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Rick Ankiel: The can’t miss kid

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Rick Ankiel #66

The Can’t-Miss Kid” was the title of Tom Verducci’s profile of 19-year-old Cardinals prospect Rick Ankiel in a June 28, 1999 article of Sports Illustrated.

Verducci’s article is a fascinating time capsule from a moment when Rick Ankiel was not just a promising pitching prospect, but maybe, and according to more than a few, definitely, the pitcher that would define his generation. With the release yesterday of his autobiography, The Phenomenon, I thought it was worth taking a look back at that moment in time.

In the various retellings of The Rick Ankiel Story over the years, it’s always noted that he was a “top-prospect,” but Ankiel was a lot more than that.

You’ll sometimes read that he was a 2nd round draft pick right out of high school. What you won’t always see is the fact that Rick Ankiel was universally considered the top talent of the 1997 draft. But this was the peak of the Scott Boras Era, when the Super Agent fashioned the amateur draft into something more like a free agent market for his top clients.

Seventy-one players were drafted ahead of Ankiel because no team believed they could meet the signing bonus he demanded. When the Cardinals “drafted” him, the real story was that they committed to a $2.5 million bonus - the largest for any player in that year’s draft. (J.D. Drew, another Boras client and the #2 overall pick, would decline the bonus offer from the Phillies and be drafted/signed by the Cardinals for $9 million the next year.)

It’s not hard to understand why the Cardinals would pony up that kind of money for a kid who had not-yet turned 18 when you see a couple of the scouting reports which survive from the period.

White Sox Scout Jose Ortega graded Ankiel’s future fastball and curveball both 60 (on the 20/80 scouting scale), his future changeup and control a 70. That’s plus or plus-plus on EVERY ASPECT OF HIS GAME. A Brewer’s scout rated him a future 60-65 in every area. And these were not just scouts dreaming on some future potential from a raw talent. They graded the present value of his pitches in the 50s and 60s, meaning even before he turned 18-years-old, Rick Ankiel was throwing multiple pitches better than the average major leaguer.

That is a complete package you simply do not see. Top high school pitching prospects often come with one plus-plus pitch and the hope that they will develop one or two more... after 4-5 years in the minors. Rick Ankiel was basically major league ready the day he walked out of Port St. Lucie High School.

That’s the underlying theme of Verducci’s article: How to handle a player who looks like he could be Steve Carlton but isn’t even 20-years-old yet. “Walt Jocketty, though he is desperately seeking to bolster his sorry pitching staff through trades, has virtually lashed himself to a mast to resist the song of the siren,” Verducci writes.

At the time of the Sports Illustrated profile, Ankiel was barely a calendar year into his professional career and already dominating AAA. In A ball, he had struck out 222 in 161 innings. In AA and AAA combined, he would fan 194 in 137 innings.

The Verducci article, in keeping with the era, focuses more on the hyperbole of scouts and opposing managers than anything approaching advanced statistics, but they are no less grandiose. In addition to the aforementioned Carlton, Bob Feller’s name is dropped. Nobody in the article invokes Sandy Koufax, but plenty of others did.

But for all the lofty projections, there was also the specter of what could go wrong. For Verducci, that worst-case-scenario looked something like Todd Van Poppel. If you weren’t collecting baseball cards in the ‘90s, you may not remember that name, but Van Poppel was the crown jewel of the A’s “Four Aces,” a superstar before he threw a single major league pitch. But Van Poppel would ultimately fizzle, worth -0.5 WAR over eleven fringy major league seasons.

Injury is the other hypothetical stumbling block that Verducci considers. The article was published as Kerry Wood was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the season after the 21-year-old won Rookie of the Year and tied Roger Clemens’ record for strikeouts in a game (throwing 122 pitches in the process).

It’s a somber exercise reading back through the article, knowing the fate which befell Rick Ankiel the pitcher was in many ways worse than even what was imagined. But Ankiel would also have some historically-significant success, even in his brief big league career on the mound.

About two months after the SI article, Ankiel would make his major league debut in what was his age-19 season. He would make five starts, with a FIP below 3.00. Since integration, only three other pitchers have done that at that age, and two of them were Dwight Gooden and Felix Hernandez.

The next season, Ankiel would pitch 175 innings over 30 starts, and be worth 3.4 WAR. His most comparable players would include the likes of Jim Palmer and Bret Saberhagen.

And then, you know... the thing happened.

The other poignant aspect of looking back at the SI profile is how clear it is that Jocketty and the Cardinals were making every effort to be as careful with Ankiel as possible.

The same idea comes through in Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August, where Tony La Russa recounts the lengths he went to in order to shield Ankiel from added pressure.

For one thing, La Russa always had Mike Matheny catch Ankiel, believing the veteran catcher would bolster the confidence of a young player. (Don’t write a snarky comment, don’t write a snarky comment...) Unfortunately, Matheny was unavailable to catch Ankiel’s fateful playoff start against the Braves because he cut his hand playing with a hunting knife.

La Russa also tried to shield Ankiel from the pressure of being named the starter for Game One of the playoffs by actually naming Darryl Kile the starter. Kile - who was in on the ruse - even sat for questions on media day, before La Russa announced the switch.

You get a real sense from Bissinger’s book that La Russa was haunted by what happened to Ankiel, beginning in that Division Series start against the Braves, and wondered if he could have done something more to prevent it.

But when you look back at the extreme care the entire organization took with Ankiel from the moment he was drafted... it’s hard to imagine anything that could have been done differently. This wasn’t Dusty Baker leaving Mark Prior in for 237 pitches per game. It’s just a thing that happened, and was always going to happen.

It was a baseball tragedy that miraculously turned out to be just Act One of the story. It’s a backstory that helps explain the emotion - from La Russa if not visibly from Ankiel - when “The Phenomenon” returned to the big leagues with a home run in his first game as an outfielder.