Rick Ankiel was regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in the game after the St. Louis Cardinals gave him a $2.5 million signing bonus as their second-round draft pick in 1997. The Floridian was the reigning USAToday High School Player of the Year.
15 tumultuous years later, the now free-agent left-hander is considering a return to the mound. Should it be as a St. Louis Cardinal?
Success once came quickly for Ankiel, as did major struggles. At age 20 in 2010, he was already a full-time starter for the Cardinals, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, striking out 194 and walking 90 in 175 innings while opponents hit only .219 against him. His well-documented meltdown in the post-season raised major questions about a career that had been expected to be Hall of Fame-worthy.
Ankiel experienced significant additional bumps along the way. He missed all of the 2002 season due to left elbow tendinitis and a strained flexor muscle. He began the 2003 season at Double-A Tennessee, but was sidelined with elbow discomfort, and underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. He didn’t return until August 2004 when he began a minor league rehab assignment. Ankiel pitched in five games in relief for St. Louis in what would be his last MLB mound action.
Expected to be a big part of the Cardinals pitching staff in 2005, Ankiel shocked everyone, including the Cardinals, when he announced in spring training that he would give up pitching and become an outfielder. Despite fighting back problems all season, he finished the season hitting .259 with 21 home runs and 75 RBI in 85 games between Double-A Springfield and low Class-A Quad Cities. However, he went on to miss the entire 2006 season with patellar tendonitis in his left knee.
In 2007, Ankiel played in 102 games at Memphis, where he was hitting .267 with 32 home runs (2nd in the minors), before getting the callup to the Majors on August 9th. In his first game with St. Louis he hit a three-run homer, even causing stoic manager Tony La Russa to become emotional.
Ankiel continued to swing one of the hottest bats in the Majors until a report surfaced the first week of September that Ankiel received a 12-month supply of human growth hormone in 2004 from a Florida pharmacy that was part of a national illegal prescription drug-distribution operation. Ankiel then went into a 7-for-55 slump, before rebounding in his final 10 games, hitting .325 with two home runs and nine RBI. He finished his first MLB campaign as an outfielder playing in 47 games, hitting .285 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI.
2008 was another season cut short due to an injury, this time due to an abdominal strain that required surgery for a sports hernia in September. He finished the season with a .264 batting average with 25 home runs and 71 RBI.
After 2009 season ruined by shoulder injury caused by a crash against the outfield wall, Ankiel was squeezed out by emerging Colby Rasmus and became a free agent.
He became the starting centerfielder for the Kansas City Royals in 2010. Ankiel moved on to Atlanta in a deadline trade that August and signed with Washington for the 2011 season. Ankiel remained with the Nats until being released on July 27, 2012.
With a career line of .244/.306/.422, Ankiel the centerfielder remains unsigned and apparently, unwanted.
Ankiel the pitcher, troubled by personal demons, is a person he insisted would never return. Yet he is considering a mound comeback, according to Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch.
The question today is an ethical one. Though Ankiel is currently a free agent, does he owe St. Louis first rights for his services as a pitcher? Should the Cardinals consider going back down that route? Or should both sides just move on?
The 33-year-old’s last productive season as a pitcher was in 2000, yet the Cardinals employed him through 2009. They stuck with Ankiel through thick and thin, paying him over $6 million in salary in the years following his signing bonus.
Yet, the Cardinals did receive the benefit of his hitting contributions from 2007-2010. Ankiel re-signed with them several times during those years when he could have moved into the free agent market instead. Is that enough to repay any past debt?
Vote at TheCardinalNationBlog.com as to whether or not you think Ankiel the reborn pitcher owes St. Louis right of first refusal and whether the Cardinals should consider it.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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