Phillies Watching Cardinals' Rick Ankiel

By now, Rick Ankiel was supposed to be among the ranks of superstar pitchers. Unfortunately for Ankiel, major control problems followed by Tommy John surgery put his career up on blocks. Now though, Ankiel is pain free and throwing well. The Phillies have definitely taken notice.

Rick Ankiel is doing all he can to return to the form that had him on the path to stardom. Still just 25 years old, Ankiel appears to be ready to resume his major league career. In 1999 and 2000, Ankiel was a big part of the Cardinals starting rotation. Over those two seasons, he posted an 11-8 record with a 3.46 ERA.

The trouble began in 2001 when Ankiel, who had averaged one walk every two innings in his first two seasons - not a stellar number - was walking on average, a hitter per inning to start the season. His ERA reached over the 7.00 mark with St.Louis and Ankiel found himself back in the minors. The problem turned out to be more than just control problems or bad mechanics. Ankiel had serious elbow problems and missed the entire 2002 season. By July of 2003, Ankiel still hadn't returned to the majors and his problems continued to grow until finally, it was determined that he needed Tommy John surgery.

Now, almost 18 months after the surgery, Ankiel is truly looking strong. Pitching for Carolina Gigantes in the Puerto Rican Winter League, Ankiel has been nearing awesome. Fortunately for the Phillies, the Gigantes are managed by Phillies roving instructor Carlos Arroyo, who has funneled good reports of Ankiel's progress to the Phillies.

"I told the Phillies that he's been awesome," said Arroyo at the mid-point of the Puerto Rican season. As part of the Gigantes rotation, Ankiel is throwing strikes and has had near perfect control. The left-hander has struck out 29 hitters while walking just three and has a 3.57 ERA.

The Phillies are watching Ankiel with interest and may approach the Cardinals about a deal that would bring Ankiel to the Phillies. The Cardinals surprised baseball by picking up Mark Mulder from Oakland and the Cardinals need for a middle infielder, there may be a potential for a deal. Add to that the fact that the Phillies were surprised by Placido Polanco agreeing to arbitration with the Phillies and the potential increases. Since he was technically a free agent, Polanco has the right to veto any trade until June 15th. Odds are though that he might accept a deal to the Cardinals.

Arroyo's reports on Ankiel have been of great interest to the Phillies, who are looking for young pitching. The theory is that Ankiel will be near 100% for opening day and won't need more time in the minors to rehab. He pitched in five games out of the bullpen for St.Louis late last season and posted a 5.40 ERA, but there were signs of life. Ankiel's control was strong - one walk in ten innings - and he struck out nine hitters.

One of the keys to Ankiel's potential comeback is that he is relying less on an overpowering fastball and has become more of a classic pitcher. "From everything I heard in the past, he was going to simply to try to blow everybody away with his fastball, but that hasn't been the case," explained Arroyo.

With concerns over the health of Vicente Padilla and Randy Wolf and the inconsistency of Brett Myers, there may be a need for a major league ready starter. The Phillies hope to allow Gavin Floyd more time to develop and are resisting the temptation to move Ryan Madson into the starting rotation based on the success that he had out of the bullpen last season.

Overall, Ankiel has pitched 242 innings in the majors and has assembled a 13-10, 3.90 mark with the Cardinals.

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