Few positions in Major League Baseball have been as consistently productive over the last 30 years as centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Throughout the 1980s, Willie McGee patrolled the largest (plastic) pasture at old Busch Stadium, gaining World Series fame, the 1985 National League MVP, and three Gold Gloves in the process. During the 1990s, Ray Lankford was among the most underrated players in the game, five times hitting 20 homers and stealing 20 bases in a season, and becoming only the third Cardinal to hit 200 home runs. For the first eight years of the current decade, Jim Edmonds was the star, winning as many games with leather (six Gold Gloves) as with his bat (241 home runs) for a Cardinal team that won two pennants and the 2006 World Series.
While Rick Ankiel has performed capably in centerfield this season, 21-year-old Colby Rasmus — the marquee name on the current Memphis Redbirds roster — appears to be next in the chain of hard-hitting fly-catchers for the Cardinals. A muscle strain has forced Rasmus to the disabled list (and out of what would have been his second straight All-Star Futures Game), but the Alabama native has gained some traction after a slow adjustment to Triple-A pitching. After hitting only .210 in April (and .218 in May), Rasmus batted .333 in June with a stellar on-base percentage of .441. With a silky swing from the left side of the plate, conventional wisdom is that Rasmus merely needs to see more pitching before he starts turning it inside out.
Among the adjustments he has had to make for Triple-A, Rasmus notes the professionalism of the clubhouse as the chief difference from Double-A. "It's more like a job here," he says. "It's harder to just have fun. There are older guys who've been around, with lots of experience. It was hard for me to [adjust]. But I've gotten used to it; you just go about your business."
Rasmus credits veteran catcher Mark Johnson for setting a major-league example, even with a minor-league franchise. (Johnson has been playing professionally since 1994 and has 322 big-league games on his resume.) "Anything he says, most of us young guys listen to," Rasmus says. "Like how to carry yourself on the field. He doesn't talk a whole lot, but it's how he plays, how he works."
Rasmus confesses to being not all that familiar with his centerfield predecessors in St. Louis, though he admires Edmonds. "I liked Ken Griffey Jr. And I was a pitcher when I was younger, so I liked Randy Johnson, too." Rasmus' father played in the minor leagues and remains a valuable guide for a young player aiming even higher. ("Dad asked me if I wanted to make the big leagues. When I said yes, he said it ain't gonna be easy.")
As for when exactly he'll get a second cardinal on his jersey, Rasmus says he's already behind schedule. "I felt like I was ready in spring training," he says. "If I had gone to St. Louis, I think I would have been fine. But it didn't work out. When I struggled up here, I started pressing some. Early on, I was hitting the ball hard but right at guys."
Gaining a grasp for what a Triple-A pitcher is throwing — and when — is a priority for Rasmus, however much time he has remaining in Memphis. "Pitchers up here are smart," he says. "They don't just throw you fastballs inside; they come after you."
There's no guarantee that a franchise's top-ranked prospect is going to make an impact for the parent club. Rick Ankiel (the Cards' top farmhand in 1998 and 2000) has worked out, though the pitcher-turned-outfielder's rise couldn't have been forecast by the most astute of scouts. But for every J.D. Drew (1999), there have been "can't miss kids" like Bud Smith (2001), Jimmy Journell (2002), and Blake Hawksworth (the Cards' top-ranked prospect in 2004, Hawksworth is 2-6 with an ERA over 6.00 for the Redbirds this year). For what it's worth, Rasmus pays no attention to the tag.
"That's no big deal," Rasmus says. "I just play. At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what Baseball America says. It's what you do between the lines."
Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine and writes the "From My Seat" column for memphisflyer.com.