|Colby Rasmus should benefit plenty from talking hitting with Jose Bautista. (AP)|
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Cardinals team he left behind spent October winning the World Series.
Colby Rasmus wasn't watching.
"I don't ever watch baseball after the season," he said. "I go do other things."
"Hunting, fishing," Rasmus said. "And mud-riding."
"Riding trucks through mud," he explained.
Whatever works, right? And if mud-riding helped Rasmus clear his mind to the point where his performance comes closer to matching his skills, maybe it'll be the new hot thing.
|Toronto Blue Jays|
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Or maybe not.
For the Blue Jays, the real question isn't how Rasmus cleared his mind. It's only that his mind is clear, and that they have a better chance of seeing the talent they thought they traded for last July.
"There's nothing prettier than seeing him run after a ball hit over his head [in center field]," first-base coach Torey Lovullo said. "He has tremendous bat speed. He runs the bases well. It's wonderful to watch."
It's not as wonderful when Rasmus hits .173 and strikes out 39 times in 133 at-bats, as he did after coming to the Blue Jays last year. It's not as wonderful when he's called stubborn and resistant to change, as he sometimes was with the Cardinals.
He was called a lot of things, and his troubled relationship with manager Tony La Russa eventually led to the trade that sent him out of town. Rasmus insists that he never thinks about what might have been in St. Louis, given that La Russa retired after the season, and also says that he wishes his ex-teammates well.
The trade, obviously, worked out for the Cardinals. Without Octavio Dotel and Edwin Jackson and Marc Rzepczynski, they don't win the World Series, probably don't even make the playoffs in the first place.
But the trade can still work out just as well for Rasmus, and for the Blue Jays. We should know a lot more about whether it will after this season, because the 25-year-old Rasmus seems much better prepared this spring to let his talent take over.
Breakout ... Brandon Morrow, SP: By the most superficial accounts, Morrow took a step backward last year, his ERA rising from 4.49 to 4.72. But before you dismiss him as a lost cause condemned to perpetual mediocrity, consider all he did right. He lowered his WHIP to 1.29 by improving both his hit rate and, more importantly, his walk rate, which checked in at a palatable 3.5 per nine innings, and yet his strikeout rate was still tops in the AL. Best of all, he continued his steady accumulation of innings, putting him in a position to cross the 200 threshold for the first time this season. So why don't more Fantasy owners care? Apparently, somebody decided that last year was supposed to be Morrow's breakout year, inflating his draft value and setting up the Fantasy-playing world for disappointment. Coming off a 146-inning season and with the same control issues as always, he wasn't ready to make the leap to elite status last year. Now that he is, he's actually more affordable to Fantasy owners.
Sleeper ... Henderson Alvarez, SP: Henderson Alvarez wasn't considered a high-profile prospect at this time last year, so understandably, his 10 starts during a late-season trial weren't enough to put him on most Fantasy owners' radars. But consider just how impressive those 10 starts were. Better yet, consider how impressive his final eight were. He pitched at least six innings in each, posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He also issued only six walks during that stretch. Six. In 53 innings. And this isn't some soft-tosser who took the league by surprise simply by throwing strikes, a la Zach Duke in 2005. Alvarez throws in the mid-90s. He has top-of-the-rotation stuff to go along with a good feel for the strike zone and has already tasted success in the heavy-hitting AL East. The 21-year-old won't be a workhorse or anything -- not at this stage of his career -- but for the price of a late-round pick, he's a good bet to outperform his draft position. -- Scott White
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He still seems to be something of a loner in the very social Blue Jays clubhouse, but teammates say he's mixing more than he did before. They say he seems comfortable.
He says he appreciates that the Blue Jays just tell him to go out and play, that he doesn't feel he needs to "look over my shoulder" wondering when someone will want to change something.
He looks back at all that happened last year, and says that it eventually affected the way he played.
"Definitely when I got here I wasn't myself," he said. "I was pretty beat down. I feel good now, feel rejuvenated. I feel like I'm going to have success."
The Blue Jays think so, too. They see Rasmus as being like Yunel Escobar and Brett Lawrie, two others who arrived with "baggage" and eventually settled in well in Toronto.
Escobar clashed with Bobby Cox in Atlanta, but he has settled in at shortstop with the Jays. Lawrie clashed with teammates in the minor leagues with the Brewers, but in Toronto he's seen as a guy who plays all-out and has star potential.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos, highly praised for those acquisitions, says it helps that Toronto is a comfortable place to play, a big city that doesn't carry big-city pressure. It's the fourth-line center for the Maple Leafs that can't go anywhere without being noticed, not the starting center fielder for the Jays.
Anthopoulos also insists that he's not looking for just any high-ceiling reclamation project.
"There's definitely players we shy away from," Anthopoulos said. "It all comes down to, do we believe you're a good human being or not. With Colby, this is a great person."
The Blue Jays think the same of Lawrie, so much so that veteran scout Mel Didier, a club advisor, says, "He could be the face of our club for a long time."
Anthopoulos isn't asking that from Rasmus. He makes a point of talking about how good the entire Blue Jays lineup could be, about how they might have seven or eight guys with 20 or more home runs. He reminds you that the Jays were sixth in baseball in runs scored last year, and that they did it with a partial year from Lawrie and while making other changes.
"Colby's just one piece," Anthopoulos said. "He just needs to play defense in center field, and give us good at-bats."
But the Blue Jays clearly believe he can do more than that.
"He'll be one of the keys to our club if we make a surge this year," said Didier.
If he is, and if they do, just remember what allowed it to happen.