Ankiel signs with Mets, starts in center field
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The New York Mets signed Rick Ankiel and started him in center field on Monday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that converted him from wild pitcher to outfielder.
The 33-year-old Ankiel thought it a bit comforting that he returned to the majors in St. Louis, where he arrived as a hard-throwing lefty starter in 1999 but couldn’t control his pitches. He’s been an outfielder since 2005 and hit a career-best 25 homers with 71 RBIs for the Cardinals in 2008.
“Obviously, I’ve played here in Busch Stadium quite a bit, and it’s just kind of ironic the first game back is here in St. Louis,” Ankiel said. “But it’ll be fun and I’m excited to get out there.”
Ankiel, recently cut loose by the last-place Houston Astros, received a smattering of cheers each at-bat.
In other news, the Mets said three days’ rest was prescribed for rehabbing reliever Frank Francisco, who had been close to returning to the team before getting scratched from a bullpen session Saturday. Francisco was diagnosed with a mild strain of the flexor pronator in his surgically repaired right elbow.
“I guess you could say it’s a mild setback,” assistant general manager John Ricco said.
Ankiel said he’d been in contact with the Mets the last two days while at home in Fort Pierce, Fla., and acknowledged he hadn’t been sure he’d get another shot. He hit .194 with five homers and 11 RBIs for Houston, which had signed him to a $750,000, one-year deal. He struck out 35 times in 65 at-bats with the Astros.
“You don’t know, you really don’t,” Ankiel said. “I figured I would, and I was hoping I would and it did.”
Ankiel was designated for assignment by Houston last week and cleared waivers Sunday.
“I thought it was quick but it is what it is,” Ankiel said. “I wasn’t happy about the inconsistency, but my power was there. But it was early and I hope I get that turned around.”
The Mets have multiple holes in an unproven outfield, and they hope Ankiel’s solid defense and left-handed pop will provide an upgrade. The move was somewhat surprising, though, given that New York struck out 28 times in the previous two games and manager Terry Collins had expressed concern about the lack of contact.
The Mets lost the last three games of a 4-6 homestand in which they went 7 for 40 with runners in scoring position.
Ankiel was the choice as an above-average defender with a veteran presence when “you’re looking at what’s available,” Ricco said.
“Obviously, you’d like to hit on everything,” Ricco said. “I think he’s going to work with our guys and we have a lot of confidence ... he can cut strikeouts and still provide power.”
Collins thought a fresh start on a new team might click for Ankiel, as it has for catcher John Buck. The manager plans on platooning Ankiel with rookie Juan Lagares in center, and talking to Ankiel about his approach at the plate while pointing out the Mets already have some power in the lineup.
“Maybe a change of scenery right now is good for him and will get him going,” Collins said. “Certainly his bat can be dangerous at times, so we’re anxious to get him in the lineup. We’re hoping he helps us out.”
New York outfielder Andrew Brown was optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas and right-hander Jenrry Mejia was transferred to the 60-day disabled list from the 15-day DL to make room on the 40-man roster.
Ankiel arrived at Busch Stadium about 3½ hours before the game and joked about meeting reporters before speaking with Collins.
“Certainly, coming here we don’t have to worry about him not knowing the field, that’s for sure, “Collins said. “Obviously, he’s a great defender, we all know that, and if he doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league he’s got one of the top arms in all of baseball.”
Ankiel was the Cardinals’ center fielder in May 2009 when he slammed into a fence at full speed on a running catch and ended up with whiplash and a shoulder injury. Manager Tony La Russa kept Ankiel’s hat, bent in half, on a shelf in his office.
Ankiel is among four players in major league history to make at least 40 starts as a pitcher and hit 40 homers, with Babe Ruth the standout of that group.
He’s also a .315 hitter against the Mets, much better than his career average of .243.
“Anytime you play against a guy you can’t get out, you want him on your team,” Collins said. “We can’t get him out, never could.”