DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Never mind the Major Leagues, Colby Rasmus was a flashpoint before he even took a Triple-A at-bat.
As long ago as 2008, when Rasmus was coming off a mammoth season at Double-A Springfield, he drew attention. Reporters wanted to talk to him. Fans wanted to see Rasmus. His organization debated over him. And it's been that way since, from Rasmus' rookie year of 2009 through his first full year in Toronto in 2012.
Rasmus, one of the finest pure talents to come through the Minor Leagues in recent years, has been a center of attention for just about his entire career. Much of it was unwelcome for a player with a quiet disposition, who often prefers to tend to his own business.
As a rookie in St. Louis in 2009, Rasmus carried the expectations of being a two-time top-five prospect in all of baseball. Many fans viewed him as an organizational savior, and the hype didn't make his transition to the big leagues any easier. By Rasmus' second season, controversy swirled regarding a trade request, and in 2011, he finally was traded to Toronto.
Even last spring, Rasmus was considered a critical player if the Blue Jays were going to contend. But now, finally, in his fifth big league season, he can be an afterthought. Toronto brought in a slew of stars this winter, and suddenly Rasmus is just another player on a team filled with big names. He's the starting center fielder, but not the centerpiece.
As far as Rasmus is concerned, that's great news.
"It's definitely fine by me," he said.
Ideally, the reduced spotlight will help Rasmus perform better. He's still only 26, still has only four years' big league service time. It just seems like Rasmus has been around for longer. As recently as midseason last year, he was playing at a very high level -- posting a .494 slugging percentage in the first half in 2012.
So Rasmus has the ability. Always has. It's a matter of converting it into reliable production.
"The tools are unmatched," said Mark DeRosa, a teammate of Rasmus' in 2009 and again this year. "What he's able to do on the field, it's just a matter of kind of maturing and letting them come to fruition. Seeing him, playing with him in '09, there were a lot of things he could do. He could hit, hit for power, covered center, had a great arm. There's no reason, in the process while he matures, why he's not going to become a perennial All-Star eventually, hopefully."
The difference this time around is, a team's fate won't rest so heavily on whether Rasmus finally does make that leap. The Jays would of course love for Rasmus to make his first All-Star team this year. But if he doesn't, it won't consign them to a second-division finish.
Rasmus also seems to have a manager who is a good fit for him. It was hard to miss the tension between Rasmus and Tony La Russa in St. Louis, and even last year with John Farrell, Rasmus indicates that it might not have been the ideal scenario. With John Gibbons, though, he may have found a kindred spirit.
"I don't want to say we relate in a lot of ways, but in some ways," Gibbons said. "I really enjoy being around him. We have fun together so far. He's definitely a different personality than the rest of the guys. And he's our center fielder, so we want a big year out of him. Need a big year out of him. When it happens, watch out."
The combination of new manager and influx of veterans sits well with Rasmus.
"So far, it's been great," he said. "I think we've got a good squad. I think we've got a good thing going. Everybody seems to be pumped up. Our coaching staff is real cool, kind of laid back. Just letting everybody kind of do their thing and mold into what everybody kind of wants it to, instead of the making us mold into something. Which I think could be good for the team as far as everybody coming together. Instead of from the top, pressing the issue."
Rasmus has been sidelined by a shoulder injury in recent days, but he expects to return to the lineup on Tuesday. He'll concentrate on taking good at-bats, playing solid defense, and putting in his piece to what could be a very good team.
No hype, no extra attention. Just ball. Just the way Rasmus likes it.
"I think it will [help]," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's up to me how good I do, if I can put the pieces of the puzzle together."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.