July 27, 2011: Cardinals trade Rasmus to Toronto, bolster their pitching for World Series run

When the Cardinals and Blue Jays exchanged eight players just a few days prior to the trade deadline on July 27, 2011, most of the focus understandably centered on 24-year-old center fielder Colby Rasmus.

After all, Rasmus had long been considered the Cardinals’ top prospect, destined to fill Jim Edmonds’ shoes as St. Louis’s next center field fixture. However, in the months to come, the deal that sent Rasmus and pitchers Trever Miller, Brian Tallet, and P.J. Walters to Toronto in exchange for outfielder Corey Patterson and pitchers Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Marc Rzepczynski proved key to the Cardinals’ 2011 world championship.

The Cardinals made Rasmus their first-round draft pick (28th overall) in 2005, signing him to a $1 million signing bonus four days later. In 2006, Rasmus earned the Cardinals’ minor league player of the year honors after batting .288 with 16 homers and 28 stolen bases across Low-A Palm Beach and High-A Quad Cities.

After Rasmus batted .275/.381/.551 with 29 homers and 72 RBIs in Double-A Springfield, the Cardinals traded Edmonds to San Diego and general manager John Mozeliak said Rasmus had a chance to make the major-league roster in 2008.[1] After an impressive spring training, however, Rasmus experienced the first prolonged slump of his professional career at Triple-A Memphis, batting just .186 through his first 172 at-bats. He finished the Memphis season with a .251 batting average.

In the midst of Rasmus’s struggles, the first signs of friction in Rasmus’s relationship with the Cardinals emerged and online account belonging to his father Tony accused the Cardinals of changing Rasmus’s swing. Tony later said that the comments were made by one of Colby’s brothers while using his account.[2]

Rasmus debuted with the Cardinals in 2009, batting .251/.307/.407 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs in 474 at-bats, giving him a higher WAR (wins above replacement) than that year’s National League Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan (1.9 to 1.1). That fall, Rasmus received coaching from his father prior to the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. In the three-game series, Rasmus went 4-for-9 with three doubles and an RBI.

He built upon that success in 2010, improving his numbers across the board with a .276/.361/.498 line to go along with 23 home runs and 66 RBIs. Despite that success, Rasmus and Tony La Russa had a heated exchange in the dugout that summer, and in July, Rasmus demanded a trade.

By the 2011 spring training, the dust appeared to have settled, especially after Rasmus got off to a strong start to the year, raising his average to .313 on May 12 with three hits against the Cubs. By the time of the trade, however, Rasmus’s average was down to .246 with 11 homers and 40 RBIs. On July 10, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold wrote that Rasmus was taking extra batting practice with his father to correct his swing. In the same story, La Russa said that hitting coach Mark McGwire and assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete didn’t deserve the criticism for Rasmus’s struggles, as Rasmus was getting his coaching from an external source.

“I’ve heard grumblings why Mark isn’t doing this or Mike doing that,” he said. “Well, they’re here giving him work, whatever he needs … but the stuff he’s working on is coming from someplace else, and guys are free to do that. The idea is to be productive and hitting is a real peculiar thing. If Colby starts hitting well then whoever he’s going to for advice should get the credit, but if he struggles, it’s not fair to blame Mark and/or Mike.”[3]

“In the end, I have to learn myself,” Rasmus said. “I have to learn my own swing. Then maybe I’ll be whatever everyone wants me to be.”[4]

Sixteen days after the story appeared in the Post-Dispatch, Rasmus was sent to Toronto. The week prior to the deal, Mozeliak declined a trade offer from the Rays that would have sent starting pitcher Jeff Niemann, reliever J.P. Howell, and a prospect to St. Louis. The deal collapsed, however, when Mozeliak insisted the Rays include either Jeremy Hellickson or James Shields.[5]

“Why Toronto?” Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz opined. “Easy: Because Siberia doesn’t have a major-league baseball franchise. And the Cardinals clearly wanted to get Colby and his Daddy as far away as possible.”[6]

Meanwhile, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos, aware of Rasmus’s drama in St. Louis, had targeted the young center fielder as a potential target months earlier, and told the National Post that Rasmus had a chance to be part of the Blue Jays’ core.[7]

“We’d asked about him a lot last off-season, during the season, and the answer was always no,” Anthopoulos said. “I’d say late afternoon, early evening (Tuesday) there was kind of a breakthrough.”[8]

After the trade was announced, Rasmus exchanged hugs with many of his teammates and shook hands with La Russa.

“I don’t’ know what’s really best for Colby. I think that’s the question,” said David Freese, who was Rasmus’s roommate in Triple-A Memphis. “To be honest, I hope that he takes this move in a positive direction. He’s got a lot of time left in this game. I also hope he can learn and grow as a person. … Colby just needs to do what makes himself happy off the field, because if you’re not happy off the field (it is) extremely difficult to focus and perform on the field.”[9]

“He has a great future ahead of him,” Albert Pujols said. “He’s going to be an all-star, probably. I’m telling you, he’s going to have a great career, man, as soon as he puts things together.”[10]

In Miller, the Blue Jays were getting a 38-year-old situational left-hander who had pitched 15 2/3 innings in 39 appearances for the Cardinals. Though he had a 4.02 ERA for the season, in three years in St. Louis, Miller had gone 4-3 with a 3.12 ERA over 95 1/3 innings.

Tallet, another left-handed reliever who pitched five seasons in Toronto before coming to St. Louis on a free-agent deal prior to the season, had pitched just 13 innings in 18 appearances for the Cardinals, posting an 8.31 ERA.

Walters, a 26-year-old right-hander from Dothan, Alabama, had appeared in 19 major-league games for the Cardinals since 2009. Over that span, he was 2-0 with a 7.38 ERA over 50 innings.

In exchange, the Cardinals sought to improve both their starting pitching and bullpen. Jackson, whom the Blue Jays had acquired just a few hours earlier from the White Sox, was immediately slotted into Kyle McClellan’s rotation spot. The 27-year-old Jackson was 7-7 with a 3.92 ERA, and had earned all-star honors two years earlier in his final season with the Tigers.

Dotel, who came to the Cardinals with a 3.68 ERA in 29 1/3 innings, was a 13-year veteran who had pitched for the Mets, Astros, A’s, Yankees, Royals, Braves, White Sox, Pirates, Dodgers, and Rockies before landing with the Blue Jays. Dotel’s contract called for a club option for the 2012 season. If the Cardinals chose to decline it, they would receive a supplemental-round pick in the upcoming draft or, if he became a “Type A” free agent, they would get first-round and supplemental picks.

At 25, Rzepczynski was the youngest player included in the trade. The left-hander from Oak Lawn, Illinois, had posted a 2.97 ERA in 39 1/3 innings that season for the Blue Jays.

“He was real tough to give up,” Anthopoulos said. “This deal wasn’t getting done without him.”[11]

Patterson, a 12-year veteran who played six seasons with the Cubs, was batting .252 with six homers, 33 RBIs, and 13 stolen bases in 317 at-bats. With the ability to play all three outfield positions, he was slated to serve as the team’s backup outfielder while Jon Jay took over Rasmus’s center field duties.

Miklasz wasn’t immediately impressed with the Cardinals’ haul, though he admitted it had short-term value. “We already knew the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate isn’t what it used to be, but I didn’t realize it applied to baseball,” he wrote. “In dealing Rasmus, the Cardinals should have secured a No. 2 starter and an elite prospect to set up their future.”[12]

Mozeliak, however, was looking to win in 2011. As La Russa wrote in One Last Strike, prior to the trade Mozeliak had approached La Russa with a seemingly simple question: could the Cardinals win if they traded Rasmus for additional help? La Russa discussed the question with his coaching staff.

“Simply put, we believed in their character, chemistry, and will to win, so we bet on it,” La Russa wrote. “I gave Mo my answer: yes, we can win.”[13]

“This is a window to win,” Mozeliak said. “Today we feel like we’re a better team than we were yesterday.”[14]

The remainder of the season proved Mozeliak right. At the time of the trade, the Cardinals were 55-49 and in second place in the National League Central Division. With an 18-8 record in the month of September, the Cardinals surged into the postseason with a 90-72 record.

After arriving in St. Louis, Jackson went 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA in 78 innings. Rzepczynski made 28 relief appearances, posting a 3.97 ERA over 22 2/3 innings, and Dotel was even better, posting a 3.28 ERA in 24 2/3 innings. Patterson provided a veteran left-handed bat off the bench, though he hit just .157 in 51 at-bats.

The pitching acquisitions proved even more valuable in the gauntlet of the postseason. Jackson, who had pitched with the Rays in the 2008 World Series, earned the win in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Phillies, allowing two runs over six innings. He started two games in the NLCS, allowing six runs over 6 1/3 innings, and took the loss in Game 4 of the World Series after walking seven and allowing three runs over 5 1/3 innings.

Dotel made three appearances in the NLDS, throwing 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Phillies. He pitched in four of the six games in the NLCS, earning the win in Game 5 with 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of Jaime Garcia. For the series, he allowed one earned run in four innings pitched. In the World Series, Dotel pitched in five of the seven games, allowing two earned runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Rzepczynski was equally impressive. After all three batters he faced in Game 1 of the NLDS came around to score, Rzepczynski retired two of the three batters he faced in Game 2. In Game 4, he struck out the only batter he faced, Ryan Howard, with a runner on second and two outs in the eighth inning.

In Game 1 of the NLCS against the Brewers, Rzepczynski struck out Nyjer Morgan and retired Corey Hart to end the seventh. In Game 2, he threw a scoreless seventh inning, then in Game 3, La Russa called on him to strike out Prince Fielder in the eighth inning. In Game 5, Rzepczynski entered the game with runners on first and third in the eighth inning and struck out Fielder again. In the decisive sixth game, Rzepczynski threw 2 1/3 innings of relief to earn the win.

In the World Series against the Rangers, Rzepczynski struck out Craig Gentry and Esteban German to end the seventh inning of Game 1. He retired both batters he faced in Game 2, then retired one batter in Game 5. In Game 6, Rzepczynski retired Josh Hamilton, Mitch Moreland, and Adrian Beltre in a scoreless eighth inning to help set the stage for the Cardinals’ comeback win.

As Miklasz had written the day after the trade was made, “If the Cardinals make it to the 2011 postseason and go on a run, no one will be growling about selling off Rasmus for short money.”[15]

In 3 ½ seasons in Toronto, Rasmus batted .234/.295/.433 with 66 homers and 194 RBIs. In 2012 he hit 23 homers and drove in a career-high 75 RBIs. In 2015, he signed with the Astros and hit 25 homers, then had a 15-homer season in 2016. He played 37 games with the Rays in 2017 and 18 with Baltimore in 2018 before stepping away from the game. He retired with a .241 career average, 166 home runs, and 491 RBIs.

Miller pitched in six games for the Blue Jays before signing with the Red Sox and appearing in the final three games of his major-league career. Tallet allowed two runs in 1/3 of an inning in his lone appearance for the Blue Jays, then pitched in Triple-A Tucson in 2012 and the independent Atlantic League in 2013.

Walters pitched one scoreless inning for Toronto before signing with Minnesota. He appeared in 20 games over two seasons, going 4-10 with a 5.74 ERA, before pitching the next two seasons in the minor leagues.

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[1] “As Colby Turns,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[2] “As Colby Turns,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[3] Derrick Goold, “Maybe father knows best,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 2011.

[4] Derrick Goold, “Maybe father knows best,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 2011.

[5] Joe Strauss, “Rasmus Saga Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[6] Bernie Miklasz, “Smart move, at least in the short term,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[7] Bruce Arthur, “Risk Factor,” National Post, July 28, 2011.

[8] John Lott, “Jays’ GM Set To ‘Star Fresh’ With Rasmus,” National Post, July 28, 2011.

[9] Derrick Goold, “Ex-teammates laud Rasmus’ skills, talent,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[10] Derrick Goold, “Ex-teammates laud Rasmus’ skills, talent,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[11] John Lott, “Jays’ GM Set To ‘Star Fresh’ With Rasmus,” National Post, July 28, 2011.

[12] Bernie Miklasz, “Smart move, at least in the short term,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[13] Tony La Russa (2012), One Last Strike, Kindle Android Version, Page 122.

[14] Joe Strauss, “Rasmus Saga Ends,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

[15] Bernie Miklasz, “Smart move, at least in the short term,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 28, 2011.

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