Temptation, thy name is Rick Ankiel. Temptation cannot legally buy a beer or rent a car, spends off days trolling the local mall and regards Hooters as fine dining. Temptation also has a 95-mph fastball with more late movement than a strip joint and a knee-buckling breaking ball that curves as sharply as Lombard Street. For a scout who has been in the game almost half a century, Temptation is like nothing he's ever seen before. Temptation is the best pitching prospect in baseball.
Ankiel is a 19-year-old lefthander stopping for a cup of coffee with the Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals' Triple A affiliate. He is so young and so good that Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, though he is desperately seeking to bolster his sorry pitching staff through trades, has virtually lashed himself to a mast to resist the song of the siren. "I'm almost hoping that he struggles a little bit," Jocketty says. "For one thing, I'd rather see him learn from adversity in Triple A than in the big leagues. The other thing is, it might get all these Cardinals fans who want him here [in St. Louis] off my back."
"I hope he keeps Ankiel down there all year," says one rival National League general manager. "The longer he does, the better for the rest of us."
Will Ankiel turn out to be "the next Steve Carlton," as his agent, Scott Boras, asserts, or will he be another Todd Van Poppel? That might depend on how quickly Ankiel is rushed to the big leagues, at least according to skittish baseball executives. "It's tempting," Jocketty says of bringing up Ankiel, "but in my heart I don't think it's the right thing to do now."
Only two teenagers have pitched in the big leagues this decade, and both have had Danny Bonaduce-like careers: Van Poppel, who at 27 is with the Triple A Nashville Sounds, in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system, and has a 22-37 career record in the majors; and Rich Garces, who at 28 still hasn't spent a full season in the big leagues and who is with the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, in the Boston system. Ankiel turns 20 on July 19, the age at which Kerry Wood made his debut last year with a number of pro innings (278?) similar to Ankiel's total at week's end (245?). Of course, Wood blew out his right elbow in March and took his place alongside Van Poppel and David Clyde as favorite subjects when baseball people like to scare one another with stories about young pitchers. Then again, Carlton, Bob Feller and Greg Maddux enjoyed remarkably healthy and productive careers after reaching the big leagues at 20 or younger.
"I'm conservative," says Mel Didier, the Arizona Diamondbacks' senior assistant to the general manager, "but there are exceptions. We just brought up 20-year-old Byung-Hyun Kim. He was ready. He has the stuff and the maturity to pitch in the big leagues. I told [manager] Buck Showalter, 'Don't look back.' "
Didier took a seat behind home plate at Albuquerque Sports Stadium last week to get his first look at Ankiel, in a game between the Redbirds and the Albuquerque Dukes. "The other scouts tell me he's as good as Wood, maybe better," he said. "I'm anxious to find out."
Ankiel was making his fifth start for Memphis after making a mockery of Double A hitters (6-0, 0.91 ERA, 75 strikeouts) with the Arkansas Travelers. Following Ankiel's last start in Double A, on May 16, Jocketty asked one of his assistants, Jerry Walker, "Do you think he's ready for Triple A?"
"No," Walker said solemnly, "I think he's ready for the major leagues."
Didier needed to see Ankiel pitch only four innings before he said, "This is my 46th year in baseball. I haven't seen a lefthander like that in 15, maybe 20 years. His curveball is unbelievable. His fastball explodes at the end. He has a good feel for his changeup. Actually, I don't know who I could compare him to. Come to think of it, I'd have to say he's one of the best lefthanders I've ever seen. I can't recall seeing a 19-year-old do what he does. He has a good delivery, he's a good athlete and he has great poise."