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If Rick Ankiel is going to pitch again, it must be with the Cardinals

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When you get the opportunity for a storybook ending, you’ve got to take advantage.

Rick Ankiel #66

After pitching in an exhibition game last week (and striking out the only batter he faced), Rick Ankiel made it official last night: He is going to attempt a comeback as a relief pitcher.

That comeback needs to happen with the St. Louis Cardinals organization.

But what would an Ankiel comeback look like? How likely is it he could even make it back to the major leagues? The short answer to all of these questions is, “we dunno.” But here’s some things we do know so far:

Ankiel went into a bit more detail on his plans on the Scoops with Danny Mac podcast. He plans to begin working out immediately, and if he’s ready, to pitch in winter ball. If he’s not ready for winter ball, he plans to audition for teams before spring training.

As for his stuff, Ankiel said he has been throwing with a player he is working with to get through a similar case of “the yips,” but had only thrown three pitches off a mound before pitching in the Bluegrass World Series. He hit 89mph in that game, but Ankiel told Danny Mac after getting back into pitching shape, he’s confident he could sit in the low 90s and touch 95.

He’s also said in multiple interviews that he’s confident his curveball, “the snapdragon”, would play well out of the bullpen.

There’s a lot to unpack there. Let’s start with the question of how likely it is that Rick Ankiel could get back to a level that would make him a viable major league pitcher.

First and foremost, of course, he has to have conquered the yips. Ankiel has gone on an emotional journey himself to better understand that condition and counseled other players. So if he feels like he’s moved past that, I’m willing to believe him. (And we will all know right away if he has not.)

Physically, the idea of a 39-year-old who has not pitched professionally for 15-years retaking the mound sounds a bit far-fetched... and it well could be. But Rick Ankiel is a special case for a variety of reasons.

His departure from the mound had nothing to do with physical limitations, and while his age certainly puts him past his athletic peak, the lack of wear and tear on his arm is also potentially in his favor.

The other thing that makes Ankiel a special case is that he could very well have been a generational talent as a pitcher. I wrote a whole piece about this a while back, but “The Can’t Miss Kid” was an absolute phenom. He achieved things as a 19-year-old that only Dwight Gooden and Felix Hernandez have in modern times. His top comps at the time things went sideways included names like Jim Palmer and Bret Saberhagen.

So of course Ankiel won’t be quite the pitcher he was at 20, but if he can even be 80-85% of that, he could very well be a viable reliever. If his estimate is correct, and he can touch 95 with something like his legendary curveball? That’s a pretty good arm coming out of the bullpen.

And if any big league club is going to buy a lottery ticket on that arm, it needs to be the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ankiel says he plans to talk soon with his agent, Scott Boras (oh nooooooooo). Whether by showing his stuff in winter ball or through a private tryout before spring training, any interested team is going to have a shot at Ankiel. But a Rick Ankiel comeback has so much more value to the St. Louis Cardinals, they need to step up and do whatever it takes to make it happen.

I know it’s fun to put on our cold-hearted, business-minded GM hats. And from that perspective, there’s plenty of reasons to scoff at signing a 39-year-old relief pitcher. Aside from whatever the dollars spent, any roster spot Ankiel takes is one that could go to a younger, developing player. Those are fair points.

But baseball is not just business, it is entertainment. It is storytelling. The Rick Ankiel story is already a legend among Cardinals fans. The potential - no matter how small - to see him vanquish his demons from the pitching mound, is worth at least trying to make a reality.

My son is too young to remember Rick Ankiel as a Cardinals player. But he knows the story. And as an 11-year-old ballplayer himself, he’s just beginning to understand the commitment it takes for anyone to reach the major leagues. The idea that this guy could do it both as a pitcher and then as a position player - it’s inspiring.

It’s also a story that resonates so much more deeply in Cardinal Land than it does anywhere else. We pour our hopes into a young phenom like Rick Ankiel. It felt like we had something taken away from us when “The Monster” stole his potential. We were all Tony La Russa, silly with joy, when he made it back to the majors.

It will be a cool story if Rick Ankiel makes it back to a major league mound in any uniform, but it will have so much more emotional resonance if it’s wearing the birds on the bat. Rick Ankiel has already given us one storybook ending, and we get so few opportunities to witness those, I want to be there if there’s to be another one.