Posted on 11 June 2011.
In Friday night’s 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Chris Narveson and the Milwaukee Brewers, the St. Louis Cardinals came to face a hard truth: they might have the worst defensive starting centerfielder in all of baseball, and his name is Colby Rasmus.
(A quick aside: I know I am not a Major League baseball player. I am not a professional athlete of any kind, nor to I pretend to know what it takes to be one. So if any of my millions of loyal readers are, at this point, ready to scroll to the bottom of the page and leave a scathing comment akin to “I’d like to see you get out there and do better,” save it…and hear me out.)
In the bottom of the third inning, Craig Counsell sent a Kyle Lohse delivery to deep right-center. Right fielder Jon Jay tracked it to the wall and leaped but could not come up with the catch. The ball rattled around a quirky little notch in the Miller Park wall and Counsell ended up with a stand-up triple. On the telecast, Al Hrabosky practically screamed about it and the Fox Sports Midwest replay confirmed it: Rasmus was standing in his centerfield position watching Jay attempt to make the play. He simply did not move. He was an innocent bystander, just like the 33,000+ spectators in the stands. It honestly looked like he could not care less.
Could Rasmus have made the catch? Certainly not. But had he run to back up his right fielder, Rasmus would have been in position to do two things which could have been immensely helpful to the situation: he could have chirped at Jay, who was watching the ball, about his location and approach to the wall/notch; and he could have grabbed the ball on the carom and fired it back into the infield to keep Counsell’s hit to a double. As it was, Jay had to chase the ball after his leaping miss and get it to the infield. It was not all that far from being an inside-the-park home run.
Counsell later scored on a magnificent slide around what was otherwise a perfect tag attempt by Yadier Molina after a bunt, but his run was hardly a back-breaker as the Brewers eventually broke the game wide open and the Cards had no answer for Narveson.
The real problem, though, is this was not an isolated incident. Rasmus has a history of playing somewhat aloof in the outfield. But, believe it or not, he is actually a pretty skilled defender…as long as his head is in the game. Rasmus has shown he can make big plays; he just doesn’t make them all the time. And that’s a mental lapse, not a physical one.
Centerfield is a special position. Traditionally, the best outfielder on the team plays center. He has to have a magnetic glove and he has to have a good, strong throwing arm. But he also has to intensely pay attention to every pitch to get an immediate read on every ball hit to the outfield, because he is expected to cover the most ground. And when a ball is hit in the vicinity of more than one fielder, he has to play traffic cop. These last traits are where Rasmus falls short.
How many times have we seen Rasmus pull up when he and another outfielder converge on a fly ball or line drive? How many times has Rasmus spiked a throw into the ground, almost like he forgot to release the ball? Friday night’s lapse was a new one. I’ve seen better backup out of a beer league softball team. Is this something the Cards will just have to live with as long as Rasmus wears the Birds on the Bat? Or can he still learn how to take charge out there?
Unfortunately, when the outfield consists of Rasmus, Lance Berkman, and Matt Holliday, the choice for centerfield is pretty obvious. Jay has spelled Rasmus in center adequately, but hasn’t yet pushed him to another position when both play at the same time. It’s a tough spot for the Cards, so Rasmus will probably stay in center as long as he is a Cardinal. And he is a valuable piece of the Cards’ offense, so this isn’t necessarily a plea to give Rasmus the JD Drew heave-ho.
Rasmus is no Jim Edmonds, but it would not be fair to expect that of him. If he wants to be an elite centerfielder, however, he must step up his defense and it starts with the fundamentals. He has to take charge, call the ball, direct traffic. Otherwise, the Cards may need to seriously think about a shuffle in the outfield sooner rather than later.
Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he wants. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.