By Derrick Goold
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
JUPITER, FLA. — When the early Redbirds with bats hit the Cardinals' spring training cages Wednesday for some swings, all but one took turns serving pitches to his teammates. His throws, he explained, have too much movement.
Too much sink. Too much run.
All of the movement that made him so tantalizing as a pitcher, so frustrated when he couldn't harness it, makes Rick Ankiel's tosses too wily for BP. He's happier hitting anyway.
As the Cardinals' pitchers and catchers report officially to Roger Dean Stadium today to begin spring training workouts Friday, Ankiel is around, watching his former peers limber their arms and loose their fastballs. A year ago he was with them, a favorite to win a bullpen role and spot starts. Now, technically, he's at camp early, having retired his curve and remade himself as an outfielder.
"It might have been hard to walk away if I was throwing no-hitters every day," Ankiel said Wednesday of his March 2005 surprise announcement that he would halt his pitching career and attempt to make the majors as a hitter. "But that wasn't the case. . . . Pitching wasn't fun for me. It wasn't fun. This offseason it was more exciting lifting to become a stronger hitter than it was thinking about pitching.
"That's a thing from the past."
How much of a future Ankiel has as an everyday outfielder could crystallize in the coming weeks. At two levels last summer, he hit 21 home runs with 75 RBIs in 85 games. He caught eyes. He evolved from experiment to curiosity to, although 26, prospect. When a club official was asked to ascertain what Ankiel's status would be if he saw the numbers produced, his age, his position, but not the name, he said: "Prospect. Definitely a prospect."
Hampered by back troubles and a knee injury last summer, Ankiel pegged some of the ailments on an offseason spent prepping to pitch, not play every day. He's altered his regimen this winter to reshape his body as an outfielder - more sprints, more muscle in the arms, chest and back. Time spent tracking fly balls at all three outfield positions.
And he has more than a month of a head start on hitting.
"He's going to be much better in spring training than he was," Cardinals director of player development Bruce Manno said. "You'll see a better defensive player, a better overall player. He's doing the hardest thing there is to do in our game - to suddenly become a hitter on an everyday basis. Ninety-nine out of 100 players couldn't make that conversion. But Rick Ankiel - Rick Ankiel I don't put anything past."
Such success could put the Cardinals in a bind.
Two spots in the Cardinals' major-league outfield are set with Jim Edmonds in center and newcomer Juan Encarnacion in right. Left field is an invitational derby, with the prime contenders being So Taguchi, Larry Bigbie and John Rodriguez. On the 40-man roster and in camp, Ankiel has just an outside shot at the outfield; he's not even assured at-bats in the major-league club's spring games.
If he does not make the big-league club, Ankiel has exhausted his options and must pass through waivers to land at his most likely destination, Class AAA Memphis. Last spring, the Cardinals eased him through on a release-and-re-sign ploy that dared other clubs to pay his pitching-based contract on the chance he'd emerge as a outfielder or reconsider pitching. This spring, the Cardinals have until March 11 to sign him to a contract for 2006. His performance late last summer coupled with a strong spring will attract attention. Waiver passage could be tricky.
"I think he's shown the ability that he could be a very good major-league outfielder at some point," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "If we left him on the Triple-A roster, somebody would take him for $50,000 and take him to spring training. He could very easily make one of those clubs. . . . . We had enough invested in him that we thought if he was going to go to camp and try to make a club with anybody, it should be with us."
Ankiel went one for 20 to open his outfield career. A back injury sidelined him and led to a demotion to Class A. Over 51 games there he drove in 45 runs and earned a return to Springfield. Of the final 26 games he started in Class AA, he had hits in 20. He batted .281 with 30 RBIs and 10 home runs in those 26 games.
In his final game, he hit two home runs.
As a hitter, he's as alluring a talent as he was when pitching. Flashes of prized power, the raw DNA of rare talent. Ankiel, an 11-game winner as a rookie pitcher, retired from pitching because he was frayed by his inability to command consistently the stuff that makes him bad at throwing BP. He felt it was infecting his personality, too. He said Wednesday he was going to give up pitching even without outfield as an option. He was spent.
Hitting is a far more pleasing pursuit.
"It's funny, it's weird," Ankiel said of his former peers taking to the mounds this week. "I don't even know how to put it. Watching them, I just feel like I'm a position player and they're pitchers. . . . It was the right decision. I said it at the time, and it's still the same thing today. It was the right decision."