It is safe to say that the St. Louis Cardinals organization has a lot of outfield depth. The club can boast at least six Major-League-worthy outfielders in its 40-man roster, including Rick Ankiel, Brian Barton, Chris Duncan, Ryan Ludwick, Joe Mather, and Skip Schumaker. Top prospect Colby Rasmus, not currently on the big league roster, is also an outfielder and spent the entire 2008 season in Triple-A.
Barton and Mather are solid fourth or fifth outfielders – versatile and can do a little bit of everything. After hitting .147 against southpaws in 2008, Duncan is a platoon player and poor fielder.
Based on his offensive profile, Schumaker is best-suited to center-field because he does not hit for power (.104 ISO in 2008). Unfortunately, his defensive numbers suggest that he has below average range for center (1.78 RF/g compared to the league average of 2.26) and is better off in left-field. Not only is Schumaker likely to return to a fourth-outfielder role in the near future, he is also of no use to Fantasy Baseball owners due to his lack of power and stolen bases (12 in 296 career games).
There are not many players in the Major Leagues that topped Ludwick’s offensive season in 2008. Everyone kept waiting for him to regress after disappointing clubs in five previous seasons, but he ended up hitting .299 with 37 home runs and 113 RBI. In fact, his OPS improved from .962 in the first half of the season to .971 in the second (although that was aided by a boost in BABIP from .313 to .381). At the age of 30, Ludwick is probably not going to get better but he could maintain a .270-280 average with 25-30 home runs in 2009.
Everyone knows Ankiel’s story by now. The converted pitcher had a respectable season in 2008 by anyone’s standards with a .264 batting average, 25 home runs and 71 RBI. However, his offence really dropped off in the second half of the season with his triple-slash line going from .270/.343/.537 to .245/.319/.415. The left-handed batter struggled against southpaws all season long with an average of .224.
By looking at the above players we can see that none of them deserve to stand in the way of Rasmus, who has the potential to surpass each one of them offensively and defensively. In the outfield, Rasmus has outstanding range in center-field with a 2.35 RF/g in 2008, as well as a strong arm. Offensively, he has game-changing power potential after hitting 29 home runs with a .275 ISO at Double-A in 2007.
His 2008 season at Triple-A does not look as impressive, but the talented outfielder had a slow start to the season and then hurt his knee and groin just as he was heating up. There is little doubt that Rasmus will begin the 2009 season in Triple-A, given St. Louis’ depth and the fact that he hit just .251/.347/.396 in 2008. His career line is solid at .277/.367/.486 in 1,532 at-bats. The left-handed batter has also handed southpaws well in his career, which is something that cannot be said for the outfielders currently in St. Louis. Last season, Rasmus hit .245/.349/.336 against them, compared to .256/.354/.433 against right-handers. In his career, Rasmus has hit .275/.371/.455 against lefties and .278/.364/.496 against righties.
Some eyes were raised when Rasmus declined the opportunity to play winter ball to help make up for lost time and perhaps accelerate his big-league timetable. Regardless, he could very well surface in St. Louis by mid-season if he gets off to a respectable start to the 2009 season. Rasmus may initially struggle to hit for average, but he should be productive and Fantasy Baseball owners should track his progress closely.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.