Monday, February 28, 2000

Cardinals in no hurry with Ankiel


Solid rotation takes pressure off rookie phenom

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        JUPITER, Fla. — Rick Ankiel will not be rushed. He will be cultivated as carefully as a competition rose. He will be delicately nurtured and gently nudged until he achieves full bloom.

        Young pitchers of extraordinary promise are more precious than fine porcelain and twice as brittle. If the St. Louis Cardinals are tending their 20-year-old left-hander a little timidly this spring, it is because the alternative is unthinkable.

        The last rookie pitcher to arrive with as much advance billing as Ankiel was Kerry Wood. Case closed.

        St. Louis' offseason deal-making suggested a sense of urgency — a mandate to win while Mark McGwire is still at the peak of his power — but another objective was to protect The Phenom from potential abuse. In acquiring Andy Benes, Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile during the winter, Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty added $12 million to his payroll, but subtracted the temptation to ask more than Ankiel was prepared to provide.

        “At the end of last season, he went from our No.2 or 3 starter to competing for a fifth spot,” Jocketty said. “If he had held the No.2 or 3 position, we would have been pitching him more than we should.”

Intimidating arm
        Ankiel pitched 170 innings last season between Double-A Arkansas, Triple-A Memphis and a 42-day stint with St. Louis, and most of the time he was overwhelming. He struck out three batters for every hit he allowed in the Texas League, winning all six of his decisions and compiling an earned-run average of 0.91. Baseball America named him the Minor League Player of the Year, the first pitcher so honored in more than a decade.

        “He's the real deal,” Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. “His stuff is extra and his makeup is extra.”

        His arm is uncanny. Manning first base during fielding practice Sunday morning at the Cardinals complex, Ankiel threw a knuckleball that sailed over the plate and into the backstop — a casual toss with a cumbersome grip that carried more than 100 feet. Ankiel throws the knuckler only for amusement, however. His forte is a riding fastball that regularly registers in the mid-90s and a curveball sharp enough to draw blood.

        “He's got No.1 starter stuff,” said Cardinals outfielder Eric Davis, the erstwhile Red. “When you have a pitcher like that here as a fifth starter, that tells you about the other four guys.”

        Ken Griffey Jr. is the most spectacular addition to the National League's Central Division, but the Cardinals appear to be the most improved club. No other team has acquired three accomplished starting pitchers. No other team has Ankiel.

Still learning
        In many ways, Ankiel is still a teen-ager, wearing his hair bleached and repeatedly warbling the same tired lyric: “The world is a vampire.” In other ways, he has been forced to grow up fast. His father, Richard, will be sentenced next month on federal charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine and marijuana with the intent to distribute.

        “That's personal,” Ankiel said. “Everyone has problems in life. You deal with it. When you come here, it's time to work.”

        Another kid with Ankiel's credentials might decide he already had all the answers. The Cardinals are encouraged that their phenom is still open to suggestion and instruction. When a ball is overthrown dur ing drills, Ankiel is invariably the first one to go after it. When the Cardinals preach patience and moderation, Ankiel instinctively defers to the voices of experience.

        “I think the first day I went a little too fast, too hard,” he said. “But I'm learning what you need to do. Something that's going to be great is being around the older guys and learning to set up hitters.”

        For many young pitchers, the first big test comes when they can no longer get by on raw talent and must fall back on their training. The difference between a pitcher's potential and his performance is how well he applies his lessons to real-life situations.

        “Guys who get here quickly get here on their stuff,” LaRussa said. “They haven't learned how to pitch.”

        Ankiel is learning. He will be allowed to progress at his own pace.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE