Detour To Stardom

JUPITER, Fla.–On the day Rick Ankiel solved the riddle that was his star-crossed talent for pitching by borrowing an outfielder’s glove, the lefthander was scheduled to start a back-lot game at Cardinals spring training.

A persistent storm threatened to rain out the entire day of workouts for the club. Pitchers had to throw, puddles or not, and contingency plans were quickly being penciled in the coaches’ office. Having been thinking about it since his last turn on the mound went horribly haywire, Ankiel already decided how he would make up the washed-out innings.

He wasn’t going to.

Not that day. Not any day.

Ankiel was done pitching.

“It might have been hard to walk away if I was throwing no-hitters every day, but that wasn’t the case,” says Ankiel, an 11-game winner as a rookie in 2001, of the day he retired as a pitcher and picked up a bat to reinvent himself as a hitter. “I gave it my hardest (but) never found that consistency again . . . Pitching wasn’t fun for me. It wasn’t fun. So it was an easy decision. Even if I didn’t decide to give being an outfielder a chance, I would have retired my pitcher career.

“This offseason, it was more exciting lifting to become a stronger hitter than it was thinking about pitching. That’s a thing from the past.”

Less than a year later, his former peers–the Cardinals’ pitchers–were reporting for their first side sessions and throws of spring 2006. Ankiel broke from the group when they took to the mounds and headed to the same place he sought solace that rainy day in 2005: the batting cage. There with other early-bird batters, Ankiel did everything they did, except take his turn tossing to his teammates.

When asked why he didn’t throw, he explains that his pitches have too much bite, too much sink to be of any use in light BP. Pitches need to be straight, he says, hittable for batters to get the most of the work.

Batters, he says with a smile, like him.

Quick Study

Less than 12 months after he borrowed Jim Edmonds’ glove to snare flies and one season into the virtually unprecedented switch from major league pitcher to everyday outfielder, Ankiel has evolved from experiment, to curiosity, to, at 26, a bona fide position player talent. Six years removed from being Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in baseball–as a lefty pitcher with a stinging fastball and wicked curve–Ankiel returned to the rankings this spring. On a club thirsting for young outfield talent, he is the No. 20 prospect in the Cardinals system, a sweet-swinging, lefthanded hitter with power potential.

In his only season as a pro position player, Ankiel hit .259-21-75 over 85 games split between low Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield.

His season was staccato because of injuries such as a back spasm and a hyperextended knee. He pegs some of his health troubles on conditioning, having prepared to be an every-fifth-day pitcher, not an everyday hitter. Of the final 26 games he started for Springfield after a late-season promotion, he had hits in 20. He batted .281-10-30 in that span.

Asked to gauge the outfielder’s value if he saw the numbers produced, his position and his age, but not his name, a club official says: “Prospect. Definitely a prospect.”

“He’s going to be much better . . . than he was,” Cardinals farm director Bruce Manno says. “You’ll see a better defensive player, a better overall player. He’s doing the hardest thing there is to do in our game–to suddenly become a hitter on an everyday basis. Ninety-nine out of 100 players couldn’t make that conversion.

“But, Rick Ankiel–Rick Ankiel I don’t put anything past.”

There is a genuine fondness for Ankiel around the organization, dating back to his phenomenal rookie year and threading through his injury problems and enigmatic control troubles. Cardinals front-office officials share a common perception of Ankiel: They don’t doubt his ability to do anything, particularly surprise. Springfield manager Chris Maloney says he learned long ago to “never put anything past him on the baseball field.” Manager Tony La Russa raves about Ankiel’s athleticism, marvels at his natural swing and insists he’s being considered for a spot on the major league club.

It is, perhaps, the only way to keep the favored son a Cardinal.

Two spots in the Cardinals’ big league outfield are set with Edmonds in center and newcomer Juan Encarnacion in right field. Left field is an invitational, with prime contenders being So Taguchi, Larry Bigbie and John Rodriguez. On the 40-man roster and in camp, Ankiel had just an outside shot at the outfield, and that was probably destroyed when wrenched his left knee early in camp. An MRI revealed a strained tendon, and the Cardinals expected Ankiel to be sidelined for 10 days to two weeks. When he returns, he’ll get time at his primary position of right field, as well as center. He has also started working in a new first baseman’s glove.

The idea is to see as much as possible of Ankiel, but not let other clubs know how much is possible from Ankiel.

Ankiel has exhausted his options, and if he does not make the big league club must pass through waivers to land at his most fitting destination, Triple-A Memphis. Last spring, the Cardinals greased his passage through waivers with a release-and-re-sign shell game that dared other clubs to pay his pitching-based salary. His agent made clear that any attempt to take Ankiel with the idea of talking him into pitching again would be fruitless.

The Cardinals put him on the 40-man roster based on his finish to last season. But that coupled with a strong return to the field this spring will attract attention. Clearing waivers could be thorny.

“I think he’s shown the ability that he could be a very good major league outfielder at some point,” Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty says. “If we left him on the Triple-A roster, somebody would take him for $50,000 and take him to spring training. He could very easily make one of those clubs . . . We just felt he played well enough at the end of the year that he deserved the opportunity to try and make our club out of spring training.

“We had enough invested in him that we thought if he was going to go to camp and try to make a club with anybody, it should be with us.”

A Tease Of Talent

In hindsight, it’s clear that his finish to the 2004 season–which included a rehab rush through the minors after Tommy John surgery–was largely deceptive. He came to spring training the next year penned as a spot starter for the 2005 team and a long reliever. It was to be his grand return to the majors.

For one exhilarating 40-pitch outing it seemed possible. His curve had funk, his fastball pop. He was in rhythm. Of the 40 pitches thrown to four batters, only two were hit out of the cage. One made it out of the infield. A hitter left muttering he had been undone by a “Hall of Fame” curve.

But then, Ankiel’s talent often teased.

Troubles during pitchers fielding practice were the first sign, as he flubbed point-blank throws to first base. In his subsequent turn throwing live batting practice to teammates, his command was spectacularly erratic. Pitching coach Dave Duncan cut short his throwing halfway through, when just three of his 23 pitches were strikes. Worse to him was how his struggles were corroding his personality. He was emotionally frayed. Spent.

“It started to change me,” Ankiel says. “I think I’m more fun to be around now. I think I’m more of an outgoing person.”

Ankiel once said success was the most addictive thing he knew. As rewarding as the early years of his pro pitching career were–starting with a $2.5 million signing bonus after being drafted–the spiral of injuries and flighty control sent him elsewhere for success.

In hitting, he found the craved jolt accessible, daily.

“You have a chance to be the hero each day and gain gratification each day,” Ankiel says. “With pitching, you have to wait a week and then sit on it. Hitting you can go 0-for-3 and then get the game-winning hit and you had the greatest game ever. (Or) you can the make game-winning throw. You still contributed to win that game.”

In much the same way he was such an alluring and electrifying prospect as a pitcher, Ankiel has all the flashes of a dynamic everyday player. Two innings into his first professional start in center field, Ankiel chased down a fly ball, pivoting naturally to track its slice. He shifted his feet as he caught the ball to be in position to uncork a throw to third.

And what a throw.

The opposing runner, who had stolen 39 bases the season before in Double-A, tagged and sped to advance. But Ankiel’s beeline throw beat him to third by a step.

Offense didn’t come as quickly to the novice outfielder. Ankiel lurched through a 1-for-20 start to his reinvention. Back spasms took him out of the Double-A lineup, and ultimately he was sent to Quad Cities to strengthen his back and confidence. He found his swing there, batting .270-11-45 in 185 at-bats. When he came back to Springfield, Ankiel injured his knee and missed innings in the field, but didn’t slip a bit at bat. In his 85th game of 2005, Ankiel hit two home runs.

No Cardinal minor leaguer had more than Ankiel’s 21 homers, and of those that had as many, all played at least 110 games.

“The upside of a guy like Ankiel is . . . guys like that, when they get it going, they get it going with some power,” Cardinals minor league field coordinator Jim Riggleman says. “I think the way the ball jumps off his bat, there is something special to work with. I think Rick has a potential to hit for power, and maybe better than anybody we have in our system.”

Ankiel pounced on the offseason with a regimen tailored to reshape his stamina and his body from pitcher to outfielder. He did more sprints than distance running. He packed more muscle to his arms, more strength to his chest and more toning to his back. He galloped after fly balls at all three outfielder positions–using his own glove now, designed to suit his tastes as a fielder.

Living in the Jupiter area, Ankiel came to the Cardinals facility months early, warming up side by side with pals Matt Morris (now with the Giants) and Chris Carpenter. But he would peel off to hit when the pitchers began their workouts.

When pitchers started throwing to hitters days before position players reported, Ankiel volunteered to step in. He promptly showed he’s developing the opposite-field power the Cardinals want to see, repeatedly tagging pitchers for shots to and sometimes over the fence in left-center field. In his first intrasquad game of the spring he stung a homer to left-center. He said he felt well ahead of schedule before he hurt his knee, important because with only 321 pro at-bats as a position player he’s still, in one official’s words, “in the infant stages” of his transition. Riggleman agreed that Ankiel’s late start is not ideal but says, “He’s a guy who will move quick once he starts figuring it out.”

Like when he figured out that while he may have a future pitching, he didn’t like the present of pitching. He moved quickly then, too.

Being a hitter was a happier pursuit.

“It was the right decision,” Ankiel says. “I said it at the time and it’s still the same thing today. It was the right decision for me and always will be. I’ll let you know at the end of the season how successful I am doing it.”