Blue Jays’ Rasmus reaching for the next level

Toronto Blue Jays' Colby Rasmus follows through. (Gail Burton/AP)

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of Sportsnet Magazine.

Colby Rasmus wants no part of the attention that comes with being a professional baseball player. Leave the man alone; let him do his thing; everything’s going to be all right. But this has done little to quell the quenchless thirst in Toronto for all things Colby, as Blue Jays fans have developed a particular fascination with the introverted, southern-raised outfielder. This is partly because the more you learn about Rasmus the more you realize he’s kind of an interesting guy.

The type of guy who, upon watching his Auburn Tigers win last year’s Iron Bowl against Alabama on a last-second touchdown return off a missed field goal, jumps from his couch, rips off his shirt, bolts out his front door and sprints to his parents’ house to celebrate. The type of guy who has first-ballot Hall of Fame hair, who barrelled through what was previously thought possible when it comes to big-league flow and once turned up to the ballpark in cornrows that would have made Allen Iverson proud. The type of guy who owns two massive Rottweilers—both outweigh the average eighth grader—named Lady and Bosevis whose toys include a sledgehammer that they pick up with their teeth and whip around their pen.

Yes, he is a different kind of dude and also one with an uncertain future in the city that has come to embrace him. He’s entering his final year before free agency with no indication of a contract extension being offered any time soon. He stands today as one of the top free-agent position players available for purchase next winter and will surely draw interest on the open market. Barring something catastrophic happening the 27-year-old is going to get paid, one way or another.

Just how much will he get paid? As with most things in baseball, that is subject to some debate. Working in his favour is the fact that Rasmus is very, very good. He started 2013 slow—as most Blue Jays did—and was hot and cold through the end of June, but in July he hit .371 with a 1.001 OPS and was carrying his stellar performance over to August when an oblique injury sidelined him for 29 games. He re-emerged spectacularly in September, homering in the first four games of his return, but was back on the disabled list just six games after coming off it when a ball thrown by Anthony Gose during warm-ups collided with his face sending Rasmus to the hospital.

Still, despite playing just 118 games, Rasmus was the ninth most valuable outfielder in baseball last season, worth 4.8 wins above replacement. Shin-Soo Choo, who played 36 more games in 2013, finished just ahead of Rasmus with 5.2 WAR. Choo took that production and leveraged it into a seven-year, $130-million free-agent contract with the Texas Rangers. That’s an average annual value of more than $18 million—the eighth-highest of any contract an outfielder has ever signed. Choo’s contract could act as a guide to Rasmus’s, a reality that should catch the attention of the Blue Jays employees in charge of counting the pennies.

Sure, Choo hit better than Rasmus did last year. But Choo is not a great defender. Plus, he’s four years older than Rasmus and hits for less power. And if Rasmus has an uninterrupted season of the kind of production he showed in his abridged 2013, he’ll likely produce a better statistical season than Choo ever has. The further you pull back on the zoom, the more you realize Choo may be the low end of what Rasmus could be in line to make.

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has made it clear he has yet to offer Rasmus a contract extension because he wants to “get a little more information,” meaning he wants to see Rasmus repeat his 2013 production this season. Rasmus has a couple of nasty, unproductive campaigns on his resumé, namely 2011 when he batted .225/.298/.391 and 2012 when he hit .223/.289/.400. While he’s always been recognized as a player with fantastic ability, Rasmus has fought an uphill battle to convince coaches and GMs he’s able to make some good of all that natural talent.

This is a dangerous game of chicken Anthopoulos has entered with his centre-fielder. If Rasmus plays poorly in 2014, the GM will be happy to have saved his money. But if Rasmus continues along the upward plane his career is currently on, Anthopoulos could end up having to pay above market value to retain his services before he hits free agency. That’s if Rasmus is even willing to play ball. The better he plays, the better his chances of attracting several multi-year offers this off-season, meaning he would hold all the leverage in negotiations with Anthopoulos and might feel comfortable waiting to see what interest comes his way.

Considering the three premier outfielders who have signed contracts larger than Choo’s over the past three years, those offers next winter could be hefty. Carl Crawford got seven years and $142 million from the Red Sox in late 2010 when he was 28. Matt Kemp was given $160 million over eight years by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011 when he was 26. And 30-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153-million deal with the New York Yankees this past off-season, a pact that has an average annual value of $21,857,143, the second-highest rate any outfielder has ever earned. None of those players fit well as comparisons with Rasmus—they all feature speed as a pivotal element of their game (at least they did when they signed their contracts) and Rasmus didn’t steal a single base last year.

Those players also all had a season of 6.9 WAR or higher (Kemp and Ellsbury had each topped 8.0) under their belts when they signed their contracts. Rasmus has never done better than last season’s WAR of 4.8, which means his value may fall much closer to Choo’s. But if Rasmus continues to improve his numbers, as he has each of the past two years, his salary demands may quickly approach those of Crawford and Kemp. With new television revenue beginning to flood the bank accounts of teams across MLB this season, salaries have been inflating in turn. Five of the seven biggest contracts ever awarded have been signed since 2012. Sure, the Blue Jays would love for Rasmus to have an incredible 2014. But they may not be able to pay for it.

Or, more accurately, they may not be willing to term it. “There’s no policy on dollars. We’ve always separated players on dollars,” Anthopoulos says. “But with term—obviously, everybody knows the policy.” He is referring to Toronto’s self-imposed rule of not offering contracts covering more than five guaranteed years. It’s the over-controlling spouse of these Toronto Blue Jays. The team is allowed to have a bit of guarded fun at the bar—but it can’t go to Vegas.

The largest contract Anthopoulos has ever awarded was the five-year, $65-million extension he gave to Jose Bautista before the 2011 season. Aside from that—which was a unique scenario, considering Bautista’s unexpected breakout—he’s never faced a situation like this. If Rasmus has a good season, it’s likely he’ll be able to find a deal for longer than five years on the open market. Anthopoulos could probably match that deal’s dollar figure, albeit for the shorter five-year term, in order to keep Rasmus around.

But that would increase the Blue Jays’ yearly payroll dramatically, hindering their ability to make any other moves. It’s a bit of a quagmire, and Anthopoulos refuses to publicly discuss specific players when it comes to contracts. The manager’s not much help either. “I’m not in the contract business. I don’t sign them,” says John Gibbons. “It’s a big year when you hit [free agency]. It shows you’ve been in the game a while. You have to be pretty good to hang around that long. Some guys it may affect differently. With [Rasmus], I don’t see him focusing a lot on that, to be honest.”

The message is at least consistent. When asked about his contract situation, Rasmus passively refuses comment—“I’m not worried about it,” he says. It is, of course, ridiculous to suggest this life-shaping event is something someone would not be thinking about, but this is the iron-curtained world of professional sports. It’s tough to know what anyone’s thinking. Even trying to predict what Rasmus will produce this year is incredibly difficult.

He was terrific last season but did it with an abnormally high batting average on balls in play—it was .356, indicating he had luck on his side—which helped cover up an exorbitant strikeout rate of 29.5 percent that was among the top 10 in the league. Players typically aren’t able to strike out that often and have success, unless they’re deploying a homer-or-bust approach, like Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds. Rasmus is very much not that type of player, although he has hit at least 22 homers in three of his past four seasons. He’s more of a true hitter, reaching base via singles, doubles and walks indiscriminately, while also displaying some power.

He’s a classic fastball hunter and was among the top 33 hitters in the league against them in 2013. Of course, pitchers have recognized this and, over the past two years, just 31.3 percent of the pitches Rasmus has seen have been fastballs, down from 36.5 percent in the two years prior to that and 45.8 percent in 2009, his first MLB season. The common approach against Rasmus of late is to try to tempt him with off-speed pitches, hoping he chases a couple and falls behind. If Rasmus is unable to keep up with the league’s adjustments to him, his numbers could take a step backwards. “He’s still learning the game. He’s still learning the pitchers. He’s still really finding out who he is,” Gibbons says. “But he’s got as much talent as anybody. Each year, he keeps getting better and better. When you’ve got that kind of talent, who knows how good you can be?”

And, really, that’s the question at the heart of all this: How good can Colby Rasmus be? He has one year to provide an answer, and a bunch after that to enjoy the riches that will come with it being a positive one. And while he’s at it he may also help settle that whole business about Toronto trying to win the World Series—in this mess of numbers and contracts and player evaluations, sometimes it’s easy to forget that’s the point.

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