Ankiel to switch from mound to outfield
Former Cards pitcher excited about 'new challenge'
JUPITER, Fla. -- As of Tuesday, the Cardinals expected Rick Ankiel to be their starting pitcher in a "B" game against the Marlins on Wednesday morning. By 9 a.m. CT on Wednesday, rain had washed out that game and Ankiel was ready to announce he wouldn't be pitching anymore, anywhere.
Ankiel, once considered a future Cy Young Award winner, has decided to pursue a career as an outfielder, leaving the pitcher's mound behind for good. The telling wording in a release by the Cardinals was that Ankiel "has chosen to retire as a Major League pitcher." He will begin working out as an outfielder immediately.
General manager Walt Jocketty admitted he was "disappointed." Manager Tony La Russa seemed resigned, while supportive of Ankiel's move. Teammates expressed surprise.
For Ankiel, though, it was a relief.
"Turn the page, that's it," he said. "I'm happy and I'm excited. I was excited coming to the park today, knowing it was something new. Something new to focus on. It's a new challenge. It should be cool."
As a rookie in 2000, Ankiel went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 175 innings as the Cardinals won the National League Central. However, he suffered severe control problems in the postseason and early in the 2001 season, followed by a series of elbow troubles. Ankiel finally underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in 2003 and made it back on a Major League mound in 2004.
It was a remarkable return, as Ankiel held his own and even picked up his first victory in a big league game since early in 2001. He felt some elbow discomfort over the winter, though, and upon his return to Spring Training this year, it was difficult for him to nail down his mechanics. He had struggled in recent throws in Spring Training, including a difficult batting practice session where he threw three strikes out of 23 pitches.
"I just felt like after Puerto Rico, I had changed mechanically," he said. "Just coming back, I couldn't seem to replicate it. This whole time, the frustration I built up into it. It just seemed like it was beginning to erode my spirits, and affect my personality, off the field as well. The frustration as it was, it was time for me to move on and pursue being an outfielder."
And so ended five-plus years of extremes: a full season of absolutely dazzling talent, followed by a series of frustrations that just kept adding up. Ankiel briefly tasted success again in 2004 before finding the going difficult again this year.
It's certain, though, that neither fans nor teammates will forget the spectacular 2000 emergence of a then 20-year-old phenom.
"He's already got one positive mark in St. Louis Cardinals history," said La Russa. "And that is, without Rick, we don't win in 2000. There are a lot of people who would love to be able to have that one claim."
Ankiel approached La Russa on Tuesday and said he had had enough of pitching. The organization offered him the opportunity to pursue a second career as an outfielder, and he accepted.
"It was just affecting my personality," Ankiel said. "Just being that frustrated, it was hard to leave your business at the field. I was thinking about it. I'm 25, and there is more to life than going through that."
A former second-round pick, Ankiel has hit .207 in 87 Major League at-bats, with a .258 on-base percentage and a .310 slugging percentage. In the minors, he hit .279/.337/.558 in 165 career at-bats. He thrived as a part-time designated hitter for Johnson City of the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2001, putting up a line of .286/.364/.638 with 10 homers in 105 at-bats.
In the short term, he'll work out with hitting coach Hal McRae on his swing and first base coach Dave McKay on outfield play. La Russa wouldn't speculate on Ankiel's chances of getting into an "A" game in Spring Training, but it would seem unlikely.
"He won't be able to walk into the big league club and win a spot, but he has talent," said La Russa. "I wouldn't put anything past him.
"We're just going to give him a lot of good preparation. It's not realistic to think that by the time he's ready to take those swings that he'd get many swings in an 'A' game."
The problem for the Cardinals will come at the end of spring. Ankiel is out of options, meaning he can't be sent to the minor leagues without being exposed to waivers. The other 29 Major League teams would then have the option of claiming him. Still, Ankiel remains extremely unpolished as a hitter and even more so as an outfielder, so it seems unlikely that any team would risk adding him to its big league roster yet.
"We just have to put him in the hitters' program and evaluate him," Jocketty said. "See how long it's going to take, what level he's at and then determine what level he'll play. ... He's said he's not going to pitch, and if someone claims him to be a pitcher, they're making a costly error. I don't know. I can't determine what other clubs might do."
Ankiel had been penciled in for a spot in the Cardinals' bullpen, where he offered the intriguing combination of a power arm and the ability to pitch multiple innings. His departure opens up the competition a little further. The spot that had been set for Ankiel might be taken by an extra position player, should the Cards choose to go with 11 pitchers, or possibly a right-handed reliever.
But Ankiel won't be a part of it. And simply replacing the uncertainty with that certainty is a big step in its own way.
"I think about what [Mark] McGwire went through at the end, when he retired," said La Russa. "It wasn't just the frustration of not being able to play because of the recent. It was just the accumulation of work-work-work, rehab-rehab-rehab, and then the payoff isn't [there]. Rick's gone through a lot of tough times. He's been hurt twice. He went through that wildness period. He just wasn't getting the payback for going through all that, evidently."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.