Rick Ankiel, the Cards, Scott Boras & 2010

The St. Louis Cardinals' talented centerfielder Rick Ankiel can't become a free agent until after the 2009 season, but is it too early to consider his future?

In a recent article, I looked at some of the considerations surrounding the contract status of St. Louis Cardinals free-agent to-be pitcher Kyle Lohse. The piece was not-so-imaginatively entitled "Kyle Lohse, the Cardinals, Scott Boras & 2009".

As one might assume, it elicited a wide range of reactions from readers, some positive, others less so. Yet, from a source close to the situation, I was told, "Your assumptions are very accurate."

Even before FSN Midwest's Al Hrabosky reported that Scott Boras Corporation representatives were in St. Louis on Tuesday, I had been informed of the same thing. Yet, do not lose sight of the fact that even if the sides may be talking, there is a large body of evidence against anything happening, especially soon.

The purpose of this article is not to rehash the Lohse situation, but instead to extend it to another Boras client on the Cardinals, outfielder Rick Ankiel. His situation is both different from and not as immediately urgent as Lohse's, as Ankiel will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season.

Yet, it is not too early to be thinking about next steps for the budding star. The Cardinals organization locked up several other young team cornerstones in their arbitration years, securing long-term contracts that covered at least a few of their free agent-eligible seasons, too.

Examples include Albert Pujols, and most recently, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Those players are not represented by Boras, however.

For those who want to get to the punch line quickly, one thing is not different between Lohse and Ankiel – Boras takes his clients to free agency and almost every time, they change teams in the process. Look at the data in the previously-referenced Lohse article if you need convincing.

Still, long-time Ankiel fans might hold out slightly higher hope that the centerfielder will stick around St. Louis, his only baseball home – beyond the one more year he remains under organizational control.

By now, every Cardinals fan is aware of Ankiel's past – a teenage phenom pitcher from a troubled home that had the baseball world by the tail – until injuries and other problems sapped his desire to pitch.

Encouraged by Cardinals management to stay, Ankiel attempted a very unusual mid-career conversion to the outfield and to everyone's surprise, except maybe then-general manager Walt Jocketty, field manager Tony La Russa and a few others, Rick actually accomplished it.

When called up from Triple-A last August, Ankiel already had almost four years of major league service time accrued over fits and starts since his original debut in 1999. The now-29-year-old quickly crossed that four-year boundary, coming into 2008 with four years, 33 days of service. With free agency possible at six years, this meant the Cardinals would only be assured of Ankiel's services for two more seasons – 2008 and 2009.

First, with Ankiel already eligible for arbitration, there was the matter of establishing his immediate value for 2008. How would the Cardinals and Boras come up with an appropriate salary for an ex-star pitcher, now outfielder, who had phenomenal numbers in most of the 2007 season spent in Triple-A along with a promising, but limited major league introduction as a position player last fall?

Never one to aim low, Boras opened fire by invoking the memory of none other than The Bambino himself, the great Babe Ruth. Despite being a lefty like Ankiel and a former pitcher like Ankiel, Ruth towered over the game in a much different era with a much different set of financial rules.

Yet, it allowed Boras to make his point – that he was representing an exceptional and unique talent.

For fun, I took Boras' comments to heart – probably being the only person on earth to consider them literally - and used them to project what Ankiel might be paid in 2008, using Ruth as a point of comparison.

The article is here: "The Babe Ruth – Rick Ankiel Comp".

My unscientific analysis said that Ankiel should have been paid at least $800,000 in 2008. The day after my article was published, on Friday, January 18, the Cardinals and Ankiel-Boras came to terms on a 2008 deal for a reported base salary of $900,000 with an additional $100,000 in possible incentives.

Interestingly enough, on the very same day, another Boras client, another star outfielder, also arbitration-eligible, agreed to terms with his club, too. He also happens to be a player the Cardinals were allegedly interested in trading for this summer and will be eligible for free agency at the same time as Ankiel.

Though comparable in MLB service time, Colorado Rockies star Matt Holliday has a track record as an outfielder that far exceeds Ankiel's.

The top hitter on the most recent World Series winner, Holliday was a two-time All-Star, had won two Silver Slugger Awards and had just lost out in the 2007 National League's Most Valuable Player Award vote to Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins. His star also shone under the bright lights when he was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2007 National League Championship Series.

While Boras wasn't about to give up or delay any of Holliday's free agent leverage, he did agree to an interesting two-year deal covering 2008 and 2009. The total package was for $23 million, with $9.5M due in 2008 and the remainder next season. The Rockies, while committed to $13.5M for 2009 for a player not yet free agent eligible, at least know they avoided the possibility of arbitration with Boras in successive years.

That could help articulate a high-water mark for what Boras might try to extract from the Cardinals heading toward a possible Ankiel arbitration hearing in February, 2009. Perhaps if the Cards knew then what they know now about Ankiel's acclimation as a major league hitter, they might have tried last winter to tie Rick up early for a second year, too.

Knowing the Rockies will not be able to keep Holliday beyond next season and with the club 13 games below .500 in the weakest division in baseball, the NL West, there is local sentiment that the club should deal Holliday and collect prospects from a contender in return.

In such an article last Sunday in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, former major leaguer Mark Knudson probes a little-understood angle – that of slotting and pressure by the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Fans are most familiar with the term "slotting" as it relates to the First-Year Player (amateur) Draft. In that case, MLB sets "suggested" bounds for the clubs to follow in awarding player bonuses. Just don't you dare call that collusion!

In the case of free agents, the MLBPA plays a comparable enforcer role to stamp out hometown discounts and ensure that the big money players get their fair share compared to others. It is the old analogy that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Thereby, the Players Association help all their constituents earn more money, if not today, then down the road. Interestingly, the former MLB pitcher Knudson characterizes Boras as merely the "front man" behind the powerful Players Association.

The 2008 Cardinals are in a different place than the Rockies, both in the standings as well as with their starring outfielders. I don't think the Cardinals would consider trading Ankiel now, though that could change in the future, especially if the Cards take a nosedive of the magnitude of the 2007 World Champs.

Yet, one should also not delude oneself into thinking a hometown discount is forthcoming from Ankiel on a long-term deal, either. As the earlier Lohse article illustrated, Boras takes his players into free agency – including the very few that ultimately return.

As Knudson reminds us, even Alex Rodriguez ended up with a 10% raise and eight more years on his contract despite the Yankees cutting Boras out of the negotiations last winter.

Looking at the past and projecting the future, the most likely progression of Ankiel's situation over the next 18 months is as follows:

1) Next January, Ankiel will receive a hefty raise from the Cardinals for the 2009 season, settling before an arbitration hearing could be held. The amount will not quite reach Holliday money, but it will be closer than one might think.

2) All during the 2009 season, we will have to deal with another Lohse-like story line. "Why don't the Cardinals lock up Ankiel long-term?" the fans will cry, not knowing or caring that just isn't the Boras way.

3) In the winter of 2009-2010, then-30-year-old Rick Ankiel will finally sign his first big-money, long-term contract. In the process, he will follow the many Boras clients before him into free agency, leaving the only organization for which he had ever played as a professional. Assuming they offered Ankiel arbitration, the Cardinals would likely pick up a pair of compensatory draft picks in return for losing the player.

There are many optimists in the Cardinal Nation. I would like to be one of them. Folks will remind one another of how the Cardinals stood by Ankiel through thick and thin ever since he was drafted in 1997, and how as a result, he will show allegiance to the organization in return.

Sounds very nice, but I don't think it is realistic, at least unless the key players change. Back to that in a moment.

From the Lohse article, readers may remember the 17 past Boras free agents, of which 15 moved to new teams and signed new deals. That list, with Ankiel added, follows, though it is now organized a bit differently.

In this case, I added whether the free agent was leaving his original organization and if so, how many years he had spent there prior to departing. Of the 17, this is only relevant to five players plus Ankiel.

Boras Client Date From To  Orig Org # Yrs Orig
Jones Andruw 12/07 Atl LAD yes 14
Ankiel Rick 01/10? StL ??? yes 13
Ordonez Magglio 01/05 CWS Det yes 12
Washburn Jarrod 12/05 LAA Sea yes 11
Beltre Adrian 12/04 LAD Sea yes 9
Zito Barry 12/06 Oak SF yes 8
Beltran Carlos 01/05 Hou NYM no NA
Damon Johnny 12/05 Bos NYY no NA
Drew J.D. 01/07 LAD Bos no NA
Lohse Kyle 03/08 Phi StL no NA
Lowe Derek 01/05 Bos LAD no NA
Millwood Kevin 12/05 Cle Tex no NA
Rodriguez Alex 12/07 NYY NYY no NA
Rodriguez Ivan 02/04 Fla Det no NA
Rogers Kenny 12/05 Tex Det no NA
Tavarez Julian 01/06 StL Bos no NA
Varitek Jason 12/04 Bos Bos no NA
Weaver Jeff 01/07 StL Sea no NA

Yet some of the other 12 (who have been in at least three organizations) might at least justify a footnote, as they were traded by their initial clubs before they could test free agency. A notable example is former Kansas City Royals outfielders Carlos Beltran and Johnny Damon. The Royals decided to get something for them since they knew they didn't have the payroll to bring them back. I will also revisit this idea later in the article.

Back to the big six, however. Note that every one of them had a long-term relationship with their club, from eight to 14 years in duration. In each case, I am sure their leaving was painful for all parties involved, but the bottom line is that they did cut their ties.

Further, note that Andruw Jones was a Brave even longer than Ankiel will have been a Cardinal following next season. As much as Cardinals fans think St. Louis is a special place, "Baseball Heaven", with Boras, the bank is his church.

Here is an additional factor to consider. With La Russa's Cardinals future after 2009 unclear, that could negatively affect the emotional case and provide the Ankiel-Boras camp a politically-correct justification to stall making a decision.

As I think I have already made clear, I believe one other player in this game is even more important than the manager. (Hint: His photo is to the right.)

In fact, just this Tuesday evening, from all places, FSN Midwest's Hrabosky, I was reminded precisely why I conclude that both Lohse and Ankiel will likely walk.

Hungo told the story of when he asked former Cardinals pitcher Alan Benes back in his playing days why he was not a Boras customer like his brother Andy. Alan explained that Boras demands 100% control of his client's negotiations. Because he wanted a say in his contract matters, Alan decided Boras wasn't the right fit for him.

Unless Rick Ankiel has a heart-to-heart with Alan Benes between now and the winter of 2009-2010, the Cardinals would likely have to pay the outfielder fair market value on an extended-term contract to keep his services beyond next season.

Or will they even get that far?

Think back to the last time the Cardinals signed a top-dollar free agent, let alone one represented by Scott Boras? No, I can't recall one, either.

But, there is a somewhat comparable situation to Ankiel with another Boras client, outfielder J.D. Drew. Looking back, Jocketty did a masterful job, trading Drew a year before his free agency, getting Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis and Ray King from the Atlanta Braves in return for the oft-injured Drew and Eli Marrero back in December, 2003.

Ecstatic Braves fans figured local boy Drew would take to his new club like Goody's Powder to a headache and spend the rest of his playing days admiring the Tomahawk Chop. Instead, he was simply a high-profile rental player, gone to Los Angeles 12 months later, where he would opt out of his next five-year deal after two.

Now, those same Atlanta fans just wish they had Wainwright back.

Current St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak was with the Cardinals organization in 2003, having learned the game at Jocketty's knee. If he knew he couldn't sign Ankiel beyond 2009, why wouldn't Mo consider another Drew-like blockbuster next winter?

Stay tuned, folks!



Note: If you have a point of view on this subject, feel free to join the discussion currently underway on our insiders message board.



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

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