Astros' excitement builds at FanFest
Outfielder Rick Ankiel has an advantage heading into Spring Training with the Astros as a non-roster invitee.
He’s been there before, fighting to keep his baseball career going.
As the dozens of young players will fight for jobs in Kissimmee, Fla., so will the 33-year-old Ankiel. The once-pitcher has a chance to earn a job in the outfield and would add some power from the left side of the dish, not to mention plenty of veteran leadership to a team without much of any.
“I firmly believe that if Rick comes into camp and performs the way he’s capable of performing, to his potential, that he will be a member of our 25-man roster when we break camp,” new Astros manager Bo Porter said at Minute Maid Park on Saturday during a series of FanFest interviews with select media members.
“He will add leadership. He will add a veteran presence in the lineup. You look at his ability to play defense, I watched him make some throws and make some catches that make you shake your head. This guy’s phenomenal.”
And Porter has seen plenty of Ankiel, who spent his last two seasons with the Nationals in Washington, where Porter served as the third base coach. Porter also remembers sharing a facility with Ankiel when Porter was with the Marlins and Ankiel was with the Cardinals.
Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow has a history with Ankiel too. Luhnow, now in his second season with the Astros, formerly worked for the Cardinals. In fact, Luhnow was in charge of the Cardinals’ farm system when the club decided to call Ankiel up to the majors as a position player in 2007 and said he has followed Ankiel’s career “intimately.”
Luhnow remembers when Ankiel was “crushing the ball” with Memphis in 2007 before being called up. In 2007, with Triple-A Memphis, Ankiel hit 32 homers and drove in 89 runs in 102 games before finishing the season with the Cards.
“I’m a big Rick Ankiel fan,” Luhnow said. “I think he’s one of the more gifted athletes I’ve ever come across in my entire life. He still has a lot of desire.”
Ankiel’s next season (2008) was arguably his best as a major league baseball player. He hit .264 with 25 home runs and 71 RBIs.
He spent his last two seasons with the Washington Nationals, where he hit .228 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 2012 and batted .239 with nine homers and 37 RBIs in 2011.
But Ankiel isn’t just your average 33-year-old outfielder trying to make a roster. Most know his story already. Ankiel didn’t just start his career as a pitcher, he was expected to be a great Major League pitcher when the Cardinals selected him in the second round of the 1997 draft.
And Ankiel began his professional career with even more promise. In 2000, his first full season in the Majors, the then-21-year-old went 11-7 and went 4-0, with a 1.97 earned run average, over the last month of the season. He even started the first game of the National League Division series against the Braves.
That’s when the wheels fell off.
Ankiel appeared in three games in the 2000 playoffs. In four combined innings, he gave up seven runs, walked 11 and threw nine wild pitches. Nine. Just like that, he couldn’t find a plate. That was the beginning to the end of Ankiel’s pitching career.
Ankiel pitched in just 11 more professional baseball games, which would have marked the end of the career for most people. But Ankiel isn’t most people. Instead, he designed a comeback, this time as a position player. Luhnow said Ankiel was always a good hitter and remembers him always taking extra swings even while he was a pitcher.
It’s not an easy transition, from pitcher to position player. But Ankiel made it and he became pretty darn successful too.
“I think it completely speaks to the man and I know Rick the man and that definitely takes a humbling thought process,” Porter said. “To have many people his whole life telling him how great of a pitcher he was, which he was a great pitcher, let’s not understate that, for him to make that adjustment and give up something that you’re absolutely better at than the majority of people and then take on the task of being a hitter and really doing something that you’re probably going to experience less of a success rate that you did as a pitcher. It really speaks to the man and I really couldn’t be more proud of him and more happy for him.”
And that humility is certainly an important trait for a baseball player. It would behoove the younger players on the team to pick it up too. Luhnow talked about how important it is for every player to fight for a spot on the team. He said that was even the approach of Albert Pujols when the two were in St. Louis.
That’s the same approach, according to Luhnow, that Ankiel is taking as he prepares to go to Spring Training as a non-roster player, even with a ton of experience.
“He’s there to make the team and there’s no feeling of entitlement coming from him at all,” Luhnow said. “I think that’s important that everybody sees that. Because I want every player to come to spring training with the attitude that ‘I’ve got to make the team this year’ regardless of how much money you’re making or whether you’re supposed to be in the lineup.”