ST. LOUIS -- Rick Ankiel was so new to the Mets that he attended his first hitters' meeting in street clothes. His glove and spikes had not yet arrived, so he borrowed gear from various teammates. But he was ready. Less than two hours after the Mets officially signed Ankiel to a Major League contract on Monday, he was in the starting lineup, playing center field against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium.
"I'm just getting accustomed to what's going on," Ankiel said. "But it's still the game of baseball and I've played that for a long time."
For at least the foreseeable future, he will play it for the Mets. Continuing their search for some -- any -- sort of offensive spark, the Mets signed Ankiel in an attempt to tweak their underperforming outfield. Once a bright young starting pitcher, Ankiel converted to the outfield in 2005 with the Cardinals. He returned to the Majors two years later, batting .244 with 72 home runs over parts of six seasons with the Cards, Royals, Braves, Nationals and Astros.
Ankiel hit .194 with five home runs in 25 games with Houston this season, also exhibiting his foremost weakness: 35 strikeouts in 62 at-bats. The Astros designated him for assignment last week, with general manager Jeff Luhnow calling his outfield "one of our weakest positions."
Consider that an equally apt description for the Mets, who have struggled to construct any sort of consistent outfield alignment. Batting seventh against the Cardinals, Ankiel became the 10th different player to appear in the Mets' outfield this season.
"I'm sitting here with 200 pages of data to put the best guys in situations where we think they're going to have success," manager Terry Collins said, thumbing through a binder on his desk. "And right now, we're struggling."
Speaking on WFAN radio, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said he made the signing in large part because of Ankiel's defense. Blessed with a pitcher's velocity, Ankiel boasts what Collins called "one of the top arms in all of baseball." Advanced defensive metrics paint a less-favorable picture regarding his glove work and range, though both Alderson and Collins leaned heavily on Ankiel's defensive reputation in discussing the move.
The Mets envision a platoon between Ankiel, a left-handed hitter, and right-handed-hitting defensive whiz Juan Lagares. The hope is that both men will play elite defense, while maximizing their offensive contributions against opposite-handed pitchers.
"Because offense is something that we certainly covet a lot, we've tried to put some offensive players in the game," Collins said. "And right now, nobody's hitting. So we've got to go catch the baseball."
Ankiel called it "ironic" that his Mets debut came against the organization that drafted him 72nd overall in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, brought him to the Majors as a pitcher later that summer, and engineered his conversion to the outfield six years later.
"He's just a good dude," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who crossed paths with Ankiel as a rookie in 2009. "He cares. He's a guy you definitely want on your team."
But as a child growing up minutes from the Mets' Spring Training complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Ankiel idolized not a Cardinals player, but a Met. Upon arriving in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium on Monday, he asked which uniform numbers were available.
"When 16 was one of them, it was a done deal right away," said Ankiel, who became the eighth Mets player to wear Dwight Gooden's number since 1994.
Like Gooden -- though in a completely different way -- Ankiel has come to be known for his strikeouts. He whiffed in more than half his plate appearances with the Astros this year, and has struck out more than a quarter of the time over his 11-year Major League career.
Ankiel's new team, which was prone to strikeouts even before he arrived, understands the additional risk it has assumed.
"Obviously, you are looking to reduce our number of strikeouts," assistant GM John Ricco said. "But when you cite all the things in the mix and you look at what's available … we have a lot of confidence that he can maybe cut down a little bit on that and still give us some of that power."