25-year-old 25th man?

A "what if?" story that is not too far-fetched.

News item: The Post-Dispatch reported, then retracted the news that outfielder Rick Ankiel had been waived by the St. Louis Cardinals late last week. Instead, subsequent reports stated that Ankiel had surprisingly been added to the team's 25-man roster.

No rational explanation was suggested, other than perhaps waiting a few more days until other teams lock down their season-opening rosters might slightly decrease the odds of Ankiel being claimed, goes the logic. This also buys the Cardinals a bit more time to determine which teams may be interested in claiming Ankiel when he is waived and to try to make some kind of deal with them.

However, Ankiel cannot play in the minors for any organization without passing through waivers. If one truly believes Ankiel will never consider pitching again, clearing waivers should be a mere formality.

In the real world, however, there have to be a number of teams, perhaps too many to negotiate with, likely drooling all over themselves when considering the possibility to "rehabilitate" Ankiel and get him back on the mound.

This would be totally contrary to strong public comments by the Cardinals, Ankiel and his agent, Scott Boras. Still, given the immense talent and the low price tag, why not give it a shot? (Ankiel's major league contract is for just $400,000.)

An idea that was floated by some was to add a poison pill to Ankiel's contract with escalators based on pitching appearances that would make it financially prohibitive for another team to take Ankiel and attempt to utilize him on the mound. Any team claiming Ankiel on waivers would have to assume his contract. But, that is just another interesting theory at this point. No one knows if it would be approved by MLB and the Union even if proposed.

Another option for the Cardinals would be to get Ankiel into suspended status or categorized as unable to perform. But, that wouldn't help, either. The problem is that for Ankiel to have any future value as an outfielder, he needs to learn the position, playing every day in the minor leagues. Can't hardly be suspended at one level and play at another.

Sure, the team could assign Rick to extended spring training, followed by more time on the disabled list or a rehab assignment to the minors. But, that only delays the inevitable. For the latter, it would buy just 15 days more (20 if Ankiel was still a pitcher).

So, why did the Cardinals bother to add Ankiel to the roster?

What if their fallback plan is to leave him right there? That's right. Go into battle with a 24-man roster plus the outfielder-in-training.

It's not like it hasn't been done before. Heck, take just last season, for example. The Cardinals carried Rule 5 selection Hector Luna on the 25-man all year, despite the fact he had never before played above Double-A. Luna contributed minimally to the 2004 Cardinals, getting just 103 at-bats in the regular season and three in the post-season.

Going back a bit further, there was a period of time during the ‘90s when 24-man rosters were used in the majors by all teams. In fact, it is explicitly allowed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the legal agreement between MLB and its players. Article XV, Section E of the CBA states the roster maximum is 25 and the minimum is 24. Unfortunately, the CBA also states that teams cannot act in concert to play with only 24.

Stepping back a few years more, in the ‘50's, bonus babies were placed on major league rosters for an entire season, even though there was no intention of playing them. I asked historian and author John Shiffert (www.baseball19to21.com) about this. As I thought it might, at least four possible names establishing precedence flew out without hesitation…

"Sandy Koufax was the most famous. Tom Quarlters spent an entire year on the Phillies' bench without pitching an inning. I think John Antonelli was another. Frank Leja?"

Now, I am not suggesting that Tony La Russa would relish the idea of having one less late-inning manever to make each day than he did before or leaving the door open for his opponents to make one more move than him. However, it's not as if Ankiel couldn't pinch-hit, pinch-run or play the field.

However, to this point, the entire orientation of this story has been to protect the interests of the St. Louis Cardinals. Frankly, I am far from convinced that it is best for the organization for Ankiel to be sitting on the bench throughout the 2005 season. Despite their sizable investment made in Ankiel since 1997, the Cardinals have to cut their losses at some point. Isn't that time about now?

What about Rick? While Ankiel is saying he wants to stay with the organization, would he say that it if meant that he'd have to play out his season, trying to learn to play the outfield in the fishbowl called the major leagues? Is that truly best for him?

I believe that the Cardinals should do everything in their power to get Ankiel safely to the minors; but if they fail, they should be prepared to lose him. It's time for the organization to either put Ankiel behind them or at least take him out of the spotlight.

And, if Ankiel is claimed by another team, and that team can't convince him to pitch, then waive him again and again, until he can go to the minors somewhere, anywhere, where he can get a fair shot to learn how to become an outfielder. Until that happens, Ankiel will continue to be a pawn, used by others who believe they know better than Ankiel what is best for him.

Another year in the major leagues, this time as a green-as-grass outfielder, would do everyone a disservice, especially Ankiel himself. With all due respect, just let him go and wish him the best of luck wherever he ends up.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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