In my earlier article this week on the arbitration process as it affects the St. Louis Cardinals this year, I pooh-poohed the comparison made by agent Scott Boras between New York Yankees Hall of Famer Babe Ruth and the budding outfielder from the Cardinals, Rick Ankiel, as simply bargaining rhetoric.
However, due to the unique nature of Ankiel’s conversion from pitching to the outfield, I dodged the tough question of what Ankiel and Boras might try to claim via the arbitration process and what the Cardinals might also declare as to their view of the player’s value in 2008.
While we should learn the answers to those financial questions this coming weekend, an approach did come to me regarding how to value Ankiel using the Bambino as a comp, just as Boras suggested. This is despite the fact that the two former left-handed hurlers made their conversions almost 90 years apart.
The Sultan of Swat eased into his full-time shift from pitching to the outfield more gradually than has Ankiel. In his final season in Boston, 1919, Ruth appeared on the mound 17 times, starting 15 games and completing 12. He also logged 432 at-bats, playing most every day as an outfielder, too.
In 1920, following his celebrated trade to the Yankees, Ruth left pitching behind pretty much forever. That is, he did other than a total of five mound appearances over the remaining 16 years of his major league career. Having stopped pitching under different circumstances, no one is expecting Ankiel to ever return to that role.
Ankiel’s 2007 was very different, in that by then he was a full-time outfielder, coming off a 2006 ruined due a knee injury that required surgery. His last formal trip onto the mound as a pitcher in an official game occurred for the Cardinals late in the 2004 season, on October 1 against the Milwaukee Brewers. The next spring, Ankiel decided his pitching career was over.
So, how does this come together? It is all relative.
Due to the preservation of an April 1932 article from The Sporting News and posted by The Baseball Almanac, Ruth’s yearly salaries for his career to that point have been documented.
It seems to me that it is reasonable to look at the relative size of Ruth’s salary growth between the 1919 and 1920 seasons as one view of his increased value as a full-time outfielder.
While The Bambino’s raise joining the Yankees was an amount seemingly insignificant in this day and age, $10,000, it represented a doubling of his 1919 pay with the Sox. Granted it was a time when players had no leverage and union protection as today, but it was still a very nice raise.
Ankiel came into 2007 on a minor league contract and did not receive major league pay again until his recall from Triple-A Memphis on August 9. At that point, he likely was paid on or about the major league minimum salary.
In fact, other than the $2.5 million signing bonus he received back in 1997, Ankiel has never earned more than $400,000 per season as a professional. However, one might argue that has been restricted to an artificially low level due to the fits and starts in Ankiel’s career that has kept him from reaching stability as a major leaguer despite having been a professional for going on 11 years now.
Applying the Ruth comp to Ankiel - in other words, doubling his salary between 2007 and 2008 - would only bring him up to $800,000 for next season, even if we give Ankiel the benefit of having spent the entire season last year in the majors when he did not.
On one hand, that amount seems low, given other outfielders with similar MLB service time and comparable stats in 2006 may have received up to $2 million or more in salary last season. Yet, they also had a previous career body of work as major league hitters that Ankiel clearly lacks. This is an important consideration in arbitration.
Even ignoring the career work, several established major league outfielders who were MLS-3 and 4 players last off-season like Jason Lane, Wily Mo Pena, Xavier Nady and Ryan Freel made in the $2 million vicinity in 2007.
|Wily Mo Pena*
Boras will surely take Ankiel’s stats during his short introduction as a big league hitter and extend them out to a full season or perhaps even longer.
Yet the fact remains that as a major league hitter and outfielder, Ankiel lacks the experience of most any other position player to have ever entered the arbitration process. As I noted in the previous article, Ankiel the hitter has just 259 career MLB at-bats, of which one-third were logged when he was still on the mound.
Most all other outfielders with as few MLB appearances as Ankiel are not yet arbitration-eligible. For example, Ankiel’s teammate and fellow outfielder Skip Schumaker has 255 career at-bats as a big-leaguer, almost identical to Ankiel. Clubs have only to pay players like Schumaker, who has 1.051 years of service time, the major league minimum salary, which is $390,000 for 2008.
Though Ankiel has accrued 4.033 years of service time since 1999, all parties seem to agree that is not totally relevant since Ankiel accrued most of that time as a pitcher. That makes comps to players like Pena, Nady and Freel mostly worthless. Yet, the clock is ticking for the outfielder in terms of earning power. He cannot fully cash in by becoming a free agent until the 2010 season.
Unless he and Boras agree to a multi-year deal now, Ankiel will again be arbitration-eligible next season at this time. At least at that point, 12 months from now, Ankiel may have trebled his big league plate appearances. That would enable all parties to better assess what a full season of Ankiel’s production would look like.
In the meantime, given such a unique situation, why not go with Boras’ comp and give Ankiel a 2008 raise the magnitude of what The Bambino received in 1920?
Addendum: On Friday, January 18, the Cardinals and Ankiel/Boras came to terms on a 2008 deal for a reported base salary of $900,000 with an additional $100,000 in possible incentives.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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