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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2009 #16: Change in centerfield

The 2009 St. Louis Cardinals’ centerfield featured a transition from the veteran to the kid along with some interesting twists.

Coming into the 2009 season, no one could have predicted how the St. Louis Cardinals’ centerfield position would play out for long-timer Rick Ankiel and long-awaited rookie Colby Rasmus. With both being left-handed hitters, the situation did not offer traditional platoon potential.

For the record, Rasmus doubled the number of regular season starts at the position and showed a bit more power while Ankiel struck out at a higher rate. Otherwise, their stats are quite comparable.

2009 CF Starts G PA AB HR RBI K BA OBP SLG OPS
Ankiel 52 59 219 203 5 23 50 0.246 0.297 0.389 0.686
Rasmus 104 117 455 416 15 47 80 0.245 0.300 0.409 0.709

Rick Ankiel and Colby Rasmus (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)Ankiel, the incumbent, may be one of the most interesting stories in the long history of the St. Louis franchise. 2009 was his 13th season in the system, longest of any active Cardinal. Until surpassed by 2009 first-rounder Shelby Miller, Ankiel’s $2.5 million bonus in 1997 was the largest ever awarded by the organization.

His rise to the top of the pitching world while still a teenager, followed by his troubling fall and precarious return to the mound have been well-documented. Talked out of quitting in 2005, Ankiel’s rebirth as an outfielder and triumphant return to the majors over two years later turned stoic manager Tony La Russa into an unabashed cheerleader.

Maintaining momentum remained difficult for the now-30-year-old. His 2008 was cut short due to injury, an abdominal strain that required surgery for a sports hernia in September. He ended the year with career highs of 25 home runs and 71 RBIs in just 120 games despite enduring a severe slump for about a month due to the abdominal injury before finally being sidelined and having surgery.

Hopes were high as Ankiel headed into his final season prior to free agency. After a .772 OPS April, his 2009 was derailed by a horrific collision with the Busch Stadium outfield wall on May 4. Ongoing problems were at least partially attributed to shoulder soreness as Ankiel found Rasmus getting more and more time in center.

Rasmus came into 2009 unsure of anything, starting with whether or not he would make the team, despite comments from the manager that if he did, he would not waste away on the bench. His 2008 with Memphis had been a loss after a poor start then a brief recovery before suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the Futures Game and the Olympics.

At 22 years of age, the organization’s top prospect for the previous three years according to our rankings at Scout.com, Rasmus became the Cardinals’ youngest opening day player since Albert Pujols’ debut eight years prior.

Rasmus would not experience a smooth introduction to the majors. After putting up a first-half OPS of .807 and casting his name among the early favorites for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, Rasmus dropped over 200 points after the break to .592. He dealt with significant weight loss and stamina due to a hiatal hernia and later had to contend with an ongoing heel problem.

The rookie was moved all over the lineup, starting in every spot other than third. Most often, he hit in front of Albert Pujols, limiting his opportunities to demonstrate his base-stealing skills. Rasmus’ 147 games played in total topped all NL rookies in 2009.

Rasmus starts, by lineup position, 2009

#1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9
Rasmus 1 74 0 3 8 16 2 8 2

As the 2009 season ended, so did the direct competition. The Cardinals made it clear that Ankiel would not be asked back, turning centerfield over to Rasmus for the foreseeable future. Ankiel put an exclamation point on it, slinking away from writers as he cleaned out his clubhouse stall for the last time. Agent Scott Boras is shopping his free agent, with rumors of his demands including a starting role and a multi-year contract for Ankiel.

Where Rasmus will hit in the 2010 order remains an open question, even to La Russa. “He hit in the middle of the lineup, and his average as fourth or fifth hitter was about the same as it was before, maybe even better,” the manager said earlier this month. “I think we’ll see how much he develops and slot him in wherever we need him.”

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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