

In 2007, when Rasmus conquered the Texas League, he buried a two-month slump by making a conscious effort to hit the other way. Pitchers had frustrated him away, as Rasmus had become pull happy, rather than using the entire field.

But he compounded his struggles this season by not quickly putting into context the reasons that he did not break spring training with the parent club.

Rasmus angled for the team's open vacancy in the leadoff role and did own a .464 on-base percentage in 56 plate appearances in Grapefruit League action.

However, the Cardinals assigned him to Memphis, as their outfield picture included Rick Ankiel, Rule 5 selection Brian Barton and Skip Schumaker, a center fielder who had major league experience but was out of options.

Rasmus acknowledged he was disappointed.

"I still think about it but I try not to," Rasmus said of his season in general. "It all doesn't matter. You move on from it and learn."

He went on.

"I hit balls right at guys," Rasmus said, beginning to explain how it all snowballed and how he will handle himself next year. "If I go to Triple-A next year, I can't let it get to me.

"I felt good at the plate early. I wanted to get to the big leagues so bad I started struggling. I just need to go to the field every day and get the job done, take a business-like approach to the field."

Drama Behind

Unfortunately for Rasmus, there was unnecessary off-the-field drama out of his control as well.

An 814-word posting on an Internet fan message board appeared in May, critical of the Cardinals' handling of Colby and jabbing at manager Tony La Russa.

Because the poster's handle was "RCWarriors," other posters believed the author was Tony Rasmus, his dad and head baseball coach of the Russell County High Warriors in Phenix City, Ala.

Tony Rasmus said neither he nor Colby had anything to do with it. But Tony Rasmus did post a clarification that the Rasmus family held no ill feelings toward the Cardinals and that the onus was on Colby to hit his way out of his slump.

Months later, Tony Rasmus insists it is time to move on.

"It's a non-issue," he said. "Colby was where he should have been. He should have been in Triple-A."

Mozeliak took it a step further.

"It's never been an issue," Mozeliak said. "There are a lot of blogs. Certainly, we don't pay a lot of attention to it.

"We look at the situation as he's going to be competing for a job next spring," Mozeliak added. "That's what's important to us."  

A close friend and former Double-A teammate of Rasmus' said he has never mentioned the Internet posting this winter. He also made clear that Rasmus is not sulking at home, that no one should read much into the tone in his voice.

"I don't think it's anything to worry about," said Cory Rauschenberger, a former teammate at Double-A Springfield who has met up with Rasmus a few times this fall at his home in Alabama.

When Rasmus spoke of 2009, Rauschenberger said, "He was like, 'I've got to do what has always gotten me here.' It's a lot of (high expectations) to take on, coming from small towns like we did. But I think this next year is going to be real big for him."

Meanwhile, Rasmus is working out five times a week as he tries to add muscle strength. The time off, he believes, should allow him to be well rested and be ready to compete in spring training.

"The last three years have been a roller coaster. It's gone by quickly. It's why I wanted to slow things down and take time off and get away," Rasmus said. "I've just got to go in (to spring training) in the best shape I've ever been, bust it up and be ready to play.

"I'm going to try to play as good as I possibly can. If it doesn't work, I'll go to Triple-A and try to have a good season there."