"Could Rick Ankiel be called up to the Cardinals in September?"
La Russa, wisely not closing any doors on a subject that had not, nor should have been decided at that point, replied in a manner that while demonstrating his fondness for Ankiel, left the interpretation to the listener, or in this case, reader.
"I love Rick Ankiel," La Russa said. "There's something good about having him on a ballclub."
This is just what some of the Nation's faithful were hoping for, fueled by a natural need for excitement during a long August. The team continues to methodically log win after win, but with the only real news having to do with the many comings and goings from the disabled list, La Russa's innocuous reply served as a lightning rod for the hopeful.
Immediately, that old, familiar buzz started up all over again. Could this be the time that Ankiel completes his transformation from star pitcher to major league hitter, begun just this past spring? What a great story that would be! Late-season standing ovations and curtain calls from the Busch faithful would be guaranteed.
But, will it happen? Should it happen?
First of all, it is far from a lock. Note that La Russa also made the following comment, much less-frequently reported than the first. "I like having him (Ankiel) around, but you can get too many guys up here."
There should be no confusion that La Russa will not tolerate anything that could dull the focus of his club's preparation for the post-season. Calling up a bunch of extra players in September just to get in the way seems to fall into that category.
The Past and Present
After giving up his once seemingly-unlimited potential as a left-handed starting pitcher back in March, Ankiel decided to become a hitter. Having already invested almost eight years and millions of dollars in Ankiel, the Cardinals agreed. At that point, "why not?", they likely asked themselves. Holding their collective breaths as Ankiel had to be placed on waivers before being assigned to the minor leagues, the team's gamble paid off as Ankiel went unclaimed and cleared on April 6.
For the first time in a long while, Ankiel reported to the minors, not on a rehabilitation assignment, but because that is where he belonged. He started in Double-A Springfield, but injured his back and in late May, was demoted to Single-A Quad Cities. He spent some time at designated hitter to help his body heal and has hit much better when returned to Springfield at the start of this month.
Combined, Ankiel has 16 home runs and 63 RBI in 280 at-bats, with a majority collected at Quad Cities. He hit .270 with a .368 on-base percentage and a .570 slugging percentage there, but his Double-A batting average of .232 does not stand out for positive reasons. Yet, Ankiel has hit .280 since returning to Springfield, highlighting just how bad his start there was.
Ankiel's combined power numbers look just fine, some assert, making him a deserving September addition to the Cardinals' bench. Others go even further, suggesting La Russa gives Ankiel regular starting duty to help spell the creaky regulars as well as the bench players who have approached career highs in games played.
Others scoff at Ankiel's results, pointing out that Ankiel is now a man among boys. A 26-year-old should excel at Single-A and Double-A they argue, not acknowledging that while 26 may be Ankiel's age as a ballplayer, it certainly is not in terms of his hitting maturity.
But, what about those others who might be more deserving of a coveted September spot? After all, outfielders Skip Schumaker and John Gall are already on the 40-man roster, as is Reid Gorecki, who may have the highest ceiling of the three, but is farthest away despite rebounding at Palm Beach after a dreadful start to the season at Springfield.
Would the Cards call up three or four extra outfielders, anyway? It certainly doesn't seem like it. If so, it would be quite a departure from past seasons, when three or four call-ups total for all positions would be a typical September contingent. Obviously, if Ankiel was named Smith or Jones, there would not be such a hue and cry for a Double-A outfielder of his age and results to appear in the majors in September.
As I put this story together, I contacted Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak to verify my understanding of the mechanics behind these possible moves and in the process, try to read between the lines as to the Cardinals' plans for Ankiel.
I asked "Mo" if Ankiel was to be called up in September, would it be a baseball decision? His reply: "Yes, most certainly. Almost all the time, in 95% of the cases or more, the decision is driven by baseball reasons." Note that Mozeliak did not provide any indication as to whether it will actually happen in Ankiel's case.
Other factors that could drive such a move could be contractually-driven or unwritten, advance agreements to bring a player up when rosters are expanded in September despite what his statistics might reflect at the time. I have no reason to assume either of these relate to Ankiel's situation in any way.
In terms of Ankiel's appeal to be called up, one major issue that works against him is that he is no longer on the Cardinals' 40-man roster. Currently, with the removal this past week of Jimmy Journell, the 40-man sits at 39. There are several possibilities for that spot, including a potential waiver trade. Back to that later.
Again, to rejoin the Cards in September, Ankiel would have to be restored to the 40-man. To be sent down again, he would again have to clear waivers, just as he did back in April. As a result, the Cardinals could risk losing Ankiel. This line of thinking is causing concern for many fans.
Another fear that has been expressed by some is that the Cardinals could lose Ankiel via the Rule 5 draft this December.
However, neither of these are potentially a factor any time soon. Here is why.
Ankiel is playing on a one-year, $400,000 contract signed for the 2005 campaign. As a result, he will become a free agent after this season. Obviously, given where he stands in his development as a hitter, if Ankiel returns to the Cardinals in 2006, it is highly unlikely that it would be via a major league contract.
As a free agent, the only way Ankiel could be exposed to the Rule 5 draft would be if he signs a minor league deal with the Cardinals prior to November 21. However, if that happens, all the Cards would have to do is place Ankiel on the Memphis (Triple-A) roster. In that case, any Rule 5-claiming team would have to carry Ankiel on their major league roster for the entire 2006 season. Not likely.
Instead, if the Cards were foolish, after signing Ankiel, they could assign him to Springfield (Double-A), which would expose him to the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft. The small financial benefit to the team in having him in Double-A instead of Triple-A would be far offset by the risk taken in potentially losing him. Certainly, in that case, some team would take a chance on grabbing Ankiel to play in Triple-A in 2006. But, I just can't see the Cardinals being that penny-wise and pound foolish.
The safest approach for the Cardinals would be to let Ankiel play out his contract with the intent to sign him to a Triple-A deal for 2006, but not lock it down until after November 21. There is always some risk that he could sign elsewhere once being declared to be a free agent, but these two sides have traveled a long way together since 1997. And, again, even if Ankiel is instead re-signed before that November date, the odds of the Cardinals losing him via Rule 5 seem remote.
As I finished my conversation with Mozeliak, the phone on his desk rang for the umpteenth time during our ten minute-duration conversation. Mo apologized one last time, saying "These phones are going crazy and there is no one else here to answer them."
I made a joking offer to let Mo get back to it if he was working on a trade, the details of which he was welcome to share with me. While of course while not verifying anything, Mozeliak jokingly replied "I am trying."
Now, couldn't that possibly be a better use of that 40th roster spot than seeing Rick Ankiel sitting on the bench come September?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.