MiLB.com will be visiting each Spring Training site in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues this month to report on the most significant stories involving each club's Minor League system as players get ready for the 2008 season. We'll find out who's impressing the organization, who's hot, who's not and sit down for an exclusive Q&A with a top prospect.
Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Location: Jupiter, Fla.
Date: Feb. 27, 2008
Is Colby Rasmus ready to man center field in the big leagues on Opening Day?
That question likely will be answered this spring. Even if he doesn't break with the big-league club at the outset, it's a question of when, not if, he'll hit St. Louis in 2008.
The super-prospect, No. 7 overall on our Top 50 list, certainly has the physical skills necessary to play at the highest level.
"From a tools perspective, he's ready," said Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals vice president of amateur scouting and player procurement. "From an experience standpoint, maybe he's not ready."
Luhnow isn't straddling the fence here. Rasmus has about as much raw talent as any of the young prospects making their way up through the Minors, but the 21-year-old has only 321 games of pro experience under his belt. The trade of Jim Edmonds to San Diego clearly opened the door for Rasmus, but the Cardinals aren't going to shove Rasmus through it if they feel he could use a little time in Triple-A Memphis to fine-tune those impressive tools.
"There are quite a few people here who want him to get to the big leagues when he's going to have an impact," Luhnow said. "We don't want him to be developing in the Majors. He's mentally ready for the challenge. I think he's really ready for any challenge in life. He's pretty darn close."
Other News of the Day
In past years, with a system that was fairly bare, making cuts at the end of Spring Training wasn't all that difficult. This year, though, the Cards' brain trust will have some tough roster decisions to make.
It starts with the outfield, and the big competition for big-league spots will filter down to Memphis. Assuming Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan and Ryan Ludwick are pretty much locks to make the team, that leaves four outfielders legitimately competing for two spots. That group consists of Rule 5er Brian Barton, veteran non-roster invitee Juan Gonzalez, Skip Schumaker, who's out of options, and, of course, Rasmus, who'll only make the team if he's going to play every day.
That will leave the other outfielders in big-league camp fighting for spots on the Triple-A roster. Joe Mather, Nick Stavinoha, Rico Washington, Cody Haerther and Amaury Marti all will be looking for playing time in the PCL, assuming nothing out of the ordinary happens and someone's needed in St. Louis. That picture gets even more complicated if Rasmus starts the year in the Minors.
"There [are] not a lot of right-handed hitters here," said Mather, who's still hoping to open some big-league eyes in camp. "If Gonzo makes the team, he'd fill that role. They told me it'd be competitive."
It also will be competitive for middle infield spots at the lower levels, particularly in Quad Cities. Oliver Marmol, Jose Garcia, Daniel Descalso and 2007 first-rounder Pete Kozma will battle it out this spring for two starting spots and a backup position. ... Keep an eye on RHP Jason Motte. A converted catcher, he just keeps adding velocity to his fastball and has been clocked as high as 99 mph. He's the kind of pitcher others stop what they're doing in camp to watch throw.
Five Questions with Chris Perez
MiLB.com: As a college closer, the idea when you're drafted is that you'll move pretty quickly through the system. That being said, could you ever have envisioned it happening this quickly as you're poised to make the Cardinals bullpen?
CP: That was the goal. I didn't know it would happen this fast, but I'm happy the Cardinals think I'm old enough and mature enough to handle it. It's been a quick rise and I hope it keeps going.
MiLB.com: You spent a good chunk of last year in Double-A Springfield. Did you get a good sense of what Cardinals Nation is all about?
CP: Every game, it would be all red and white in the stands, and they were always almost sold out. They cheer you when things go well or they don't. They really know the game, so they'll cheer you when someone does something like move a runner over to third. They love the Cardinals and are really supportive. They're hoping to see future big-league Cardinals in Springfield.
MiLB.com: Ever since your time at the University of Miami, you've thrived on the pressure of pitching the ninth inning. Can you describe what the feeling is like?
CP: You need a lot of self-confidence. There's no other situation like it. The game is in your hand. You're the last guy and no one is throwing in the bullpen behind you. If you have a bad night, your team loses. You are the man. It's a great feeling and I love getting the ball then.
MilB.com: Every closer seems to have a song that is played when they enter the game. What's yours?
CP: It's usually a song called "Firestarter" by The Prodigy. I had it in college and I had it last year. I figured "Hell's Bells" was played out. It's Trevor Hoffman's song anyway; they should retire it. I tested "Firestarter" out and liked it. It gets me fired up.
MilB.com: What have you been able to learn from being in camp with an experienced closer like Jason Isringhausen?
CP: Just seeing his preparation, what he does on and off the field, getting ready to play. It shows you the way it should be done. Facing hitters in games will be even more helpful. He's very approachable, but I haven't talked to him much yet. I'm sure we'll talk in the bullpen and I'll be able to pick his brain, ask about hitters, situations and things like that.
Kyle McClellan isn't your typical wide-eyed prospect in big-league camp. A St. Louis-area kid who was selected out of high school back in 2002, he's taken a long and winding path up the Cardinals' ladder. He finally made it up to Double-A for the first time and earned a spot on the 40-man roster. One of the biggest things that has earned him plaudits in the early going is how comfortable he's been during his first big-league camp.
"It's impressive how quickly he's taken to being in this environment," Luhnow said.
McClellan also has opened more than a few eyes with his stuff. Because he was a setup man who typically pitched the seventh inning last year, he flew under the radar. But the numbers -- a 1.81 ERA, .212 opponents' batting average, 54 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 59 2/3 innings across two levels -- should speak for themselves. For those who didn't know him, they're getting acquainted really quickly this spring.
"He's been pinpointing all of his pitches," Luhnow said. "Jason LaRue was catching him and after [several] warm-up pitches, he turned to [pitching coach] Dave Duncan and said, 'Who is this guy?' Duncan replied, 'That's why you're catching him.'"
Anyone interested in the future of the Cardinals should have been at Roger Dean Stadium on Wednesday. Granted, it was just an exhibition against Saint Louis University, but it sure was fun to see a lineup headed by Colby Rasmus and pitching that began with Mitch Boggs.
The average jersey number of the 10 starters (including the DH) was 75.9, giving you some indication of just who was playing. If you stuck around for the entire 15-2, mercy rule-shortened game, you got to see Boggs, P.J. Walters, Clayton Mortensen and Chris Perez throw. You also got to watch Rasmus, Brian Barton (who homered to the opposite field) and catcher Bryan Anderson, who entered the game late but picked up an RBI single. There also were "lesser" prospects like Joe Mather, Cody Haerther, David Freese, Matt Pagnozzi and the ageless Amaury Marti, who hit a ball about a mile for a pinch-hit grand slam.
The game didn't mean all that much. It's certainly not going to determine anyone's job, and it didn't even count in the Grapefruit League standings. But for those who care about this organization's long-term success, it was a good day. And that's saying something, considering the Cardinals haven't had this much young talent to be excited about in a long, long time.