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The Can't-Miss Kid

June 28, 1999
June 28, 1999

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June 28, 1999

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Photo Credits: Ronald C. Modra

The Can't-Miss Kid

At 19, Rick Ankiel, the best pitching prospect in baseball, is tearing up the minor leagues. So why won't the Cardinals bring him to the Show?

Temptation, thy name is Rick Ankiel. Temptation cannot legally buy a beer or rent a car, spends off days trolling the local mall and regards Hooters as fine dining. Temptation also has a 95-mph fastball with more late movement than a strip joint and a knee-buckling breaking ball that curves as sharply as Lombard Street. For a scout who has been in the game almost half a century, Temptation is like nothing he's ever seen before. Temptation is the best pitching prospect in baseball.

This is an article from the June 28, 1999 issue Original Layout

Ankiel is a 19-year-old lefthander stopping for a cup of coffee with the Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple A affiliate. He is so young and so good that Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, though he is desperately seeking to bolster his sorry pitching staff through trades, has virtually lashed himself to a mast to resist the song of the siren. "I'm almost hoping that he struggles a little bit," Jocketty says. "For one thing, I'd rather see him learn from adversity in Triple A than in the big leagues. The other thing is, it might get all these Cardinals fans who want him here [in St. Louis] off my back."

"I hope he keeps Ankiel down there all year," says one rival National League general manager. "The longer he does, the better for the rest of us."

Will Ankiel turn out to be "the next Steve Carlton," as his agent, Scott Boras, asserts, or will he be another Todd Van Poppel? That might depend on how quickly Ankiel is rushed to the big leagues, at least according to skittish baseball executives. "It's tempting," Jocketty says of bringing up Ankiel, "but in my heart I don't think it's the right thing to do now."

Only two teenagers have pitched in the big leagues this decade, and both have had Danny Bonaduce-like careers: Van Poppel, who at 27 is with the Triple A Nashville Sounds, in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system, and has a 22–37 career record in the majors; and Rich Garces, who at 28 still hasn't spent a full season in the big leagues and who is with the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, in the Boston system. Ankiel turns 20 on July 19, the age at which Kerry Wood made his debut last year with a number of pro innings (278 1/3) similar to Ankiel's total at week's end (245 2/3). Of course, Wood blew out his right elbow in March and took his place alongside Van Poppel and David Clyde as favorite subjects when baseball people like to scare one another with stories about young pitchers. Then again, Carlton, Bob Feller and Greg Maddux enjoyed remarkably healthy and productive careers after reaching the big leagues at 20 or younger.

"I'm conservative," says Mel Didier, the Arizona Diamondbacks' senior assistant to the general manager, "but there are exceptions. We just brought up 20-year-old Byung-Hyun Kim. He was ready. He has the stuff and the maturity to pitch in the big leagues. I told [manager] Buck Showalter, 'Don't look back.'"

Didier took a seat behind home plate at Albuquerque Sports Stadium last week to get his first look at Ankiel, in a game between the Redbirds and the Albuquerque Dukes. "The other scouts tell me he's as good as Wood, maybe better," he said. "I'm anxious to find out."

Ankiel was making his fifth start for Memphis after making a mockery of Double A hitters (6–0, 0.91 ERA, 75 strikeouts) with the Arkansas Travelers. Following Ankiel's last start in Double A, on May 16, Jocketty asked one of his assistants, Jerry Walker, "Do you think he's ready for Triple A?"

"No," Walker said solemnly, "I think he's ready for the major leagues."

Didier needed to see Ankiel pitch only four innings before he said, "This is my 46th year in baseball. I haven't seen a lefthander like that in 15, maybe 20 years. His curveball is unbelievable. His fastball explodes at the end. He has a good feel for his changeup. Actually, I don't know who I could compare him to. Come to think of it, I'd have to say he's one of the best lefthanders I've ever seen. I can't recall seeing a 19-year-old do what he does. He has a good delivery, he's a good athlete and he has great poise."

Imagine if Didier had seen him pitch on one of his better nights—of which there have been many. (In 42 career starts through Sunday, Ankiel was 20–7 with a 2.33 ERA and 350 strikeouts.) Ankiel allowed Albuquerque, the Los Angeles Dodgers' top affiliate, two runs on four hits and four walks over six innings while striking out four. Those would be fine numbers for most pitchers, but what troubled Didier and the Cardinals was that, of the 96 pitches Ankiel threw, only 54 were strikes. "He wouldn't have lasted three innings up there [in the big leagues] being behind like that all the time," says Memphis manager Gaylen Pitts. "When he's got all three pitches working, he's unhittable. Un ... hittable."

Said Albuquerque's Warren Newson, a former major leaguer who whiffed twice and grounded into a double play against Ankiel, "That's a good, sharp breaking ball, and that fastball jumps. He has a nice, easy delivery, and then all of a sudden the ball is by you. It reminds me of [Yankees closer] Mariano Rivera's fastball. The kid's got a terrific future."

The Memphis bullpen squandered a 4–2 lead and blew a win for Ankiel for the second straight time. "Just one of those days I've got to put behind me," Ankiel said, as if he'd been shelled. Then again, Ankiel is so demanding of himself that he seethes when he doesn't throw well in bullpen sessions between starts.

Ankiel sounds remarkably like a big leaguer for someone who was cruising the halls of Port St. Lucie (Fla.) High just two years ago. He speaks about himself with a veteran's cool detachment, as if boredom is his weapon against the frequent media sorties that come his way. You might detect a pulse if you ask him about sitting alone in his 21-foot Apache on Florida's Indian River, waiting for the snook to nibble. (His father, also named Rick, is a fishing guide.) You might also detect a reaction if you mention certain malls, lowbrow eating establishments, Ping-Pong or his pregame shave ("so I don't itch"). Otherwise, for all the emotion he exhibits about his game, the 6'1", 210-pound Ankiel ought to take a briefcase to the mound with him.

"It's not up to me, so it's not something I worry about," Ankiel says about the prospects of a promotion to the majors. "I know the track record of young pitchers in the big leagues. For whatever reason, a lot of them have been hurt. I try not to think about it. The biggest thing I need to learn is getting guys out without running up the count. I haven't figured that out yet."

Jocketty's hesitance with Ankiel is understandable when you consider that he was the director of baseball operations with Oakland when Van Poppel flopped. Like Van Poppel, Ankiel was regarded as one of the best players in the draft but slipped—he was 72nd in '97; Van Poppel was 14th in 1990—because Boras sent signals that he wanted a record signing bonus. Van Poppel made one major league start in '91, then was 18–29 with a 6.27 ERA from 1993 through July '96, when Oakland designated him for assignment and he was claimed by the Detroit Tigers. "It's simple: He wasn't good enough," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who was the assistant G.M. with the team at the time. "No disrespect to Todd, but he wasn't as good as people thought. It wasn't a matter of being rushed."

Says Jocketty, whose club signed Ankiel to a $2.5 million bonus (not a record), "Rick is a more advanced player, and he's a little tougher mentally than Todd was. I have little doubt he could pitch in the majors right now."

For now, Ankiel is a Ming vase and Pitts is the Pinkerton making sure he gets to St. Louis in one piece. Jocketty and his Cardinals lieutenants decide when Ankiel starts and how many pitches he should throw (never more than 110 in a game). Boras says he believes Ankiel would prosper in the majors with that kind of care. But for Jocketty, keeping Ankiel out of the majors is like keeping the dessert cart from Nate Newton. Better not to be tempted at all. The Cubs, for instance, never planned for Wood to throw 122 pitches on a raw afternoon in his fifth big league start, in May '98, but that's what happened when the rich possibility of tying Roger Clemens's record of 20 strikeouts was in sight.

"The point is," Jocketty says, "when you're making a decision with someone this special, you can't risk making the wrong decision."