CARLSBAD, Calif. • The third act of Rick Ankiel’s career with the Cardinals has been delayed a few months as the lefty recovers from elbow surgery that has slowed his comeback attempt.
On the verge of returning to the Cardinals and possibly joining spring training as a lefty reliever, Ankiel felt some soreness in his elbow that required a repair that halted his throwing. The Cardinals believe he will be ready to pitch by midseason, and they intend to be there with a minor-league contract offer when he’s available, according to multiple sources.
“Expectations are he still wants to give it a try,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations.”
Ankiel, 39, has not thrown a pitch in professional competition since 2004, and during spring training 2005 with the Cardinals he was so besieged by control issues and uncertainty that he retired as a pitcher. The former top prospect reinvented himself as a slugging outfielder and emerged several years later as the Cardinals’ everyday center fielder. He has resisted overtures to pitch again, including one made a couple of years ago by a Cardinals coach, until this past fall, when he appeared on a team with other former big-leaguers.
He faced one hitter, struck him out, and touched 89 mph with his fastball.
He had a familiar snap to his curve.
Ankiel, an employee of Fox Sports Midwest, the Cardinals’ rights holders, explained that he was curious about returning to competition as a pitcher, in part, so his children could see him play. He and Mozeliak met earlier this fall about an agreement, and the Cardinals intend to reach one with him when he’s healthy. Ankiel has been rehabbing and recovering at the Cardinals’ complex in Jupiter, Fla., and will continue to do so. Mozeliak referred to him as “part of the Cardinals’ family.”
The surgery Ankiel had is similar to the one Seth Maness had to accelerate his recovery from an injury that had required Tommy John surgery in the past. The surgery reattaches the ligament to the bone instead of doing a complete reconstruction of the joint when there’s a rupture in the middle of the ligament. St. Louis-based surgeon Dr. George Paletta has researched and performed “primary repair,” and it has reduced the amount of recovery time from a year to far less. That will allow Ankiel to have a feel for his comeback attempt by May.
No team in the majors was less likely to shift against a lefthanded batter this past season than the Cardinals, and that is something the front office believes will change in 2019 because new manager Mike Shildt has embraced an approach the Cardinals were slow to adopt at the major-league level. An increased use and proficiency in shifts is seen by the team as one way to improve a defense that led the majors in errors.
“I think it also has to do with a manager philosophy, too,” Mozeliak said. “We had a shift in our manager, and I would anticipate that you will see the Cardinals shift more in the future. It also does come into play with your personnel. Do you have a comfortable level of putting your third baseman behind second? We’re going to be more open-minded.”
According to shifting statistics maintained by MLB.com, the Cardinals shifted 272 times, the second-fewest in the majors and the fewest in the National League. Houston, annually the most aggressive team when it comes to defensive shifts, had 2,192. The Cubs ranked 28th in the majors, at 316.
The idea of clustering infielders on the right side of the diamond against lefthanded sluggers has been around at least since Cleveland realized Ted Williams was a pull hitter. Baseball has seen a pandemic of shift uses, however, in recent years, and the Cardinals have routinely shifted the least. The Cardinals were one of the few teams — and the only team in the National League Central — that did not regularly shift on Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, and the Cardinals shifted on a league-low 6.8 percent of plate appearances by lefthanded batters.
Mozeliak agreed that the stats were fair and that internal or propriety stats offer a similar view. One reason behind that is the subtle moves that don’t qualify as shifts that coach Jose Oquendo had his infielders make, especially shortstop, and another has been the range shown by second baseman Kolten Wong.
Several Cardinals pitchers have also expressed a distaste for shifts behind them, and former manager Mike Matheny responded to those wishes.
At the same time, the Cardinals were expanding the use of shifts in the minors to make players more comfortable with them. That includes pitchers.
“It’s more the mindset of past employees and how they were thinking about trying to be aggressive,” Mozeliak said. “We’re not opposed to it.”
Steve Turco, a longtime scout, coach and manager for the Cardinals, will be honored in December with Minor League Baseball’s Mike Coolbaugh Award. Turco, whose Gulf Coast League team won the league championship in 2017, has been selected for the award because of his “outstanding work ethic, knowledge of the game, and skill in mentoring young players on the field.” … Former Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday intends to play in 2019. He finished this past season with Colorado after joining the Rockies’ organization late in the season. Houston had approached him in the past about a possible role at DH, and he has mentioned the appeal of being with an organization he knows well, like the Rockies.