Rick Ankiel signs with the Royals


Last night I shut my trusty laptop down at about 11:00 pm.  I proceeded to watch a little TV and was in bed shortly after midnight.  When I woke up and checked my email on my Blackberry, I saw that one of my friends had sent me an email titled simply ANKIEL.  My heart sank as I knew just from that one-word subject that the Royals just signed 30-year old OF-Rick Ankiel.  Our initial reactions are often wrong, and this case was no different.

If I had stayed online just a little longer last night, I would have been privy to the news earlier as Hot Stove.com* had a release up about the signing at 11:35 pm CST.    It’s probably a good thing I didn’t get the news until this morning or I may have been up until 4 am writing about it.  If I was single or if my wife and I didn’t have kids, that wouldn’t be a problem.  Reality, with a 5 year old and a 2 year old, is that a 4 am bedtime doesn’t work so well.  Especially when “sleeping in” at my house means getting past 6:30 before one of our boys decides to wake us up.

*They weren’t the first to publish something about the move, but they have quickly become one of my favorite sites so I’m playing favorites with my link to them.

Anyway before I stray too much further from my original purpose let’s get back to the Ankiel signing.  To help set the stage for my thoughts and reaction I am dropping quotes from two previous posts here on KoK that relate to this topic.

The first is what I wrote on January 9th, when reacting to the signing of Scott Podsednik.  In that article I also recapped my thoughts on Dayton’s previous major league moves:

"The only way Anderson’s signing could possibly make less sense is if the team went out and signed an aging outfielder to play CF who really isn’t all that good, you know, playing CF.   30-year old Rick Ankiel and 33-year old Scott Podsednik were two such players that the Royals were reportedly looking at.   I wouldn’t have been thrilled to have either one but Ankiel, at least, would have brought a power presence to the lineup. While his actual fielding is suspect, -9.4 UZR/150 in almost 1,400 innings in CF, he has a strong accurate arm and is still learning to play the OF after his implosion as a pitcher.   Ankiel was the superior choice between the two."

The following day I wrote this when an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Ankiel was no longer the Pirates’ top target among position players.

"There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for Ankiel’s services so Dayton may have missed the mark by a wider margin that we all thought.   It bears repeating that while I don’t think signing any of the three players would have been a wise move by the team, I would have embraced the signing of Ankiel far more readily than Podsednik."

Clearly my stance all along has been that Rick Ankiel was a better option for the Royals than Scott Podsednik, though I felt there were far better options on the market than either player.  Now we have both, and my assessment of Rick Ankiel’s value to this team has shifted, but before we get to that let me run down his progression as a player.

The St. Louis Cardinals moved Ankiel to the OF in 2005 and he hit 0.259/.339/.514 in 321 AB split between Low-A and Double-A.  He missed the 2006 season and opened the 2007 season in Triple-A with the Memphis Redbirds.  He hit 0.267/.314/.568 with 32 HR in 389 AB.  That was enough to earn him a promotion to the majors and on August 9th, Ankiel was Cardinals starter in RF.  He went 1-4 with a home run and 3 RBI in his first game and finished the year with 11 HR and a slash line of 0.285/.328/.535 in 172 at bats.  Despite having played OF in parts of two seasons in the minors he turned in a very impressive OPS+ of 120.  Between the minors and majors he hit 43 home runs on the year.

Rick Ankiel was back at it in 2008 and went on to hit 0.264/.337/.506 with 25 HR, 42 BB, and 100 SO in 413 AB.  For the second straight season he was a well above average offensive player finishing with an OPS+ of 119.

2009 was a year of struggles and challenges for the talented OF.  In 372 AB he hit just 0.231/.285/.387 with 26 BB and 99 SO.  The power disappeared and he hit only 11 HR while his OPS+ tumbled to an unsightly 76.

Defensively, Ankiel brings a strong set of skills to the table and is capable of holding down all 3 spots in the OF.  His career UZR/150 is an unimpressive -4.0, but most of that is built upon his work in CF where he is below average.  Here is the breakdown:

LF:  300.1 innings, 7.5 UZR/150
CF:  1,362.0 innings, -9.4 UZR/150
RF:  383.1 innings, 6.1 UZR/150

His defensive value is further augmented by his extremely accurate and extremely strong arm.  Add in the fact that he has only been playing OF for four seasons, between the minors and majors, and he should continue to improve.  I’m not alone in my assessment along those lines.  Defensive metric guru, John Dewan, had this to say about Ankiel in The Fielding Bible Volume II:

"He has trouble judging flyballs, specifically ones directly at him or over his head, but his great speed covers for some of his mistakes.  His best asset is his accurate arm, a carryover from his pitching days and one of the strongest in the league."

He finishes his thoughts on Ankiel by saying:

"With more experience his skills will catch up to his immense raw talent."

Standing on its own merits, the signing of Rick Ankiel to a 1-year $3.25 million contract with a $6 million mutual option was a good move.  In a vacuum I am completely on board with this deal, and would be an even bigger fan if the mutual option was a straight team option.  The contract is very reasonable and despite the fact that Ankiel is 30 years old, the potential upside is off the charts.  After two well above average seasons at the plate in 2007 and 2008, we can safely predict a bounce-back from his 2009 performance.  The change in scenery, and leaving St. Louis, should allow him to put the implosion of his pitching career completely in the past.  In Kansas City he will also be playing with far less pressure and with far fewer expectations which could help him blossom as a player.

Stepping out of the vacuum we also have to assess the deal in relation to the rest of the team.  Defensively Ankiel should be the Royals everyday RF, and that is a good thing.  He is a huge upgrade compared to everyone that strolled out there in 2009.  His presence should prevent us from having to watch Jose Guillen try to play defense, but more on him later.  With David DeJesus in LF and Ankiel in RF the Royals have two well above average defenders in the OF mix.  CF would appear to be the weakness but that can be addressed by moving the pieces around.

Consider the UZR/150s of the Royals three primary outfielders as it stands today:

*Podsednik has only player 124.0 innings in RF compared to over 3,000 innings in both LF and CF so his RF UZR/150 isn’t statistically relevant.

If the Royals move David DeJesus back to CF*, put Scott Podsednik in LF, and Rick Ankiel in RF, the Kansas City Royals suddenly have an above average defensive outfield with excellent speed and range at all three positions.

*I know I have lobbied against this before, but the Ankiel signing changes things drastically for me.

DJ’s CF UZR/150 has fallen off in recent years, but I believe he can easily return to form with Ankiel and Podsednik flanking him.  After all, it’s hard to focus on your defense when you have defensive butchers like Emil Brown playing alongside you.  Ankiel’s arm in RF gives the team a legitimate defensive weapon to hold down the opposing team’s base running.  If he is allowed to play RF every day instead of bouncing around the OF, his defensive development should accelerate.  With Brian Anderson and Mitch Maier as the reserves, things suddenly don’t look too shabby and our pitching staff can pitch a little more freely knowing that more fly balls are going to become outs in 2010 compared to what happened in 2009.

Offensively I think the upgrade speaks for itself and the potential benefits of adding his bat to the lineup are obvious, but one point merits consideration.  Unlike the failed Jacobs experiment, Ankiel doesn’t have a ridiculous split against LHP and RHP that Trey can mismanage.

Ankiel vs. RHP  0.253/.329/.462
Ankiel vs. LHP  0.245/.285/.426

Before I hit a couple of possible negatives, there are a few more positives, one of which I referenced above.  Ankiel’s signing all but eliminates Jose Guillen as an OF option.  It also should significantly reduce the playing time of Willie Bloomquist which puts him into the super-sub role he is far better suited for.  Guillen now figures to get at bats only as a DH, and may be on his way out the door.  For the first time since the 2009 season ended, I believe* there is actually a chance that the Royals might cut ties with Jose.  If the Diamondbacks are willing to pay Eric Byrnes $11 million to not play for them, there is no reason why the Royals should feel obligated to keep Jose Guillen on the roster just because they owe him $12 million.  For the record, they shouldn’t feel obligated regardless of what the Diamondbacks did, but the parallel is worth noting.

*I have hoped that he was be released but now I think there is a chance the organization might do it.  It’s still not likely because I don’t see the team eating $12 million, but a small chance is better than no chance.

If Jose Guillen stays on the roster and takes up a majority of the DH at bats, there are a couple of negative byproducts that come out of the Ankiel signing.  The most obvious one is that Alberto Callaspo’s playing time could become more limited.  I don’t see the Royals giving Bert much playing time at 3B or 2B, since both Gordon and Getz need to play every day.  Because of that, Callaspo’s one true chance at regular at bats is at DH.  This negative was really in play regardless of Ankiel or anyone else signing with the team.  It has more to do with Guillen than anything else.

The Ankiel signing shuts the door on the chances of Kila Ka’aihue to make the team.  Kila was in the same DH playing time crunch as Alberto, but Callaspo has a spot on the 25-man roster locked up unless he is traded.  Ka’aihue was going to have to fight his way on to the roster and with Ankiel signed there is one less spot available for that to happen.

The Ankiel contract also lessens the chances that we will see either Jordan Parraz or David Lough on the big league roster in 2010 so we will probably have to wait another year to see if either of those guys can become viable major league players.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing since Parraz needs to prove he can stay healthy and Lough could use a year of Triple-A development.  As the probable replacement for David DeJesus, Lough will have plenty of time in Kansas City to prove himself.  As for Josh Fields, he should go ahead and move his stuff to Omaha today.

With Ankiel in the fold, I think DeJesus becomes more valuable to the Royals and is less likely to be dealt.  They now have some semblances of an actual major league outfield.  I think it is extremely unlikely that Dayton would work to assemble that only to turn around and trade off DJ.  He’s still very affordable and has a reasonable $6 million club option for 2011.  Alberto Callaspo could get dealt, but I think he stays on the team at least for the first half of the season.  He is clearly Dayton’s insurance policy for both Gordon at 3B and Getz at 2B, and rightfully so.  If either player struggles in the first half of the season Bert can pick up some of those at bats.

Honestly, when I woke up and read my friend’s email, I wasn’t a fan of this signing since Dayton already added Scott Podsednik.  After putting emotion and my initial reaction aside, I took a look at the stats and what Ankiel’s presence on the roster does for the team.  In the end I think this was an excellent signing by Dayton Moore which legitimately improves the offense and defense of the 2010 Kansas City Royals.  It could be made even better if the organization starts looking at the defensive statistics and realigns the outfield as I suggest, but even if that doesn’t happen, I’m completely on board with this one.  The only true downside in this deal for me is that the contract has a mutual option instead of a club option for 2011.  If Ankiel breaks out with the Royals in 2010 he might be a one and done and that would be a shame.

It doesn’t happen often when it comes to moves that directly impact the major league roster, but this time I can tip my cap to Dayton Moore and mean it.

(Wally Fish is the lead blogger for Kings of Kauffman and FanSided’s MLB Director.  Subscribe to his RSS feed and add him on Twitter to follow him daily.)