Perhaps the biggest storyline in the 2011 offseason for Mariners fans will be the development, and potential big league assignment of Dustin Ackley. The second-overall pick in the 2009 draft has transitioned to second base, and after what seemed to be a lackluster destiny for Ackley in the outfield—likely a corner position with Franklin Gutierrez around—has turned into one where Ackley has a reasonably probability of out producing most players at his position at the plate.
Even the most glowing scouting reports haven’t claimed that Ackley is a finished product in the field, though there is reason to believe that he’ll be able to handle the position at the highest level. Errors are an incomplete measure of a player’s defensive ability, especially while learning a new position, but Ackley made only 18 in 510 chances in his first year in the minors, and his first year at second base.
Perhaps the best that fans can hope for is an average fielder. However, where the true potential lies for Ackley is at the plate.
Noted as a player with a good eye, Ackley started the year off in AA walking more often than he struck out, and walked in 15.7 percent of his plate appearances. His total AA slash line (.263/.389/.384) may not be cause for inspiration, but when his ugly start is factored in, and his respectable numbers in 237 AAA plate appearances, Ackley’s performed pretty well for most of the season.
Some people seem intent on projecting Ackley to hit for power. While it’s possible, the chances of Ackley developing true “power” are pretty slim. Hitting 20 home runs in the big leagues is a reasonably reachable plateau, but anything more would probably be more the result of luck, or come at the expense of his contact/walk skills. He’s probably simply not going to hit many balls over 400 feet, and even as a lefty in Seattle, low-moderate power typically goes pretty unrewarded on its own in the big leagues. That doesn’t mean however, that Ackley can’t develop into a pretty proficient doubles hitter.
Ackley’s developing stroke, combined with high-level foot speed, should allow him to put some balls into gaps, but also stretch some singles into doubles on occasion. He’s also hit eight triples this year, and while it’s hard to call anyone a “triples hitter,” Ackley’s got the kind of profile that could lead to him being close to the league lead in the category in the future.
So who is a reasonable comparison for Ackley in the bigs?
That seems like a simple question. However, it is one that is all-too-often answered with the name Chase Utley. Utley is a guy that averages close to 400 feet per home run, and hits a lot of them. Perhaps the comparison comes because Utley is not considered a wiz by some scouts defensively. UZR does like Utley’s defense however, putting him at 14 UZR/150 for his career. Ackley’s defensive potential probably peaks around league average. The reality is that Chase Utley does a lot of things that Ackley never will.
Perhaps a more realistic peak is Brian Roberts. That’s not to say that Roberts is any slouch however. While Utley posted three straight seasons from 2007-09 where he produced 7.6 WAR or better, over the same seasons, Roberts posted 4.7,4.8, and 3.9 WAR respectively. Roberts, whose career UZR/150 at second is 4.1, loses about a full WAR per year compared to Utley though.
In those three seasons at the plate, Utley produced 118 RAR, while Roberts produced 60.8 RAR. That comes out to about two wins per season difference.
Roberts however, produced his wins on the legs of 149 doubles, 14 triples, 37 home runs, 120 stolen bases and a walk rate around 11.5 percent over that span.
Perhaps the next step down is Orlando Hudson. Hudson is a about a league average offensive player (104 wRC+) and prior to 2010, had posted four straight below average seasons at second base according to UZR. While scouting reports like Hudson’s defense a lot more than contemporary metrics, his offense/defense combination suits Ackley’s skill set. Despite middling defense and league average offensive skills (Hudson was actually a ways above league average in three of those four seasons) he posted 9.6 WAR from 2006-2009.
There is however, the possibility that Ackley is ultimately a circus in the field, and provides such little or negative value at second base defensively that he ultimately has to move back to the outfield. The Mariners would likely try to push that realization back until Franklin Gutierrez is no longer roaming center field, whether by performance, trade, or the end of his four year contract (2013). Ackley has limited value in a corner outfield position, as those positions are typically reserved for hitters that produce more power (and apart from first base, they’re hard to find at other positions).
In center field, Ackley’s defense is much less of a concern. Ackley played outfield in college, and his foot speed lends itself to rangy outfielders. Of course, a transition to the outfield likely pushes Ackley’s debut season back, but if he does find himself there, Brett Gardner may be the best comparison available.
It’s crazy to think that Gardner was once offered to the Mariners in exchange for Jarrod Washburn. It’s especially crazy to think that it was before the arrival of Jack Zduriencik, and ultimately Franklin Gutierrez. Of all the ugly signings and trades that Bill Bavasi made, the non-trade of Jarrod Washburn may ultimately be his greatest misstep.
Like Ackley, Gardner was always projected as a guy who made a lot of contact, knew the strike zone, and wouldn’t ever hit for much power. His career .097 ISO agrees with the assessment of lacking power, however, even the staunchest Moneyball loyalist couldn’t have predicted Gardner would walk 14 percent of his 2010 plate appearances, and steal 40 bases at a success rate over 80 percent. Ackley possesses all of the strengths that Gardner does, with potential to hit for power.
So with three meaningless possibilities analyzed, and one meaningless, irresponsible projection removed, the question becomes: When will Dustin Ackley become a Seattle Mariner full time?
That’s up for debate. If the Mariners non-tender Jose Lopez they’ll have a hole at either second or third base. If Chone Figgins moves to third base, the Mariners options probably consist of: an inexpensive free agent, Josh Wilson, or Ackley at second base. The list off already-contributing free agent second baseman pretty much begins and ends with Orlando Hudson. Hudson signed a one-year contract for $5 million with the Twins this year. He’ll likely command more this offseason.
While simple logic points to trying Ackley there from the beginning of the season, as Wilson is a known commodity, and a below-average offensive player, Ackley may fall victim to the league-wide attempt to avoid making top prospects Super Two players. Hanging on to another year of team control at a discount rate, as Ackley would only go to arbitration three times instead of four, is likely in the Mariners plans. But chances are, his place holder will be somebody who comes with some extending time producing at a rate below Ackley’s potential.
All signs point to Ackley receiving significant playing time in 2011, but the chance of him being called up to the big club before mid-June seems pretty small at this point.
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