The thing is, Rasmus has the potential to be every bit as good as the hype. A true five-tool talent, he can change a game with his bat, his legs, his glove and his arm, one at a time or in various combinations. This was to be the year Colby finally broke through, the year he forced his way to the big leagues and staked his claim in center field for years to come.

We all know the story of Rasmus' abortive 2008: monster performance in spring training, only to be pushed off the roster by a numbers crunch; struggling with disappointment and a plain old slump early in the season; turning on the jets in the middle; and, finally, ending '08 on the shelf, the victim of a knee injury suffered on a swing.

We all also know the reality of the Cardinals outfield at the dawn of 2009: a numbers crunch even worse than last year's. Already several ways of alleviating the logjam have been tried.

Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
JC Ridley/Cal Sport Media
Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?

Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick are locks. Beyond that, little is certain. Chris Duncan, the Wallopin' Wookie, has returned from experimental neck surgery hitting the ball with authority, and has firmly thrust himself into the picture as the everyday left fielder. The problem with Duncan, of course, is that for everything he contributes with his bat, he gives back a decent chunk with his defensive ineptitude. Brian Barton was thought to have the inside track on an opening-day gig by virtue of his right-handedness, but he was unceremoniously packed off to Memphis. Jon Jay, a talented young outfielder playing in the shadow of Rasmus, has also garnered praise this spring for his batting acumen. And finally, Joe Mather, in the midst of his attempted takeover of third base, remains one of the very few right-handed options the Cardinals have in the outfield.

Keeping all that in mind, let's line up the Legend of Colby against reality.

In the real world, Rick Ankiel plays center field for the Cardinals, and will likely do so for as long as he wears the Birds on the Bat. Why? Because somewhere along the line, it was decided that Ankiel was a center fielder, and that's all there is to it. Not only that, but both Ankiel and Rasmus are left-handed, so there's no possibility of platooning them.

Right field is also taken, with Ryan Ludwick coming off an MVP-caliber season. It's difficult to unseat a player who puts up numbers like Ludwick's '08, and if the Cardinals want their offense to produce anywhere near what it did last season, Ludwick needs to be in the lineup every day.

That leaves left field, and a competition between Rasmus and Chris Duncan. All along, there has been resistance to framing the debate that way: It isn't Rasmus versus Duncan, the Cardinals have said, there's plenty of playing time for four outfielders, after all.

But it is between those two. As with Ankiel, Duncan's a lefty. So only Rasmus or Duncan can play on any given day. Something has to give. Joe Mather would present an ideal platoon partner for either Duncan or Rasmus if one were needed, so he's probably in even if the third-base conversion (see above) fails. In that scenario Duncan or Rasmus (whoever fails to win the starting job) becomes the fifth outfielder, relegated to 200 at-bats a year and occasional late-inning defensive work (also known as the So Taguchi Memorial role).

Oh, wait! Duncan can't do late-inning (or any other), defensive work! Therefore, the likely odd man out is...Colby Rasmus.

What Have We Learned?
What we've learned from this exercise is that it isn't enough to develop the talent. Once honed, the talent must be put to use. What we have here, in these three battles for roster spots, is much larger than just La Russa versus progress, or Mozeliak versus La Russa, or even Rasmus versus Duncan. What we have is two opposing views of the Cardinals' immediate goals. The organization has begun to build an impressive pipeline of major-league-ready talent, but getting that talent onto the field may prove harder. Winning today is — and must be — part of the equation, even as the future is being built. The danger is in allowing the present to choke out the future.

There's talent on the farm for the first time in a long time for the Cardinals, and that is a very good thing. Over the next six months or so, we're going to discover whether the team can effectively make use of it. 

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