Edwin Jackson of the St. Louis Cardinals throws a pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers during Game Six of the National League Championship Series at Miller Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
The Cardinals, once thought to be long dead in 2011, are four wins from a World Series title -- in part because of a highly-criticized trade.
On July 27, the Cardinals dealt promising center fielder Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays. If you read the stories surrounding the trade, that's the only bit that mattered -- the Cardinals had finally given up on one of their better young players while he struggled to put together a repeat of his 2010 campaign. It's more complicated than that, though, as these things generally are. For one, just how valuable is Colby Rasmus?
In terms of 2011 alone, it's easy to see why the Cardinals did what they did -- Rasmus had hit .246/.332/.420 with the Cardinals, above-average but not irreplaceable, especially for a team with Jon Jay around. Jay doesn't have Rasmus' ceiling -- the .298/.350/.423 career line he's posted in 826 plate appearances is likely as good as it gets -- but as far as filling in for the departed 2011 version of Rasmus to that point, the Cards wouldn't skip a beat.
There is also the argument about just how high Rasmus' ceiling is, much of which is based on whether his defense is any good or not. Fangraphs, which uses UZR to determine defensive value, has mixed opinions on his glove. Back in 2009, Rasmus put up a win's worth of defensive play, netting 10 runs in center. The next year, that figure dropped to -7 runs, and in 2011, between the Cards and Jays, Rasmus was worth roughly -9 runs defensively, almost a two win difference from where he was in 2009 as a rookie.
Baseball Prospectus's FRAA tells much the same story, with Rasmus at +4 in 2009, but -19 in 2010, and roughly -4 between his two 2011 employers. Baseball Reference follows suit, figuring him to be one of the best center fielders around in 2009, but falling hard the last two years.
He was regarded in the minors as a high-quality defender with excellent range and a quality arm, but also as a guy who, despite his power, might struggle to hit consistently in the majors. The fact he hasn't been a consistent force at the plate is nowhere near as surprising as the defensive numbers that have been attributed to him the past two seasons.
Rasmus struggled with the Jays, which has prompted the same kind of criticism levied at the Cardinals back in July at Toronto. Both teams were taking a risk, though, even if they were different ones. Toronto's process was sound -- acquire high-ceiling player at a low cost -- and might pay off yet, especially since they have Rasmus for three more years. But the Cardinals are on the brink of making out on their end of this high-risk trade right now, as the pieces that they acquired for Rasmus have helped them to the World Series.
The Cardinals bullpen was terrible at the midway point of the year. Back on July 25, when figuring out the chances of each contending NL Central team to take the division, this was said about St. Louis:
...like the Pirates, they have weaknesses. The defense is average (10th in the NL in Defensive Efficiency), the bullpen has been a mess, especially at closer, and they have had to deal with injuries. Those problems haven't slowed down the offense, though, as it ranks first in the NL in both TAv and wRC+... The Cards could see some separation between themselves and the rest of the Central if they could fix the bullpen, or get a starter to push Kyle McClellan back into the relief role he held in 2010.
Here was a team with one major strength and a few holes that needed patching in order to make them serious contenders. Rasmus, who we have learned publicly had butted heads with manager Tony La Russa, seemed an obvious piece to move, given his ceiling, cost-controlled years, and the return he could bring, and that's just who they dealt.
There is no denying that this was a move meant for 2011. Edwin Jackson, acquired as the starter who would bump McClellan back to the pen, is a free agent at the conclusion of the World Series, as is Corey Patterson, and Octavio Dotel has a $3.5 million club option for 2012 that is not guaranteed to be picked up. Marc Rzepczynski doesn't hit arbitration until the 2012-2013 offseason, but he's no replacement for Rasmus, even if the left-hander remains an intriguing arm.
The Cardinals aren't playing for 2012 and beyond, though. They have Albert Pujols, the greatest player of his generation, in the last year of his contract and looking for an enormous new deal. They have the 36-year-old Chris Carpenter leading the rotation. Carpenter has once again remained healthy, but he never inspires confidence in that fact due to his history. Moving Rasmus showed that this team thought they could win as long as they dealt from a position of strength and acquired pitching help, and now, thanks to that boost, they are one of two teams left standing.
The pen allowed a line of just .217/.286/.350 since the Rasmus deal, compared to .252/.331/.413 prior. Dotel (11.7 K/9, 3.28 ERA in 24 innings) and Rzepczynski (11.1 K/9, 3.97 ERA in 22 innings) have been a big part of that, and Jackson contributed in the rotation with an ERA+ of 102, improving on McClellan (87 ERA+). These pitchers aren't the only reason St. Louis has a better pen, but for a team who clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the season and had their bullpen throw more innings than the starters in the NLCS, they did their part.
The Cardinals took on more risk than the Blue Jays by dealing Rasmus, and if they lose, history won't be so kind to them, especially if Rasmus blossoms in Canada. Their betting on an improved pen and rotation being the difference isn't so crazy, though, it was just a long shot -- but now it's a long shot four wins from being worth it.