Rick Ankiel & the Fleeting Nature of Prospect Promise

Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

It wasn't supposed to go like this.

After 11 years in the majors, his stats look all wrong. 76 homers? No way. 101 doubles? How? The .223 BA seems a bit high. 4,357 innings in the field yet only 242 innings pitched. It's all wrong.

If you grew up in a minor-league town like I did, you know of the promise prospects so often show. Even to talk about a minor-leaguer's stats is to talk about what might be. "He's hitting .333." "He's a top prospect." "He had a 2.51 ERA last year in Double-A." "They say he may get called up soon." What happened in the lower minors might happen here or, better yet, in the majors. So you can imagine what it was like to hear of lefty Rick Ankiel as he soared above as much as through the St. Louis system.

222 strikeouts in just 161 A-ball innings with a 2.63 ERA. Baseball America ranked Ankiel as the No. 2 prospect in baseball after the 1998 season (behind other Future Redbird J.D. Drew). The following year, the southpaw barely batted an eye at Double-A competition. With Arkansas, Ankiel notched 75 Ks in a mere 49 1/3 innings before being promoted to Triple-A.

Minor-league town folk see a lot of pitchers come through the burgh. Lots of unfulfilled promise from that group. Nonetheless, it was difficult to be fickle in the face of what Ankiel was doing on his tour of the minors. Not yet 20 years old and he was striking out batters at a rate that didn't seem possible for a Cardinals farm hand in the late 90s.

This was before YouTube or really the internet. Ankiel highlights weren't readily available in the comfort of your home. They weren't available at all. Twitter didn't exist and internet chats with prospect experts weren't widespread and easily accessible. Neither were real-time stat updates or minor-league box scores during the season. The myth of Ankiel spread by word of mouth in central Iowa. Someone had a cousin who saw him K the side on nine pitches. Another had a college buddy who he said witnessed Ankiel strike out 10, 12, 15 batters. (It went up with each telling, you see.) The lefty was as much myth as flesh and blood even if his stat line was tantalizingly real.

Ankiel dispensed of the Pacific Coast League batsmen as he was wont to do with all who dug in against him. Ankiel struck out 119 Triple-A batters over 88 1/3 innings. Then he got a September call-up to St. Louis. Ankiel had arrived as promised: 33 IP, 39 Ks, and a 3.23 ERA (which was good for a 145 ERA+ in those days).

In 2000, Ankiel picked up right where he left off. His starts were appointment television, especially for a kid whose area had just gotten Fox Sports Midwest. Ankiel struck out 194 batters in 175 innings. He was so impressive that manager Tony La Russa tapped the 20 year old to start Game 1 of that year's NLDS against the Braves–only he kept it a secret, covered up by falsely trotting around Daryl Kile as that game's starter.

Rafael Furcal led that fateful game off with a single. Ankiel then K'd Andrew Jones. Backup catcher Carlos Hernandez (starting in place of Mike Matheny, who was out because he had cut his hand with a hunting knife) threw Furcal out in an attempt to steal second with Chipper Jones at the plate for the inning's second out. Ankiel then issued back-to-back walks to Jones and Andres Galarraga but escaped the inning unscathed by inducing a foul popout by Brian Jordan.

The Cardinals batters started off the home half of the first with four consecutive singles against Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux. After an error, sac bunt, and intentional walk, Placido Polanco made the score 6-0 with a two-out single. St. Louis was in the driver's seat.

Ankiel struck out Reggie Sanders to lead off the second. Then Javier Lopez doubled, but was erased on a lineout double play. Ankiel was through two innings and the Cards were up 6-0.

That's when things fell apart.

Maddux led things off in the Braves' third. Ankiel walked him on four pitches. Furcal followed with a pop out. Two wild pitches to Andruw Jones pushed Maddux to third. A fourth ball put the batter at first. With runners at the corners and Chipper up, Ankiel fired another wild pitch that pushed Andruw to second (Maddux stayed at third). Clearly, something was wrong. Ankiel struck out Chipper, and there were two down. The young phenom seemed like he might escape the inning and his control problems without much damage. Looking back, that seems a short-sighted and silly thought.

Ankiel walked Galarraga and, in doing so, plated Maddux on another wild pitch. A single by Jordan made it 6-2 and put runners at first and second for Atlanta. Ankiel fired a wild pitch in the direction of home with Sanders up that advanced the runners to second and third. He then walked Sanders.

The sinking feeling in my stomach as La Russa made his way to the mound was the same as when a pitcher comes up lame and signals for the trainer. Ankiel had given no such overt indication that something was amiss, but he didn't need to. While the lefty's control had never been top notch, this was something else. Something worse. It was cause for concern. The top of the third inning of that game is the most excruciating inning of baseball I've ever watched–not in terms of drama, but tragedy.

Ankiel attempted to return to the mound lateer that month, but was incapable of even a modicum of control. The young pitcher's career moved forward in fits and starts after that.

He made it back to the big leagues in 2001 for a short spell. He struck out 27 and walked 25 while posting a 7.13 ERA over 24 innings. After that, following Ankiel consisted of reading updates on minor-league websites, stlcardinals.com, and in the Post-Dispatch. He re-emerged during the MV3 season, tossing ten innings with nine strikeouts and a walk as a reliever in September. On October 1, 2004, Ankiel threw four innings in relief at Busch against Milwaukee. It would be his last appearance as a Cardinals pitcher.

In 2005, Ankiel announced his first retirement–from pitching. The promise of the late 90s was officially snuffed out, a testament to the mantra of "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect," even if no one could've predicted this. The end was as abrupt as it was drawn out–it actually took place in October of 2000 but carried on through 2005, probably because of the enticing potential Ankiel the pitcher had shown. But the sad news had a silver lining of sorts, no matter how far fetched it seemed. Ankiel was moving to the outfield. And so the second round of tracing Ankiel's rise through the minors began.

I caught him in the Quad Cities as a member of the Swing. Watching the players during pregame, it was easy to pick out the former pitching phenom. Ankiel just looked like a ballplayer. He was a natural. And then he started hitting homers like Roy Hobbs (11 in 51 Low-A games, 10 in Double-A). An injury paused his outfield career, but in 2007 Ankiel joined Memphis. He clubbed 32 homers during his 102 games as a Redbird before getting his call-up to St. Louis. There, in the national spotlight once again, he kept hitting dingers. We loved it, and with good reason. Celebrating an Ankiel homer was a joy fueled by relief.

The fleeting promise of that young pitching prospect was gone. In its stead was an old-for-his-age outfielder that swung for the fences with each swing, as if he was trying to make up for lost at bats. Ankiel's improbable career path ended with him amassing over 2,000 PAs as an outfielder. The potential of staff ace gave way to the reality of a journeyman outfielder. And while the young lefthanded phenom's career wasn't supposed to take the route it did or end with more outfield innings than ones pitched, I'm glad it did in a way. Ankiel the pitcher will live on in myth and legend and the story of Ankiel the outfielder is a fine consolation prize.

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