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Prospect Retro: Rick Ankiel

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Rick Ankiel on a good day

Rick Ankiel on a bad day

Per reader request, a Prospect Retro on Rick Ankiel.

Rick Ankiel is one of the biggest prospect busts of the last 15 years. For awhile, it looked like he was going to be the ace of the Cardinals staff for a decade, and the centerpiece of many a fantasy pitching staff. Now, he is trying to rebuild his career as a 25-year-old outfielder in the minors. How did this happen?

Rick Ankiel was picked in the second round of the 1997 draft, out of high school in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was considered a definite first-round talent, but fell to the second round due to his perceived bonus demands. He signed with less-than-expected acrimony, then made his pro debut in '98, posting a 2.06 ERA in 7 starts for Peoria in the Midwest League, then a 2.79 ERA in 21 starts for Prince William in the Carolina League. He combined for a 222/50 K/BB ratio. I rated him as the Top Pitching Prospect in baseball heading into 1999, and gave him the rare Grade A rating. I also warned that he "could get hurt or lose his command." There was no particular insight there, just the standard caveat that even the best pitching prospects can fail.

Promoted to Double-A to begin '99, Ankiel went 6-0, 0.91 in 8 starts, earning a move up to Triple-A, where he went 7-3, 3.16 in 16 starts, fanning 119 in 88 innings. Excellent performance, especially considering that he was just 20 years old. He posted a 3.27 ERA in 9 games, 5 starts for the Cardinals down the stretch. He retained his Grade A rating, but once again I gave a specific caveat in his profile, writing that "the only two things that will keep Ankiel from being a star: mental adjustment problems or injury."

Anikel pitched well for the Cards in 2000 as a 21-year-old rookie, going 11-7, 3.50 in 30 starts, fanning 194 in 175 innings. His numbers weren't perfect: he walked 90 guys, showing the need for better command. But his stuff was so outstanding that no one was really worried. . .until his late-season control meltdown in the playoffs.

This turned into a serious problem in 2001, as Ankiel completely lost the touch with his control and ended up way back in the Appalachian League trying to get his confidence back. Then he blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. He returned to the mound in '03, pitching horribly in Double-A. He showed some signs of recovery in '04, until eventually deciding to give up mound work altogether and concentrate on hitting.

So, what happened? Ankiel is an extreme case, a combination of injury and emotional problems crippling a player with enormous potential. He could have been one of the best pitchers of the early 2000s, could have, should have. But he wasn't. In an alternate quantum reality somewhere, Ankiel is a perennial Cy Young candidate. But not in ours. The only negative in his minor league record was an occasionally higher-than-wonderful walk rate, but there were no real clues that he would collapse like this. He is the poster child for the risks that even the very best pitching prospects run.