Cards may come to regret Rasmus deal

Well, I’ve finally identified the most difficult-to-find commodity in baseball.

Not a catcher. Not a shortstop. Not a third baseman.

Someone who likes the Cardinals’ return for outfielder Colby Rasmus.

"Pretty lousy for a guy with his upside and years of control," one rival exec said.

Offered another, "The only rationale could be that they know something about Rasmus that no one else does."

Well, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sure thinks he knows something about Rasmus, who doesn’t turn 25 until Aug. 11.

This trade was triggered by La Russa’s frustration with Rasmus, a frustration for which Rasmus bears some responsibility.

But if Rasmus develops into a star — and many in the industry suspect he still might — then shame on La Russa for failing to draw more out of such a talented player.

In the view of some, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos nearly topped his trade of outfielder Vernon Wells to the Angels with this one.

"The only thing I am sure of is that Alex Anthopoulos is the smartest dude in the game — unreal trade for him," one exec said.

Well, we’ll see.

Anthopoulos needed to take the $7.2 million remaining on third baseman Mark Teahen’s contract and part with reliever Jason Frasor and promising right-hander Zach Stewart to land right-hander Edwin Jackson, the centerpiece of the Jays’ offer for Rasmus.

The real question is whether the Cardinals could have obtained more for Rasmus and three non-descript pitchers than Jackson, relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzcepczynski, outfielder Corey Patterson and either three players to be named or cash.

Rasmus’ OPS had fallen from .859 in 2010 to .753 in ’11. His defense in center wasn’t so hot, either. And he had lost playing time to Jon Jay, who previously looked like little more than a quality fourth outfielder.

I did find one rival exec who at least understood the deal from the Cardinals’ perspective, beginning with the fact that the franchise is in win-now mode with La Russa, first baseman Albert Pujols and other prominent players in the final years of their contracts.

Jackson, a pitcher who could throw a shutout in one start and look mediocre in the next, should benefit going from back to the NL (his change in pitching coaches, from the White Sox’s outstanding Don Cooper to the Cardinals’ outstanding Dave Duncan, is a push).

As for the relievers, right-handed hitters are batting only .159/.205/.232 against Dotel, and left-handed hitters are batting only .159/247/.203 against Rzepczynski.

The addition of Jackson enables the Cardinals to bump righty Kyle McClellan to the bullpen. The team is now focusing more on middle-infield help; shortstop Ryan Theriot has a .424 OPS in his past 105 plate appearances. The Cards’ pursuit of Padres closer Heath Bell seems closed; Rasmus was a central part of those discussions, sources say.

For this season and this season alone, the Cardinals clearly are a better team. But within the industry, Cardinals GM John Mozeliak is drawing criticism for trading Rasmus, a player under club control for three more seasons after this one, for mostly short-term assets.

Jackson is a free agent at the end of the season. Dotel will hit the market if the Cardinals decline his club option. Outfielder Corey Patterson is a spare part. But there is this: Rzepczynski, whom the Jays viewed as another Scott Downs, will be under control four more years.

The Cardinals, like the Blue Jays, believe Rzepczynski eventually could develop into a starter or high-end reliever. The expected departures of Jackson and Dotel as free agents likely will yield two supplemental draft picks. The three players to be named? Don’t get too excited. They are not top prospects, according to a source.

So, is the return so terrible, considering the Cardinals need to win in ’11? Again, it depends upon whether the Cardinals could have negotiated a better deal — and several rival executives believe they had that chance.

Rasmus’ value may be down, but one exec says his ability is so tantalizing, the Cardinals could have made him the centerpiece of a package for Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.

Some reports said the Rays offered Jeff Niemann, a right-handed starter, and J.P. Howell, a lefty reliever. Those reports were inaccurate, sources said, and both Niemann and Howell have injury histories. But Niemann is under control for three more years, Howell for one, and the Rays had other talented, major league ready youngsters to offer as well.

Forming snap judgments on any trade is dangerous; the Cardinals might win the NL Central, Rasmus might fail to realize his potential and the deal ultimately could prove to be a win for St. Louis.

Let’s see how Rasmus performs. Let’s see if he proves La Russa wrong.