For a player to be recognized as the St. Louis Cardinals’ consensus top prospect for two years running is something that may not have been achieved since the heady days in the late ‘90s of Rick Ankiel, the can’t–miss pitcher.
Add the volatile mix the controversial trade of St. Louis icon Jim Edmonds, freeing up his high-visibility position of centerfield, and the vacuum of other hope-generating activity from the club this winter. As a result, the hype-machine surrounding outfielder Colby Rasmus is being powered to new RPM levels by ever-increasing supplies of high-test hot-stove fuel.
In the intervening two months that remain before the first players even take the field in spring training, the heat will only become more intense for the 21-year-old as glowing statistical comparisons are made and re-made with other top minor league prospects and Major League stars.
In their defense, the Cardinals brass are downplaying March expectations for the talented Alabaman. Yet despite Rasmus not having a single Triple-A at-bat, a seemingly ever-growing number of fans believe he is ready to be thrown into the MLB fire.
Put this all together and the expectations for Rasmus’ arrival in St. Louis, whenever it occurs, are seriously in danger of becoming overblown even while there is still snow on the ground.
Optimists point to comps like a 20-year-old who tore the cover off the ball in 2000, becoming the Cardinals organization’s Player of the Year. Yet other than 14 late-regular season at-bats and a handful of games in the playoffs that year, this phenom had no Triple-A seasoning whatsoever.
As evidenced by the youngster being assigned number 68 in 2001 spring camp, expectations for the player at the Major League level still seemed firmly in check. At least they were before he surprisingly made the big club out of spring training that March. From there, Albert Pujols never looked back.
With experience powering Team USA and almost 1200 minor league at-bats accrued, Rasmus has almost certainly already logged more post-high school experience than Pujols, who had one college, one summer league and one professional season under his belt prior to his big-league debut.
Yet, when I think about Rasmus, I don’t consider only the meteoric rise of Pujols. I also recall the early-career struggles of the player named by many as Pujols’ most-worthy rival as the greatest hitter in the game today – the New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez.
After taking Rodriguez first in the 1993 Draft, the Seattle Mariners rushed Rodriguez to the bigs. He received his first call in July, 1994, the same month he turned 19 years of age. After four weeks of struggling to hit .200, Rodriguez was dispatched to Triple-A. Once there, he seemed to regain his confidence and his stroke, hitting .311 at that level.
Yet even so, Rodriguez did not make the Mariners out of spring camp in 1995, either. Only after three more agonizing up-and-down trips between Tacoma and Seattle that second season did Rodriguez finally stick the fourth time – in August. The future three-time Most Valuable Player, at that time 20 years old, finished the 1995 major league season with a meager .232 batting average along with a .264 on-base percentage.
One might only imagine the hue and cry emanating from anxious Mariners fans throughout that entire tumultuous 1995 season. Of course, everything worked out for A-Rod soon enough. He posted a .358/.418/.641 line (BA/OBP/SLG) in the 1996 campaign, following which he finished second in the American League MVP voting. And as the cliché says, the rest is history.
Is it fair at this point to mention Rasmus in the same context as these two future Hall-of-Famers? No, it probably isn’t. But, the inclusion of the story of A-Rod’s rocky introduction to the Major Leagues is intended to be a factually-based reminder that even future superstars do not always take the big leagues by storm the first, second or even fourth time they come up.
This is not intended to take anything away from the accomplishments to-date or potential ahead for Rasmus, but instead to offer a suggestion that we try our best to remain patient and not mix healthy doses of hope and hype to bake 2008 expectations that may not be achieved.
Wouldn’t it be better for all to be pleasantly surprised later on?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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