Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals winds back to pitch the ball against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001. - Todd Warshaw/Allsport
In which we discuss the comeback of Rick Ankiel, who came back already once before.
There are interesting rumors, and then there are thought exercises. A rumored four-team trade goes beyond the realm of interesting and demands your attention. But four-team trade rumors are rare, so we don't to get to have that fun often.
Here's something, then, that's as interesting as a 16-team trade that includes teams from Korea and MLS. Buried in a Joe Strauss mailbag column, we have this:
Q.: Is it time for Rick Ankiel to start pitching again? I think his days are numbered as a hitter. Would the Cards have any interest in taking a flyer on him if he'd reconsider his stance on pitching?
Strauss: I'm hearing Ankiel is open to giving pitching one last shot since his market as a position player appears minimal. And, yes, I think the Cardinals would be among those open to providing such an opportunity. For now it remains in the rumor stage. Developing story …
Click the link just for the picture. Ankiel was a pitcher, yes, and it was when he was 12 years old, apparently. Close to it, at least. He was 19 when he came up with the Cardinals, and he was 20 when he had his fateful meltdown in the playoffs. That was 12 years ago -- there are baseball fans driving around now who weren't in kindergarten then, if you want to feel old. As such, there's a generation of baseball fans that doesn't remember Rick Ankiel as a pitcher.
I'm not sure if there's ever been a pitching prospect with as much hype as Stephen Strasburg. But the first one I'd consider as competition would be Ankiel. His stats in the minors:
In retrospect, he never had pinpoint command, so maybe the expectations for immediate dominance were unrealistic. But he was a burgeoning star, as sure of a sure thing as a young pitcher could be. The link up there has video of his pitching, but not the good pitching. His curve was otherworldly. I never saw Sandy Koufax, but Ankiel's curve was how I pictured Koufax's curve -- a true hammer made even more dominant by the electric fastball that would invariably precede it.
I guess the first question has to do with that fastball. How's the arm strength, Rick?
Good, good. And let me check the AP/Reuters news wires to see if left-handed pitchers are still in demand … okay, yep., they're still in demand. Ankiel is 33 -- old for a limited offensive player, but he'd be entering his prime as a lefty reliever.
Here's the part of the Important Baseball Analysis where I look into the past to predict the future. Player X did this, so Player Y just might do this. Except, you can see the problem with that. Ankiel was a teenaged pitching phenom who had one of the most memorable losses of command in baseball history, underwent Tommy John surgery, and came back as a hitter six years later. You're not finding a comp for that. As such, we can't even make up the chances of such a thing succeeding. Less than one percent? Much, much higher?
And, of course, this is still just a wild rumor.
But it's a rumor that a) is interesting as all heck, and b) makes a ton of sense. Ankiel was the best pitching prospect in the world. It's not hyperbole to suggest he was one of the best pitching prospects ever. And if he's not a pitcher, he's a 33-year-old outfielder who can't hit for average or take a walk. Those aren't in demand. Left-handers are.
During the playoffs, national announcers would recount Ryan Vogelsong's travels as an extended journey that ended with him back in the majors. That's half of the story to me. The other half is how unbelievably, impossibly rare the story was. Lots of players have circuitous paths to the majors. The path -- and eventual success of Vogelsong -- set it apart. I was pretty sure that I'd never see something as unlikely for decades.
Except this would trump it. Rick Ankiel pitching again would be the most remarkable comeback in recent baseball history. It would be a remarkable comeback to bookend what was already a remarkable comeback. We forget about that part because it wasn't as remarkable as it might have been. Before Ankiel got popped for performance-enhancing drugs, he looked like he could be a future All-Star. But he still became a good bench player. The odds were stacked against even that.
Ankiel has beaten the odds to become a great comeback story before. Heck, let's give it a whirl. Right when you thought there weren't any interesting rumors, there's the most interesting rumor.