In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Ankiel with their second round selection (20th overall). The left-handed pitcher Ankiel would be coming from Port St. Lucie High School, in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Ankiel went 11-1 with a 0.47 ERA during his senior season, adding 162 strikeouts in 74 innings pitched. He was named USA Today's High School Player of the Year.
The Cardinals gave Ankiel a $2.5 million signing bonus, the fifth highest bonus by an amateur at that time. He proved his worth during the beginning of his minor-league career, posting ERAs of 2.63 and 2.35 in 1998 and 1999, respectively. His fantastic pitching led him to a fast MLB debut, when the then 19-year-old posted a 3.27 ERA in 33 innings with the Cardinals.
Ankiel began the 2000 season in the Major Leagues, where he went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA in 175 innings pitched, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. Ankiel was not a bad hitter and hit .250 (17-for-68) with 2 home runs and 9 RBI in 73 plate appearances with the Cardinals.
In 2001, Ankiel's career took a turn for the worst. He walked 9.4 batters per nine innings, and walked 25 in his 24 innings pitched. He also hit three batters by pitches and threw five wild pitches. This resulted in him heading back to Triple-A. Ankiel had even more trouble, walking seventeen hitters in only 4 1/3 innings pitched. He had a horrific 20.77 ERA.
This caused Ankiel to be sent back to Single-A, where he became a part-time designated hitter. Ankiel had power, and homered 10 times in his minimal 118 plate appearances. After he was forced to sit out the 2002 season due to an elbow strain, Ankiel returned to the minors in 2003. He then found out that he would need Tommy John Surgery to repair the UCL ligament in his elbow. His pitching had not improved, and it seemed likely that Ankiel was going to turn out to be a bust.
Another failed attempt at pitching in the Major Leagues in 2004 led Rick Ankiel to announcing that he would switch to becoming an outfielder for the 2005 season. In a Spring Training appearance, Ankiel threw only three strikes out of 20 pitches. He hit a combined triple-slash line of .259/.339/.514 with 21 home runs and 75 RBI in 369 plate appearances. He added 5 outfield assists in only 48 games in the field.
The Cardinals invited Ankiel to their Major League Spring Training in 2006 as an outfielder with a slim chance to make the roster; he impressed many with his power stroke and his fielding. However, he injured his left knee, and was forced to have season-ending surgery.
In 2007, Ankiel was once again invited to Cardinals Spring Training, but was sent to Triple-A Memphis in order to continue his conversion. Ankiel had a fantastic season, hitting 32 homers in just 102 games (423 plate appearances). He was called up to the Major Leagues on August 9, 2007, and hit a three-run home run to propel the Cardinals to a 5-0 win. Ankiel would homer twice two days later against the Dodgers, and homered four times in his first 10 games.
Ankiel was in the Major Leagues to stay. He received 2,019 plate appearances as an outfielder, and finally seemed to find his craft. He homered 74 times, and hit a triple-slash line of .242/.304/.427 during those seven seasons. Ankiel was able to become a serviceable Major League player, and became the second player (Babe Ruth) in MLB history with at least 50 home runs and 10 wins. That is very good company.
And on the day when Ankiel retires, we remember the roller coaster of a career he had. He was a good prospect that just lost what he had, but was able to rebound and make the Major Leagues. That is a great story (Hollywood worthy), and should be told for a long time. I wish Rick Ankiel the best in retirement, as we see one of baseball's greatest stories come to an end.