Todd Zeile, J.D. Drew, and Colby Rasmus.
When I learned last Wednesday that the St. Louis Cardinals had traded Rasmus to Toronto, I immediately thought of Zeile and Drew. Together, these players now form a trinity of Cardinal Phenoms Gone Bad. Before we evaluate the departure of Rasmus (the Cardinals’ top pick in the 2005 draft), let’s examine the other members of this troika.
Originally a catcher, Zeile arrived in St. Louis in 1990 as the next Johnny Bench. It took exactly one season for Cardinal manager Joe Torre to see Zeile’s deficiencies behind the plate and move him to third base. Over five full seasons in St. Louis, Zeile peaked in 1993 when he hit .277 with 17 home runs and 103 RBIs. With a glove at the hot corner, Zeile made no one forget Mike Schmidt (33 errors in that ’93 season). Midway through the 1995 season, just as the Cardinals fired Torre, Zeile was traded to the Chicago Cubs for journeyman hurler Mike Morgan. Counting the Cubs, Zeile played for 10 teams over the next nine years. Over his 16-year career, Zeile’s average season was a .265 batting average, 19 home runs and 83 RBIs. Solid figures, but not those of a phenom.
If Zeile was to be the next Bench, J.D. Drew arrived in Memphis in 1998 as the next Mickey Mantle. (By the time he suited up for the Cardinals, he even wore number 7.) With five-tool skills but the passion of a toll-booth operator, Drew spent five years with the Cardinals, in the considerable shadows of Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, and Albert Pujols. His top season came in 2001 when he hit .323 with 27 homers and 73 RBIs in an injury-shortened campaign. Drew’s lasting legacy in St. Louis will be as the chip that brought Adam Wainwright to the Cardinals in a deal with Atlanta before the 2004 season (when the Cardinals won 105 games and reached the World Series without him). Still active with Boston at age 35, Drew has a World Series ring (with the 2007 Red Sox) and was MVP of the only All-Star Game in which he’s played (2008). But his average season — .278, 25 homers, 82 RBIs — is closer to Zeile than Mantle.
Which brings us to Rasmus, for five years the top prospect in the Cardinals’ system (the last three as the team’s everyday centerfielder). Last week’s trade had more to do with a growing rift between Rasmus and Cardinal management than it did with the talent Rasmus exhibits (if inconsistently) on the field. Struggling at the plate and with a proclivity to strike out, Rasmus chose the guidance of his father (a former minor-league player) over that of McGwire (now the Cardinal batting coach) and St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa. Worse, he never seemed to engage with his teammates, going public last season with a trade request. His rapid decline calls to mind a comment he made during an interview we had in 2008, Rasmus’ lone season in Memphis: “It’s more like a job here. 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.”
There are times in the career of any professional when he or she has to grow up. It appears Colby Rasmus will do his growing up — for now, at least — north of the border. • The big winner in the trade that brought starting pitcher Edwin Jackson and three others to St. Louis could well be a player not involved in the deal: Allen Craig. Having lost several weeks of the season to a knee injury, Craig is currently rehabbing with the Redbirds and will return to the Cardinal rotation of outfielders when fully healed. Craig has hit at every level of professional baseball (including .336 in 40 games for the Cards this year). He belongs in rightfield or leftfield. With Jon Jay now occupying center for St. Louis and Matt Holliday entrenched in left, rightfield could become vacant in 2012 if the Cardinals — should they retain free agent Albert Pujols — cannot afford to keep Lance Berkman. Craig could prove to be a productive (and inexpensive) solution.
• Included in the deal that sent Rasmus to Toronto was pitcher P.J. Walters, one of the most courageous baseball players Memphis fans will ever cheer. In February 2010 Walters’ wife, Brittney gave birth to a daughter, Annabelle. Born prematurely, Annabelle fought for almost two months before dying on April 3, 2010 (five days before the Redbirds opened their season). Walters went on to win eight games and help Memphis to a second-straight division title. He leaves Memphis as the franchise’s career wins leader with 32. If you’ve ever considered rooting for a Blue Jay, make Walters the guy.