Where would Rick Ankiel fit?

Frank Coonelly’s chat on Pirates.com, 2 December 2009: As has been noted in several newspaper reports, Rick Ankiel is a free agent who we have some interest in. Rick certainly had an off-year at the plate for the Cardinals in 2009, but we believe that the Pirates could provide Rick with an opportunity to re-establish himself. We have let Rick’s representative know of our interest.

Besides a slew of recovering/undervalued pitchers, the one name that keeps coming up in relation to the Pirates during this young offseason is Rick Ankiel. As far as I can tell, he’s the only position player that the Pirates really have confirmed interest in. He’s certainly the only one to be mentioned in more than passing.

In a vacuum, I like Ankiel. Even though he’s an old 30 (his season age in 2010 will be 30, but his 31st birthday is in July), he’s only been a position player since 2005 and he’s made incredible strides since then before taking a step back in 2009. That makes him somewhat of an unknown quantity, but he did manage to slug over .500 with 30+ homers in the course of about one season combined between 2007 and 2008 with the Cardinals. Throw in his phenomenal arm, good glove, poor 2009 season, and tendency to get injured and even with Scott Boras pulling the strings there’s a chance we’ve found a guy that will be a real bargain for someone.

The problem is that the Pirates do not exist in a vacuum. Centerfield is locked down for both the immediate and forseeable future. Lastings Milledge didn’t blow anyone away last year, but he did enough to earn an extended look and the Pirates can’t just ignore 25 year olds with his skillset and the Pirates would be foolish not to play him at one of the two corners. At the other corner, Jose Tabata is probably a full year of Triple-A away, but the Pirates can’t shelve Garrett Jones after his amazing rookie year. That means he’d have to play first base, which means that Jeff Clement, who’s 26 now with a nice pedigree as a minor league hitter, would be nosed out.

I’m not here trying to argue that any or all of these guys are or will be better players than Ankiel. If Ankiel gets healthy, there’s more than a good chance that he’ll be a better hitter than Milledge and Clement in 2010 and it’s entirely possible that that won’t change. But we also don’t know that and given Milledge and Clement’s ages (not too young, but young enough), skillsets, and the years the Pirates control them, the team needs to find out what they have in both of them. The upgrade Ankiel would provide might be noticeable, but it wouldn’t be dramatic and it certainly wouldn’t be enough to push the Pirates as assembled over the top.

So why the interest in Ankiel? As a one-year placeholder for Tabata, even at the cost of playing time for Clement? With Boras as his agent, it’ll be a cold day in hell before Ankiel signs a one-year deal even in this depressed market and given his dealings with Boras in the past, Neal Huntington must already know that. Any multi-year commitment to Ankiel is dangerous for a team in the Pirates’ position. On one hand it might give the team leverage to trade him in July if he’s hitting well, but one the other it might saddle the team with an unncessary contract in 2011 if he’s injured and underperforming again. Even with the Pirates’ currently low payroll, that’s not a risk most small-market clubs need to be taking. It’s possible the Pirates are thinking about him in this fashion, but that seems unlike mostly everything else they’ve done to this point.

There are really only two reasons I can see for the interest in Ankiel. The first is that Neal Huntington is about to blow our minds with his offseason and that he’ll sign Duchscherer and Putz, flip Doumit, Duke, and Capps to new teams for unfathomably good returns including a starting shorstop, and sign Ankiel, and magically turn the Pirates into 2010 contenders. I like Neal Huntington a lot, but that feels like a big gamble. I mean, really big. You won’t believe just how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s peanuts to this gamble. And now I’m exagerrating for the purpose of quoting Douglas Adams. Let’s move along.

The other option is just that the Pirates legitimately like Ankiel as a long-term option. I guess that’s possible, but given his injury history it feels a little unlikely. It’s just that there’s no real logical way to play Ankiel without taking at-bats away from someone that, from where we stand today, should have them in 2010. Ankiel is an interesting player and I understand his appeal, but I just don’t see this team as being at a point in this rebuilding process where we can safely say, “This guy might not have what we need, let’s go outside the organization and get someone who does.” We might be there in a year, but I just don’t think we’re there yet.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.