Burden of hype weighs heavy

Originally Published: January 28, 2005
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN Insider
It all comes so easily for a few guys. Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. arrived in the majors with a buzz and a bundle of potential and began to convert when they were still teenagers. A-Rod signed a $252 million contract at age 25. Griffey made his 10th All-Star team at age 29. There was barely a speed bump along the way.

For most elite prospects, success is a more complex proposition, filled with setbacks, self doubt and the obligatory growth pains. Aspiring big leaguers routinely get worn down by injuries, sliders on the black, or the extraordinary length of the baseball season. Sometimes the scouts or statistical projections are wrong and the enthusiasm is unwarranted. Or a team will go to great lengths to hype a player just for the sake of enhancing his trade value. It happens all the time.

The following eight players, all 26 or younger, have encountered numerous obstacles and are still trying to fulfill their early promise. Some have a chance to attain big things, while the star has gradually faded for others. They'll all merit watching upon arrival in Florida and Arizona next month:

1. Rick Ankiel, St. Louis

Rick Ankiel
APRick Ankiel's blossomed after being hardened by adversity.
Things can't get any rougher for Ankiel, who's had to overcome Steve Blass disease and Tommy John surgery. Now, at 25, he heads to camp with a positive mindset and the lure of opportunity. The Cardinals expect Matt Morris to be out until May with shoulder problems, and they'd like Ankiel to fill in as their No. 5 starter behind Mark Mulder, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis.

Ankiel pitched well in winter ball in Puerto Rico, striking out 31 batters and walking only seven in 27 2/3 innings. Although he felt a twinge in his elbow and shut it down early, it was just a precautionary measure and he's already resumed throwing off a mound in Florida.

"I'm sure they'll put the accent on the positive early, then feed him more as he starts getting over hurdles," said a scout. Last year Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan coaxed a 30-12 record out of Carpenter and Marquis after they had failed to win a big-league game the previous season. A resurgent Ankiel could be a major weapon for the Cards – in the rotation or as a long or middle man in the 'pen.

Jerry Crasnick

ESPN Senior Writer