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Joel Pineiro and Rick Ankiel: An Ex-Cardinal Spectacular

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Dear Cardinals bugs,

It is I—the ghost of Christy Mathewson!—once more into the "breach" for your mercurial proprietor, whose "days on" and "days off" have, if I may jape, here, against the terrestrial hand that feeds me, blended lately into quite the erratic melange! He is, you might say, in blue company, a regular "Woodrow Wilson"—he kept himself out some more! Of course I do digress...

It is with sad but self-evident news that I come today: This will be, barring an unforeseen reversal in the fortunes of our mutual friend, Joel Pineiro, the last edition of "Pitching" in the "Pinch" that I transmit to your on-line broadsheet. Thanks in part to old "Big Six"—and with the help, he tells me, of Dave Duncan—Joel has secured a most impressive contract with the "Angels" of California, spanning two years at the cost of $16 million (or, I believe, 774,000 troy ounces gold.) 

It is unlikely I'll be following the Pop-Gun of Rio Pedras to California, much as the West's temperate climate would ease my ghostly, tubercular condition; it is rare we possessors of the baseball pitch are allowed to perform for two seasons running. And while I forecast fair things for Joel in the future, I can understand your managements' ill feelings regarding his continued performance, especially given the composition of your "starting 'five."

I see "Old Dan" returning for the keys now, which is my cue to return to that "sporting-bar" in the heavens from which I watch the events of the championship season. We can't be "hurlers" forever—"pity us all," indeed, "who vainly the dreams of youth recall." But I must thank you all for your hospitality, and though we may not meet again 

I remain,

Your spectral correspondent,

Christy Mathewson

That guy just will not. shut. up. I just spent the last twenty minutes talking to him about the gold standard.

Anyway. Joel Pineiro. Two years, $16 million is about what I expected, and for some teams—like the Angels, with a deep rotation even in John Lackey's absence—it is a wonderful deal. Pineiro is unlikely to be as good in 2010 as he was in 2009, even if that breakout season was the result of a change in skill and talent, just because it's so unlikely for anybody to remain so good in the way he was so good. Few people, save the true control savants like David Wells and Greg Maddux, can hold their walks to one per nine inning for more than a year at a time; and he's less likely still to keep his home runs below half of one per nine. 

Pineiro is likely to be a good pitcher next year, but he's not as good a bet to be an innings eater as most pitchers who are coming off a season in which they were an outstanding innings eater. The Cardinals already have an expensive rotation filled with durability risk; Pineiro would have been a fine acquisition, but he's a better fit elsewhere. 

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I am glad—honestly glad, not ironically glad—as someone who watched Rick Ankiel closely during every last comeback and setback, to learn that in signing with the Royals he found one team for which he is a considerable upgrade. One year, $3.25 million is steep for a guy who would be a reserve on most teams, at least to start the season, but the fact is he's not a reserve on the Royals. David DeJesus has migrated, apparently permanently, to a corner; Scott Podsednik's fielding metrics are worse than Ankiel's, without the arm; and Brian Anderson, who Ankiel presumably bumps off the 25-man roster, is solidly replacement level.

Rick Ankiel looked terrible last year, and given that baggage and Colby Rasmus's stranglehold on center field, a return engagement in St. Louis just wouldn't have made sense. But the post-mortem on his career that followed—honestly, that was going on in the middle of 2009 was hasty, at best. That awful season was directly preceded by a year and a half at an OPS+ of 120; those numbers on another team would have attracted our attention immediately, wouldn't they?

And while I saw all the ugly swings that lent credence to the idea that he had been exposed as an untrained hacker, I've also seen countless narratives thrown out the year after one year's evidence in their favor; I've seen that assigning story form to a season's splits is good for meeting deadlines but terrible for most everything else. That players so rarely meet our expectations when we're predicting some imminent collapse or breakout that is not forecast from their numbers but from our personal observations about what makes them special or different.

Whatever he ends up doing—I'm optimistic—I'm glad we got what we did out of the Rick Ankiel story. It ended badly, and it all could have gone so much better than it did, at nearly every stretch; but we'll always have this, and these, maybe the most remarkable throws from the outfield I'll ever see.

If I may bring together two of my antisocial obsessions for a moment, Rick Ankiel's career has always reminded me, in the most complimentary way possible, of F. Scott Fitzgerald's words in his essay "The Crack-Up", about his pre-breakdown sense of self: "I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to "succeed" — and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future."