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02/02/09 6:51 PM EST

Rasmus set for rebound season in '09

Top outfield prospect's '08 derailed by injuries, ineffectiveness

ST. LOUIS -- He ranks, officially, at best fifth on the Cardinals' outfield depth chart. But Colby Rasmus has what they call in the business world "opportunity for advancement."

Rasmus enters his third Major League Spring Training with several players ahead of him, but every chance to pass them by. Don't be misled by his pedestrian numbers at Triple-A Memphis last season. Rasmus remains one of the game's best prospects.

"The day that Colby's ready," manager Tony La Russa said recently, "somebody gets pushed aside. He's got that type of talent."

So while he's looking up at Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, Chris Duncan -- if Duncan is healthy -- and perhaps Joe Mather, Rasmus still could force his way onto the roster with a big spring.

And that's the biggest difference in his opportunity compared to a year ago. Last year, Rasmus did have a big spring. He was at least arguably the best position player in camp, getting on base, hitting for power and playing excellent defense. Yet he headed to Triple-A, a victim of a numbers crunch in the outfield.

Upon his arrival at Memphis, he slipped into a deep slump, even longer and more difficult than his customary slide at every new step up the Minor League ladder. He's reluctant to talk too much about what happened, but it's clear he got away from the hitting approach that made him such a raging success at every other point in his baseball career.

"It definitely wasn't fun," Rasmus said. "But it was a learning experience. I think it was something I had to go through for this year. If I just focus on this year I think everything is going to be fine. It was a lot of different things it had to do with. But I finally got through it, so I feel good about that.

"I felt fine. It didn't have anything to do with that. It was some other things. But everything's fine now."

Perhaps the most frustrating thing was that just as Rasmus started to emerge from the slump, he sustained a left knee injury. He missed a month, making late-season appearances in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and at Class A Palm Beach but never returning to Triple-A -- and missing out on a September call up.

At that point, some of La Russa's comments regarding Rasmus led to speculation that the 21-year-old might have been in the manager's doghouse.

"He's not healthy," La Russa noted in August. "He hasn't been playing. ... He hasn't earned it. Injuries are injuries, but you can't reward somebody because of it."

The comments drew a great deal of attention, but whatever the situation may have been then, the manager is preaching nothing but enthusiasm for Rasmus now. And for Rasmus' part, he's trying to keep an even keel as spring approaches -- despite strong proclamations from La Russa and general manager John Mozeliak that Rasmus has every shot to make the team.

"That definitely means a lot," Rasmus said, "but I won't sit there and harp on it. I'm just going to go down there and play the best I can. If it works out like they say, that's great by me. But I'm just going to go down and play, because they have to make those decisions in the end and it doesn't really matter what was said before."

Rasmus will head to Florida not only with a refined attitude, but a re-toned body. Rather than playing winter ball, he spent the offseason working out and getting a break from baseball. He has clearly bulked up, and said he's significantly stronger without sacrificing any speed.

He's glad he made the decision he did, banking on the mental breather being as valuable as the workouts.

"[It was good to] just kind of have a break, because I've been going at it for a while now, ever since I was little," he said. "Just kind of clear my head and get my body feeling good."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.