KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Rick Ankiel, the former Cardinals phenom pitcher turned outfielder, is on the move to Kansas City after agreeing on a one-year deal with the Royals, who could make him their new center fielder.
The deal will need the weekend to be made final, formalities such as a physical most likely delaying any announcement until Monday. The agreement gives Ankiel a $3.25 million guarantee for 2010 that includes a $500,000 buyout on a $6 million mutual option for 2011. The Royals' opening-day payroll now projects just below $70 million, which is believed to be the team's upper limit.
Ankiel's addition also dramatically changes the look of this season's team, particularly in center field. With 2009 opening-day starter Coco Crisp gone this offseason, the Royals brought in Brian Anderson for a one-year, $700,000 contract to challenge incumbent Mitch Maier. They then added Scott Podsednik for a one-year deal worth $1.75 million, and he became the possible favorite. Now Ankiel figures to be the best of the bunch.
Ankiel, who played parts of seven seasons for the Cardinals, also has experience in left field. But the most likely regular outfield figures to be Podsednik in left, Ankiel in center and David DeJesus — last year's left fielder — in right. Jose Guillen — last year's right fielder — would move to designated hitter. Anderson has options remaining; Maier does not.
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Ankiel hit .264 with 25 homers in 2008 before falling to .231 and 11 homers in 372 at-bats last season, a summer broken up by a nasty collision with an outfield wall while playing defense. His on-base percentage fell from .337 in 2008 to .285, and he struck out 99 times in 372 at-bats, walking just 26 times.
Although he's 30 years old, Ankiel enters just his third season as a full-time hitter — he originally came up as a starting pitcher — and several baseball sources believe his best season may still be coming if he stays healthy and closes a hole in his swing. He also has one of the best outfield arms in baseball, a leftover from his days throwing mid-90s fastballs.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said this week that Ankiel was no longer in the team's plans as a regular outfielder. Ankiel and his agent, Scott Boras, saw little interest after initially seeking a deal matching or exceeding the three years and $15 million signed by Marlon Byrd with the Cubs.
La Russa told the Post-Dispatch he would still love to have Ankiel on the Cardinals but he would have been fighting for playing time with Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick.
"He runs well, he's got a cannon for an arm, he has a real good stroke," La Russa said. "The ball just jumps off his bat. What is it that he can't do — if he can stay healthy and keeps improving?"
In the immediate future, the Royals get better defensively and improve their depth and athletic ability — all stated priorities from general manager Dayton Moore.
Ankiel is a bit of a cult legend in baseball after being drafted and coming up as a pitcher, a hard fastball and big curveball helping him to the big leagues a month after his 20th birthday in 1999.
He was 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA in 2000 but melted down in the playoffs that year — he threw five wild pitches with two hits, four walks and four runs during the third inning of his first start. He was never again an effective pitcher, but worked his way back to the majors as a center fielder.
In 2007, Ankiel confirmed a New York Daily News report that he took HGH but said it was under a doctor's supervision. Major League Baseball investigated, and did not issue punishment.