PROBLEM IS, ANKIEL IMPROVES KC
SA baseball man is standing 20 feet or so back as Rick Ankiel, dressed in his blue Royals practice jersey, digs in for his new team. Ankiel is important for the Royals. “Take a look,” the man says. “He’s got as much raw power as anybody you’ll see.” First swing, Ankiel hits a weak grounder to second base. The baseball man winces. He kicks lightly at the ground. It’s the opening days of spring training and already Ankiel is matched against an image he may not live up to. Ankiel, the centerpiece addition to the Royals’ 25-man roster, is the best place to start when talking about where they stand entering the fourth year of general manager Dayton Moore’s attempt to shed the franchise’s long-earned label of laughable losers. He represents the Royals’ hope, but also their anvil. He is the face of their promise, but also their struggle. “I’m proud of who I am and what I am as a player,” Ankiel says. “He’s the full package for me,” manager Trey Hillman says. “There’s no question he should and he will continue to get better,” Moore says. This is the Royals’ message, except a competing executive sees Ankiel as another example of the Royals valuing potential over production.
Ankiel was discarded by the Cardinals and wanted by other teams only as a role player, but he comes to the Royals as the starting center fielder set to hit somewhere in the middle of the lineup. He turns 31this summer — four to five years after most hitters peak — and is a .255 hitter in three seasons stuttered by injuries since becoming a full-time outfielder. “He looks lost to me,” says a rival scout. Who wouldn’t want to believe in Rick Ankiel? He is impossible not to root for, the owner of one of baseball’s coolest success stories. You’ve probably heard some of this, about how he went from can’t-miss pitcher and budding star to busted dreams, then reinvented himself as an outfielder and made it back to the big leagues. He went from star-crossed pitcher to the people’s star outfielder, like going pro in two different sports. He burst into the national conscience a decade ago when 50,000 fans for a Cardinals playoff game became accidental eyewitnesses to an uncomfortably public meltdown of a 21-year-old pitcher. He threw five wild pitches in an inning, the first big leaguer to do that in 110 years. It looked, simply, like he forgot how to pitch. A flawless delivery morphed into one with problems a Little League coach could point out. This was Chuck Knoblauch throwing to first, Nick Anderson at the free-throw line, or Jean Van de Velde at the British Open. He was never again an effective pitcher. Then came a string of revelations about a personal background that included a pushy father who ended up in prison for dealing narcotics, a tough go for a sensitive kid whose physical talent pulled him into big-time sports before the rest of him was ready. Which is why his baseball reincarnation captured so many hearts. As much because they liked his spirit as his chances, the Cardinals let Ankiel try to convert to full-time outfielder in 2005. Nobody expected much, but after he hit 53 homers in two minor-league seasons they brought him to St. Louis, his storybook journey complete with a three-run homer his first game back. This is part of what the Royals like about Ankiel, the athleticism to do it physically and resolve to do it spiritually. He’s easy to root for, to hope he can thrive in Kansas City this summer. “With his makeup and his winning-type attitude,” Moore says, “that can happen.” That’s the Ankiel everyone would like to see. It’s just that many baseball people see him as a better story than as a fix for the Royals’ problems. That’s what Cardinals GM John Mozeliak seemed to say when he took the unusual step of publicly pointing out holes in Ankiel’s swing while an- nouncing he had no regular spot in St. Louis’ outfield. “That’s his business,” Ankiel says. “He has the right to say whatever he wants to say … (but) show me a hitter who doesn’t have a hole in his swing.”
The Royals believe in Rick Ankiel, and they should, because he’s better than what they had. Without Ankiel, the Royals would be deciding between Mitch Maier and Brian Anderson for center field, or worse, they’d plan regular outfield time for José Guillen. Signing Ankiel makes the Royals better, and that’s more indictment than applause. This is the Royals’ pattern. Consider the recent history: Two years ago, Guillen was an aging outfielder with a problem-child reputation, but got big money because Emil Brown led the Royals with 62 RBIs the season before. Last winter, Kyle Farnsworth was a 30-something pitcher who hadn’t been a top reliever in four years, but got big money because the Royals grew desperate for a hardthrower in their bullpen. Last summer, Yuniesky Betancourt was bad enough the Mariners considered releasing him, but the Royals traded for him because they had Luis Hernandez, Tony Peña Jr. and Willie Bloomquist taking turns at shortstop. If you’ve been eating dirt, worms start looking like a good source of protein. For most of the last two decades, the Royals have been picking out worms. “(Ankiel) is not an impact player, but I understand the signing,” a competing scout says. “He makes them better, and if you’re saying that’s the problem, well, I won’t argue.”
Privately, some in the sport see this as a bit of an image signing. Even if the money would be better spent on amateur talent, signing Ankiel is a message to the Royals’ clubhouse that the front office is trying to field competitive teams. Remember that Zack Greinke talked about the Royals’ increased commitment to winning as a major reason for signing his extension before winning the Cy Young last year. Billy Butler will have a similar decision soon, and this is one of those below-the-surface factors that make building the Royals even more difficult. But move away from Ankiel now, to the Royals’ future on the next practice field over. This is the part of the franchise that really matters, even if names such as Jordan Parraz and David Lough and Danny Duffy are recognized only by the most hard-core fans or dedicated autograph seekers. The Royals are among baseball’s biggest spenders on amateur players, have been for a few years now, and it’s the only way teams like this can become franchises like the Twins or Rays. There are no wincing men over here watching the Royals’ future, only the reality of what the Royals cannot say publicly — that Ankiel and Guillen and Betancourt are not part of any sustainable future. If the Royals are to shake their loser label, it will be because the guys on this field legitimately replace some of the guys on that field. It’s the only way for the Royals to break the pattern of giving millions to underperforming free agents, forced to promote average players as answers to a stack of problems that could take years to fix. To reach Sam Mellinger, sports columnist for The Star, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger
The Royals see what they want with outfielder Rick Ankiel.
Center fielder Rick Ankiel is taking swings in the Royals’ training camp in Arizona because his former team, the Cardinals, no longer had a place for him in their outfield.