When he was designated for assignment by the lowly Astros earlier this month, it appeared that the 33-year-old Rick Ankiel might be done at the major league level. But less than a week after drawing his unconditional release, Ankiel has found a new job with the Mets. He'll start in centerfield on Monday night against the Cardinals in St. Louis, where his major league career began back in 1999.
At the time he was DFA'd, Ankiel was hitting just .194/.231/.484 with five home runs but an eye-popping 35 strikeouts in 65 plate appearances; no longer a Three True Outcomes player — one who produces walks, strikeouts and home runs in a significant percentage of his plate appearances without the intervention of the opposing defense — he had become mostly a One True Outcome Player, as Cliff Corcoran wrote last month.
Ankiel reemerged as an outfielder in 2007 after his pitching career fell apart, but since hitting a meaty .264/.337/.506 with 25 homers in 2008, pitches have caught up to him. Bouncing from the Cardinals to the Royals, Braves, Nationals and Astros from 2009 onward, he has hit just .232/.292/.388 while striking out in 27.7 percent of his plate appearances and drawing unintentional walks in just 6.6 percent of them. He's an adequate centerfielder with a cannon for an arm, and considered to be a good presence in the clubhouse; despite his struggles, the Astros were "crushed" when he was DFA'd according to teammate Carlos Pena.
The Mets plan to use Ankiel as their centerfielder against righthanders, which means that he'll cut into the playing time of Jordany Valdespin, who has been starting there lately but is hitting just .239/.292/.433. Over the weekend, Valdespin was at the center of controversy for admiring a meaningless ninth-inning home run in a blowout by the Pirates and then receiving the requisite plunking in another blowout the next day. Including his contributions, Mets centerfielders as a group are hitting a league-worst .182/.217/.280, while their outfield as a whole is batting .222/.299/.384, for the third-worst OPS in the senior circuit Ankiel's performance against righties has been nothing to write home about — .242/.306/.424 with 24 homers in 711 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2010 season — but it's better than the .190/.254/.245 he's hit in 180 PA against lefties in that span. He may help his new club a bit if he can cut down his strikeouts, which Mets manager Terry Collins has asked him to do, but he's not going to turn a 14-20 team into contenders.