Commentary

30 Questions: Can Rick Ankiel live up to his lofty projection?

Updated: March 4, 2008, 11:21 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Can Rick Ankiel live up to his lofty projection?

Rick Ankiel: The hitter

Rick Ankiel made the transition from starting pitcher to outfielder in 2005 and has shown power potential paired with poor plate discipline. He missed all of 2006 due to a ruptured knee tendon.

Year
Level
AB
2B
HR
K
BB
BA
2005
A
185
10
11
37
27
.270
2005
AA
136
7
10
29
10
.243
2007
AAA
387
15
32
89
25
.269
2007
NL
172
8
11
41
13
.285
It was the best of times …

In 23 games from Aug. 9-Sept. 6, Rick Ankiel batted .358 with nine home runs, 29 RBIs, 22 runs scored and a 1.174 OPS.

It was the worst of times …

In 24 games from Sept. 7-30, Ankiel batted .220 with two home runs, 10 RBIs, nine runs scored and a .580 OPS.

Certainly seems like a tale of two seasons for Mr. Ankiel, does it not?

Those might be small sample sizes, but two things to consider: One, Sept. 7 wasn't exactly an arbitrary date selected out of Ankiel's brief big league season. That was the day when a New York Daily News report alleged that the pitcher-turned-slugger received a 12-month supply of human growth hormone from a Florida pharmacy. Two, 23 games, while a small sample size, is generally about enough for opposing pitchers to get a true read on a hitter's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

So not only did Ankiel seem to wilt under the pressure of media scrutiny that typically follows HGH allegations, he simultaneously struggled to adapt to breaking pitches, just as scouts feared. The former might become less of a problem in his first full season as a big league outfielder, but the latter isn't a trait easily fixed overnight, in a week or even in a month. Ask Billy Beane. He'll tell you that you can't teach plate discipline.

In other words, Ankiel is destined to be a batting average risk, a strikeout-prone slugger, a Rob Deer/Pete Incaviglia/Gorman Thomas type. He brings comparable power to those 1980s all-or-nothing sluggers, but like them, he'll be lucky to dodge lengthy, painful cold spells or keep his batting average over .260 for the full season.

Count me as one of those who looks at Ankiel's projected .275 batting average for 2008 and says: Not a chance!

Oh, Ankiel might be good for the 33 homers and 100 RBIs we have him down for. In fact, his safest, most predictable rotisserie category is home runs. He has averaged one homer per 14.3 at-bats as a professional -- that's 42 per 600 at-bats -- so there's bona fide power upside in Ankiel's bat. There are also enough pitchers in the league mediocre enough to toss him at least 33 mistake pitches, pitches he can deposit well beyond the outfield fence. Plus, logically speaking, if the Cardinals choose to slot Ankiel in as a No. 4/5 hitter, as opposed to No. 2, the RBI chances could be plentiful enough to get him to 100. (Not that I'm counting on it; it does seem right now like Ankiel will bat second.)

But returning to the all-important batting average category, Ankiel brings nothing but risk to the table. Put his Triple-A and big league numbers together and he struck out 131 times in 2007. Twenty big league hitters whiffed at least that many times last season, and of those, seven batted as high as .275; the group as a whole batted .264.

By the way, of those seven who batted at least .275, only two walked fewer than once per 10 plate appearances. Curtis Granderson was the worst walker; he drew one free pass per 13. Ankiel, by comparison, drew one per 16.13 PAs between the majors and minors, so in addition to being K-prone, he's not particularly patient, either.

Tally up all of Ankiel's professional plate appearances, 286 at the big league level, 934 in the minors, and he's a .264 hitter. Limit those to only those accrued in Double-A or above, and that number drops to .260. Even in his career year in 2007 -- or at least I'm calling it a career year -- he batted .273 between the majors and minors, hardly an elite number.

And that's not even accounting for the fact that big league pitchers boast far better breaking stuff than their minor league brethren. Ankiel is certain to be challenged in that respect in 2008, putting his chances at batting higher than .250 no better than his hitting beneath that. Perhaps even that is a generous statement. Richie Sexson's 2007 helps demonstrate the worst-case scenario for the all-or-nothing slugger, and he batted .205.

Do you think the Cardinals, even strapped for outfielders as they are, would tolerate a .205 batting average from Ankiel for long? It's not like they're paying him $14 million per season, as the Mariners are Sexson. Money, as we know, often breeds patience.

Sum it all up and you're talking your prototypical high-risk, high-reward power hitter, a guy as likely to kill your team as he is to help it.

And for me, I expect the risk to more than outweigh the reward.

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.