This Week in Colby

It should go without saying that I like the Colby Rasmus trade.

Jonah Keri described it better than I could: “Rasmus is talented enough and young enough to make future stardom a real possibility. The trade is already a big win for [Blue Jays GM Alex] Anthopoulos based solely on how little he gave up and how much he stands to gain.”

Rasmus was at odds with his now-former manager, Tony La Russa, which we can reasonably assume motivated the trade, because it’s not often that a good, young hitter who plays a premium defensive position is traded. Yunel Escobar is an obvious example, but there aren’t many others.

All this raises two questions (for me, at least):

  1. How many times has a player like Colby Rasmus been traded (or moved) this early in his career?
  2. What do players like Rasmus do after this point, but before they hit free agency?

The first question is more for trivia purposes — though as we’ll see, teams don’t just rid themselves of good young hitters without some extenuating circumstances. The second one is less trivial, focused on the later pre-free agency years of similar players.

Anyway. You want answers? I want answers. I might even have some.

“A player like Colby Rasmus”

There are a number of ways to identify similar players.

By PECOTA (entering this year), Rasmus’ three most-similar players are Ken Griffey (Sr., I assume), Justin Huber, and Wladimir Balentien. Let’s take them one by one.

In Griffey’s first three seasons with the Reds, he had 888 PAs and hit .298/.378/.409, predominately in right field. Baseball-Reference gives him 4.5 wins above replacement (WAR), all of it offensive. Then from age 26 to 28, he played regularly (still in RF) and hit .313/.377/.444 in 1965 PA, with 10.4 WAR (11.8 offensive, -0.4 defensive). Verdict: solid regular with two All-Star appearances.

I’m not quite sure what makes Justin Huber so similar to Rasmus, but in any case, his career hasn’t gone as well as the elder Griffey. Huber was a Mets catching prospect, then was traded straight-up to the Royals for Jose Bautista (no, really) before his ML debut, and then played for KC and the Padres, with one game as a Twin thrown in in 2009. Total hitting line: .224/.276/.304, 1.6 wins below replacement, playing time split between LF and 1B. He played last year in Japan. Verdict: unsuccessful.

Wladimir Balentien I vaguely know in the sense that he was a Seattle prospect a few years back. Looking at his stats now, it seems he took advantage of the Pacific Coast League in his age-22 and age-23 seasons. In his short MLB career (so far, at least) he’s hit .221/.281/.374, barely above replacement level (0.4 WAR, mostly defensive), most of his playing time coming in LF and RF. Balentien was essentially released in his third season before being traded to the Reds. He also found his way to Japan. Verdict: unsuccessful.

So the best player was kept, and the two disappointments were traded away. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s also not that helpful with respect to Rasmus, since I don’t see much in the way of similarities between Rasmus and Huber especially, and between Rasmus and Balentien to a lesser extent.

What I’ll do, then, is identify some players who might be more representative of Rasmus. (Also, to get a larger sample size for comparison.)

More comps

At a superficial level, Rasmus:

  • plays a premium defensive position,
  • is not yet 25, and
  • has hit well enough to maintain a starting job for two full seasons plus part of 2011.

We can find other players like this, then see a) whether they were traded while still establishing themselves as good young players, and b) what they did in their next few seasons. Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t care for the details.

To start, I went through all the players in the Lahman database. I just so happened to have the through-2009 version, not the latest (through-2010) version, so I will be missing players whose 2010 seasons qualify them for this study. But that’s not such a big deal since they won’t have much of a future to use for predictions (the 2011 season being just three months old).

I added up the cumulative stats for each player by year, cutting them off at age 25 (and discarding anyone born more than 30 years before Rasmus, just to keep the focus on modern players). I also required the number of plate appearances to be between 1000 and 2000, Rasmus’ total being 1,440 at the time of the trade. This kept the focus on young players who had played somewhat regularly but hadn’t yet reached free agency. I also wanted players at premium defensive positions (except catcher), so I only kept those who had played more than 85% of their innings at CF, 2B, and SS. Finally, I wanted their basic hitting stats to be roughly similar to Rasmus’ (.259/.334/.440 when traded), so I kept only those with a cumulative OBP between .310 and .350 and SLG between .410 and .470.

In the end, there are 18 players “similar” to Rasmus. 17 of them had not changed teams at the time that they qualified here — for example, Carlos Beltran, who qualifies after his 2000 season, but was not traded until 2004.

There was one who was traded: Milton Bradley.

Another one was traded the very next year after qualifying: Wil Cordero.

Yeah, I had the same reaction.

To be fair to them, Bradley’s in here through his 2003 season (traded from Montreal in 2001), and Cordero’s there through 1995 (traded from Montreal in 1996). In other words, before most of their troubles. Frankly, the Expos at the time had more things to worry about.

But still: as you can see, young players of this quality aren’t traded … unless they’re Milton Bradley, an Expo, or both.

One answer to “What to expect from Rasmus?”

First, let’s list the complete list of qualifying players: Paul Molitor (through 1979), Oddibe McDowell (1987), Ellis Burks (1988), Lenny Dykstra (1988), Barry Larkin (1989), Ray Lankford (1992), Wil Cordero (1995), Rondell White (1997), Carlos Beltran (2000), Milton Bradley (2003), Bobby Crosby (2004), Rocco Baldelli (2006), Jhonny Peralta (2006), Jose Reyes (2006), J.J. Hardy (2007), Aaron Hill (2007), Stephen Drew (2008), and Troy Tulowitzki (2008). (The 2009 Yunel Escobar would have qualified if the upper limit on age was 27 rather than 25.)

Some ended up having better careers than others, of course.

As a whole, through the years listed, these players had a .335 OBP and .431 SLG, worth on average 7.1 WAR in 1,454 PAs (total WAR: 127.8). To compare, Colby Rasmus, when traded, had a career OBP/SLG of .334/.444 and 7.1 WAR in 1,440 PAs. So we have some fairly good comps, on average.

How did they do after that, but before they hit six years of service time? Bradley was granted free agency in 2007, so his 2000-03 stats are in the “before” group already, which means we put his 2004-07 stats in “after.”

Somewhat surprisingly but not really, almost all these players kept getting regular playing time. Over 60 player-seasons, they combined for 30,510 PAs, or just over 500 per season. Each of them except Baldelli (404 PA) and Cordero (1,193) had 1,200 PAs in the two- to four-year period before free agency; on average, they had 1,695 PA.

They also hit better than they did before: .342/.440 vs. .335/.431, which may not seem like much but we are talking about 30,000 plate appearances here. Total WAR was 159.4, compared to 127.8 “before.” There’s not much regression going on. We didn’t choose the outstanding young players, like an Alex Rodriguez, so the upper bound on OBP and SLG helped to remove those who played over their heads at age 23.

It’s surprising because you expect some dropoff, and it’s not surprising because these players, before turning 26, were good enough to a) hit well and b) play a difficult position (regardless of whether they played it well … Cordero as a shortstop?).

If you take the before-vs.-after changes and apply them to Rasmus, then he’s expected to play 17% more often, with OBP and SLG 2% higher, and a WAR 25% higher. Putting all that together, we get the following potential line for Rasmus as a Jay from 2011 to 2014:

  • Rasmus so far (as a Cardinal): 1,440 PAs, .332 OBP, .440 SLG, 7.2 WAR.
  • Rasmus predicted (as a Blue Jay): 1,678 PAs (just under three seasons), .341 OBP, .453 SLG, 8.5 WAR.

That doesn’t account for league/ballpark differences, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that Rasmus will benefit.

Short story long: players like this who aren’t named after a board game company aren’t often traded, but assuming Rasmus clashes less with his new manager(s) in Toronto, history says he will continue to produce fairly well for the next few years. And not that I care what the Jays spend, but however many millions of dollars in value you want to assign to a win above replacement, Rasmus (like many young players) will likely be a huge bargain through 2014.

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