ST. LOUIS – The feud between St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Colby Rasmus(notes) and manager Tony La Russa turned from passive-aggressive to possibly unsalvageable Sunday morning when the 24-year-old implied he’d like to leave St. Louis, prompting star first baseman Albert Pujols(notes) to tell Yahoo! Sports "we need to figure a way to get him out of here."
The gradual degradation of Rasmus' relationship with the Cardinals has been a leading subplot in the team's self-destruction. They currently sit seven games behind National League Central-leading Cincinnati and 5½ games back of Philadelphia in the wild-card chase. After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday morning that Rasmus earlier this season requested a trade, he was asked whether he likes it in St. Louis, to which he replied: "I'd rather not answer that if I don't have to."
The implication did not sit well with Pujols, who has spent the first 10 seasons of his surefire Hall of Fame career in St. Louis.
"If he doesn't want to be here next year, we need to figure out a way to get him out of here and find somebody that wants to be here and play," Pujols told Yahoo! Sports before Sunday's game against the Reds. "That's a reality.
"That'll show you right there a young player that doesn't respect what he's got," he added. "He needs to find out the talent and ability that he has and pretty much keep his mouth shut and play the game. Let the organization make those decisions, not himself."
Following the game, Pujols reiterated his comments to St. Louis-area and national media: "If you don't want to be part of this great organization, man, this is one of the special organizations you want to play for. And if you don't want to be a part of this, then you know what? You need to figure out a place to go and play."
Before Rasmus spoke Sunday morning, La Russa had done his best to deflect any suggestion of conflict. The longtime manager, who has clashed with numerous players during his 15-year tenure in St. Louis, confirmed that Rasmus had requested a trade last year as well as this season. Still, La Russa said, "he's grown up this year quite a bit. He's on his way. … I think he's thinking that probably the grass is not greener other places. This is a good situation, a great organization, teammates, everything. That's what I think. You can ask him."
When a small throng of media did, Rasmus said everything by saying nothing.
Asked if he wants to be in St. Louis next year, he said: "I'm not going to say either way. I'm just going to come in and play hard every day."
Told that by not answering yes, it could be interpreted as a no, Rasmus said: "But I didn't say that, though. You can interpret what you want. You can write whatever you want. But that's not what I said. It's not saying no, either. I mean, yeah, I'd like to be here. But there's no telling what's going to happen. I'd rather say nothing, so that way you'll write nothing."
Which, at this point, is impossible. Rasmus' relationship with the Cardinals' organization has been contentious for much of his career with St. Louis, which drafted him with the 28th pick in the 2005 draft out of high school in Alabama. His father, Tony, criticized La Russa in 2008 on message-board postings after Rasmus was sent to the minor leagues after an excellent spring. La Russa reportedly chafed this year when Rasmus met with his father for personal hitting sessions in July, though he went out of his way after the Cardinals' 4-2 victory against the Reds to downplay the lessons.
"They do not bother me," La Russa said. "I think it's a good idea. It's freedom of the mind for the hitter. … I was not annoyed. If you don't trust me or don't believe me, don't trust me or don't believe me. Colby has had some issues about how happy he is here. I just think it's a young guy with a lot of attention. If he hangs around here long enough, he'll appreciate what it means to be a Cardinal."
Whether it's a coincidence that La Russa stopped playing Rasmus every day around the time of the sessions is unclear. Indisputable is that since July 3, when outfielder Jon Jay(notes) was recalled from Memphis, he has started 45 games and logged 203 plate appearances. Rasmus, who missed nearly two weeks recently with a calf injury, has started 32 games with 142 plate appearances. Even before the injury, Jay – a moderately touted prospect with far less upside than Rasmus – had gotten more plate appearances in the prior six weeks. Both started Sunday. Rasmus went 2 for 3 with a double and a strikeout, and Jay went 1 for 4.
On the day of Jay's recall, Rasmus ranked seventh in the NL with a .915 on-base-plus-slugging. La Russa said Sunday morning that he likes Jay's "savvy" and would prefer that Rasmus control the strike zone better, as his 32.7 percent strikeout rate is third-worst in the NL.
"It's not personal to Colby," La Russa said, adding: "He's the best fifth-place hitter we have."
That's where Rasmus was in the Cardinals' lineup Sunday. La Russa said he plans on playing Rasmus significantly down the stretch, a departure from his recent tack. The Post-Dispatch reported Sunday afternoon that the rift between La Russa and Rasmus reached its apparent nadir the weekend of July 25-27 in Chicago, when Rasmus arrived late at Wrigley Field following a bad storm. According to the newspaper, La Russa threatened to send Rasmus to Triple-A in a closed-door reaming that prompted the trade request.
It was not honored, and the bigger question now is how general manager John Mozeliak treats the Rasmus situation this offseason. The 65-year-old La Russa does not have a contract and surely could find a job elsewhere. Rasmus could fetch a high price on the trade market. Coexistence may not be an option.
"To play in this organization, just behind the Yankees in World Series [titles], to play in the postseason almost every year – it's pretty special," Pujols said. "I have nothing negative to say about this organization. And for a young kid to come up and say that he wants to be somewhere else, I don't know why. I guess he said it two months ago. Two months ago we were in first place. If he doesn't want to be on a team that's in first place battling for a spot in the playoffs … he was young, but you need to approach that in a different way."