Austin Jackson was one of the more mercurial Tigers players in recent memory. He struck out a lot -- though improved considerably during his four-plus years in Detroit -- and would go through numerous hot and cold streaks in a season. His defense waned over the past couple seasons. Now that the Tigers need a center fielder, he would probably be nice to have back.
So how about a guy that does these things even more often than Jackson? Enter Colby Rasmus.
Who is he?
Colby Rasmus, a 28 year old lefty-batting center fielder, is one of the most frustrating and inconsistent players in baseball. Since he debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009, he has a pair of 4.0 WAR seasons under his belt. He also has three seasons with 1.0 WAR or less. He strikes out a ton and doesn't hit for a high average, but has a career .192 ISO. His advanced defensive numbers are all over the map. He put Omar Infante on the disabled list in 2013 with a hard slide into second base. He was once traded for Octavio Dotel and Edwin Jackson. He looks like an extra from Dazed and Confused. He is so polarizing that it is impossible to not have an opinion about him.
Why should we care?
Rasmus was a monster in 2010 and 2013, compiling 4.0 and 4.8 WAR for the Cardinals and Toronto Blue Jays, respectively. He hit .276/.361/.498 with 23 home runs and 12 stolen bases in '10, his best offensive season. His .369 wOBA and 130 wRC+ that year are both career highs. In 2013, he hit .276/.338/.501 with 22 home runs. His 11.2 UZR and 11 defensive runs saved that year were career bests, resulting in 4.8 WAR. He has the potential to put up monster numbers and is the kind of power hitter that fits nicely into the sixth or seventh spot of a lineup.
While Rasmus' big year potential is the major draw, he has done a few things well during the down seasons. He draws a decent amount of walks, something the Tigers struggled with in 2014. Rasmus has walked in 8.6 percent of his career plate appearances and has two seasons at 9.5 percent or better. He has also not dipped below a 7.5 percent walk rate since his rookie year. Rasmus also hits for plenty of power, regardless of how well he's hitting overall. He has a career .192 ISO, a figure that helps put his otherwise mundane .432 slugging average into perspective. Rasmus also has three 20-homer seasons in his career, with just one year under 15 dingers. He is a solid if unspectacular baserunner, ranking 14.4 runs above average for his career. He only has 28 career stolen bases, so don't expect too many fireworks on the basepaths.
It remains to be seen whether Rasmus will receive a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays -- he might be inclined to accept it, given how poorly he played in 2014 -- but a situation in which he has a draft pick tied to his name could actually work in the Tigers' favor. The prospect of giving away a first round pick for a player like Rasmus will scare some teams away, which could lower his overall price. The Tigers have shown a willingness to burn draft picks for major league talent in the past, and the loss of a pick would be buffered somewhat by the compensation round selection they receive when Max Scherzer departs.
Why should we stay away?
While 2010 and 2013 were spectacular seasons for Rasmus, the rest have not been very promising. He has three seasons of 1.0 WAR or fewer in the last four years and was worth just 0.6 WAR in 2014. He hit .225/.287/.448 with 18 home runs and 40 RBI in 2014, good enough for a .321 wOBA and 103 wRC+. Oh, and he struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances. Fans who go nuts over Alex Avila's low batting average would be driven up a wall by Rasmus, who has a career .246 average but is hitting just .236 in the past four years.
The inconsistency is a big problem, though. Rasmus has three seasons with a wRC+ of 90 or below (by comparison, Nick Castellanos had a 92 wRC+ this year). Rasmus had a .225 average or below in all of those seasons, resulting in a combined 2.1 WAR. As a league average defender or thereabouts, Rasmus' free agent value rests solely in his bat. If he doesn't hit, he won't be worth the $10+ million per season he will get on the open market.
It's tough to see the Tigers going in this direction despite their glaring need for a center fielder. Yes, Rasmus is the best pure center fielder on the market, but his inconsistencies are a big concern. Plus, the Tigers don't tend to pursue all-or-nothing hitters like Rasmus. His home run power is enticing, but his value is limited if he can't get on base at a decent clip. If I had to make a prediction, I think the Tigers will look towards a more adept defender to plug in center field.