Jim Edmonds had seen the future and taken him to dinner.
Limited by injuries during spring training last season, Edmonds did not have much time in the field with Colby Rasmus, but stole time off the field with the Cardinals' gifted prospect. Twice he invited Rasmus out to eat, to talk as much as mentor. Once, Rasmus asked Edmonds about his health. The vet told the kid not to wonder, just to take advantage.
His absence, Edmonds said, was Rasmus' opportunity.
Little did Edmonds know then what is so clear now.
By trading their starting center fielder to the San Diego Padres this month, the Cardinals have sped up the future. The club's top prospect will come to spring training with an opening to be a major-leaguer — four months before he turns 22 and without a single swing at the Class AAA level. Edmonds' departure could mean Rasmus' arrival.
"He's going to get lots of opportunity," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's time to give him that shot, but we don't want to put undo pressure on him. ... The club doesn't need him to be in the opening day lineup. We just feel that some time this year he's going to be a contributing member of this club."
Said Rasmus: "I'm ready to go out and get that chance."
Rasmus is back home in Phenix City, Ala., for the holidays after a season that included 29 home runs — the most hit by anyone in Class AA — and a leading role for Team USA in a pre-Olympics tournament. His season propelled him into the game's elite list of prospects, and it rewrote the Cardinals' timetable for him.
Before he comes to St. Louis next month to receive the organization's player of the year award, Rasmus has an appointment in Washington. The Cardinals have asked him to attend Major League Baseball's rookie orientation.
"It has all come on pretty fast," Rasmus said. "My whole life this is the opportunity I've been working for. It's not for me to decide if I'm ready or for these other things to say that. That's up to the club. I have to prove down there at spring training I'm ready to go.
"I feel like I'm ready to give it that shot."
A BIG LEAP
Jumping from Double-A to the majors is daunting, but not rare. But the player who excels immediately is. During the 2007 season, two rookies made the vault to being everyday major-leaguers from the Double-A Texas League, where Rasmus shined in 2007. They were Kansas City third baseman Alex Gordon and Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Neither had an at-bat in Triple-A. Tulowitzki, who was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year Award, was groomed for the accelerated rise, batting leadoff for the Tulsa Drillers to get the most at-bats and see the most pitches.
"You're talking about very talented players," said Marc Gustafson, the Rockies' director of player development. "They have to be for the organization to push guys like this. They have to not only be able to compete, but they cannot go into prolonged slumps. They have to make adjustments ... and the organization has to stay with them through it."
Before reaching Kansas City, Gordon had a summer in Class AA with a 1.016 OPS — on-base percentage-plus-slugging, a trusted indicator of offensive production. Gordon was one of 22 players in the past three seasons to have an OPS of .900 or better at the Double-A level. Only one was younger than 21 for most of that season: Rasmus.
At 20, Rasmus had a .932 OPS to go with a .275 average, 69 extra-base hits, 72 RBIs and 93 runs scored for the Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals. The center fielder twice won the league's player of the month award, including for a 12-homer, .365-average August. His total numbers hide his slump while he played with a sinus infection through June.
"That opened my eyes to how I had to get better," Rasmus said. "The numbers were pretty good, but not as good as I could have been or should have been."
Still they were impressive. Other players who had similar offensive seasons at that age and that level include All-Stars Johnny Damon and Carlos Delgado, arriving stars such as Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, and, yes, never-weres such as Guillermo Quiroz and Tony Mota. Damon turned his Double-A, .967-OPS season in 1995 into a major-league job and never looked back.
Even opponents believe Rasmus can do the same.
"If there was a five-tool player in the league last year, Rasmus was the one," said Drillers manager Stu Cole. "He brought everything to the table. And defensively he made more plays to save his team runs. If the ball was in the air there was a chance you were going to see something exciting."
READY 'RIGHT NOW'
Cole nurtured Tulowitzki, and one of the shortstop's sharpest tools was his defense. That glove made him a major-league asset when his bat struggled. A scout who evaluates the Cardinals' system for a division rival said Rasmus "could play center in the big leagues for me right now." That same scout believes Rasmus needs Triple-A time to improve his strike-zone judgment and pull tendencies.
Rasmus' defense may be enough to keep him in the lineup should he start slow. Tulowitzki started slow with a .188 average on April 27; Gordon with a .173 average on June 6. Patience paid off with both. If they plan to challenge Rasmus, the Cardinals must also commit to Rasmus.
"What you don't want to see happen is he becomes a yo-yo from one level to another," Mozeliak said. "If we want to give him this opportunity we are prepared to give him the at-bats. We have to be patient. You have to decide if he can add to the major-league team and if he can, you don't want that to come at the cost of impeding his development."
When the Cardinals dealt Edmonds to San Diego, they did so knowing they had center covered. Skip Schumaker, Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick have played the position and could bridge the gap. But Rasmus has played his way into the plan. At the World Cup tournament last month, Rasmus was Team USA's leadoff hitter. He got a hit in every game, batted .382, and led the team with seven extra-base hits.
He was "playing for keeps," Mozeliak said.
Sort of like this spring.
It will be "different without Edmonds around to talk to, to learn from," Rasmus said. But, as Edmonds said: One player's absence is another's opportunity. After passing Rasmus in center one day last spring, Edmonds told a reporter that the kid has "got a chance to be the future."
Make that the immediate future.