WTNYOctober 20, 2005
Meaningless Birthday
By Bryan Smith

Forget, for one second, the numbers that follow the "Born" part of his resume. Forget his past, the good and the bad. Instead, imagine him differently, as a 2004 draft pick from an accredited university, where he had played two-ways up until his last College World Series game. Scouts differed on whether he should hit or pitch, ultimately deciding on his powerful bat over his erratic left arm. The kid took a long time to sign, missing all of the 2004 season, and electing not to play in the AFL.

The polish once shown in college did not transfer as quickly as the Cardinals had hoped, making their first assignment (AA - Springfield) look foolish. After beginning the season a month late due to a back sprain, he collected just one hit in his first 20 at-bats and then returned to the DL (back, again). Ironically, his largest splash was made with his arm, as he had two outfield assists in just five games.

Rather than moving up like a few Springfield teammates, our collegiate outfielder was demoted to the Midwest League. It was there when things began to click and the move to the batter's box began to pay dividends. We began to see the power -- in addition to the big arm and outfield versatility -- that had been expected. In fact, he was probably the lost month in AA away from gaining a spot on the league's All-Star team.

Shortly after reaching 100% again on the health meter, however, things began to hurt again. It was not the back this time, but worse, the knee. He was limited to DH duties for much of his stay, as well as rarely being allowed to play on back-to-back days. Frustrations mounted, but at the same pace as his home run total, and eventually, the Cardinals trusted his groove enough to warrant a promotion back to Springfield.

His second stint in Double-A went beautifully, as his power continued to be a strength. No longer did the advanced environment intimidate him, and all his peripherals were sound. Despite a frustrating knee limiting his work in the outfield, his first full season at the plate was considered a success. So much so, in fact, that the Cardinals put him on their 40-man roster, promising a look in February.

However, as we know, truth is so often stranger than fiction. And few stories are as strange as Rick Ankiel, hardly a player with the background mentioned above.

The phenom-turned-ace-turned-Blass-turned-outfielder (who really needs a more detailed biography?) truly began his second career this year. In this, his age 25 season, Ankiel split time between the DL, the Midwest League, and Double-A. His stock plummeted early, but took an upswing following his demotion, and yet another following his promotion. Rick's season line:

A-	185	0.270	0.368	0.514	27	37
AA	136	0.243	0.295	0.515	10	29

We now find ourselves at the end of year one, knowing little more than we did in April. Other than, of course, that this position change just might work.

To be fair, I should start analyzing by giving the sample size caveat, as Ankiel amassed only a little more than a half-season's worth of plate appearances. However, this is a bat that has been hyped since 2000, when Rick hit .250 in 68 Major League ABs. It was hyped when Ankiel's pitching career was in shambles, and he hit 10 home runs on off-days in the Rookie League. If Rick was the college player I described above, sample size would be something to worry about. With a 26-year-old that has been on the radar -- and hit with wooden bats -- for at least eight years, not so much.

Therefore, we can simply turn to the numbers. This is where the project starts to impress, particularly in the power department. If Ankiel had qualified, his .244 ISO would have ranked second in the Midwest League. As would his AB/HR ratio, as Rick was averaging one home run in every 17 at-bats. Simply put, there was only one more player in the Midwest League (of those that qualified) that showcased more power than Ankiel.

Critics will be quick to mention that the southpaw's batting average was far less than spectacular at .270. However, part of this can be blamed on luck, as his .273 BABIP is below average. Normalize the BABIP to .300, and the average jumps twenty-one points. However, even with the "low" average, Ankiel's .882 OPS would have ranked sixth in the Midwest League. Moreover, the five players ahead of him all had BABIPs over .313. Quite frankly, I would say that Rick was one of the three most dangerous hitters in the league.

Different numbers, same story after his promotion back to Double-A. In those 116 at-bats before his season ended, Ankiel hit 10 home runs, slugging .595 in the process. Only two other Texas League hitters -- prospects Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli -- belted as many home runs from August 1 on.

Throw out the first 20 at-bats of his season, as well as his age, and Rick Ankiel is a Major League prospect. This must be the Cardinals thinking, as they purchased Ankiel's contract hours before he would have become a free agent. As a result, the former pitcher is once again on the 40-man roster and will be invited to Spring Training with the Cardinals.

Guessing the next step in a career with so many wrong turns is a fool's game. That said, Ankiel should gain experience with the bat and glove during the winter once his knee properly heals. The time is passing for that place to be Arizona, though Ankiel may be better suited to play out of the spotlight in one of the foreign leagues anyway. According to the Cardinals, he will also be given an opportunity to win a job in Spring Training. With So Taguchi and John Mabry aging and not particularly useful, youth could be a welcome change in St. Louis. But this move would be a great disservice to Ankiel, who deserves the opportunity to succeed beyond the confines of a bench role, rather than discarded as a prospect due to age.

Because, in this case, few numbers are less telling than the date of his birth.