Mariners won't rush young 2B Dustin Ackley
PEORIA, Ariz. (AP)
Dustin Ackley stepped into the batting cage and almost effortlessly started spraying line drives all around the practice field and into places they wouldn't be caught.
He's without question the future of the Seattle Mariners, a left-handed hitting middle infielder with a flawless looking swing, speed and a bit of pop. Just mentioning his name brings a smile to the face of general manager Jack Zduriencik.
But Zduriencik and the Mariners aren't about to fast-track Ackley for the majors even if he's one of the most promising prospects in all of baseball. If he turns out to be Seattle's best option at second base when the Mariners break camp at the end of March, then he'll make his major league debut even earlier than most expected.
The likelihood is that Ackley will begin 2011 at Triple-A with a big league call-up coming some time during the regular season.
''We will make the decisions based on what's best for the player, the ball club and the organization short and long term. In the end all of that will tie into that decision,'' Zduriencik said. ''I wouldn't sit here and predict. I'm an observer, I'm a very, very interested observer watching this whole thing evolve.''
Evolution might be the best way to describe Ackley's current status. While he might be major league ready as a hitter, he's still in the early stages of a transformation from college outfielder/first baseman to middle infielder, still learning the tricks of the position.
While starring in college, Ackley played outfield and then first base at North Carolina, a necessary move after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But his professional future always seemed destined to find Ackley as a middle infielder.
It's not the easiest transition but Ackley's getting plenty of help, including a new voice barking in his ear this spring training: new Mariners bench coach and former All-Star second baseman Robby Thompson.
''It's awesome to have that guy who has that knowledge and can show you things that he did that worked for him,'' Ackley said. ''And I think that's really good. You hear a lot of things and you don't have to do everything for yourself, but find what works for you and I think to get his perspective is going to be really good.''
Thompson played more than 1,300 games at second base in his career, so resources don't get much better. Even though Ackley only has one full season playing at second base, Thompson can see all the needed tools - quickness, arm strength and, perhaps most important, smarts.
''I think he knows the game. I don't think that's it. Learning everything as far as that position I think he knows,'' Thompson said. ''I think it's the repetition of things, some of the tougher plays. ... He does need to continue working, he does need to work on things, but there is a lot there to work with as far as talking about the individual itself.''
There's also a great deal of resolve there which maybe the Mariners didn't completely know about Ackley when they drafted him with the second overall pick in 2009 after an incredibly successful career with the Tar Heels. Ackley's introduction to pro baseball was about as rough as it can get. Known for hitting, Ackley started his pro career at Double-A West Tenn and almost immediately stumbled. After going hitless in a doubleheader on May 3, the guy who left North Carolina as the top hitter in school history at .412, was hitting just .139.
Then in mid-May, it flipped. He started to get more comfortable at second base and at the plate. He hit .305 in his final 54 games at West Tenn, then followed up by hitting .274 with 12 doubles, five homers and 23 RBIs in 52 games at Triple-A.
If that wasn't impressive enough for Mariners scouts to see, Ackley then was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League, hitting .424 and leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging and runs scored.
''Once I started to feel more comfortable at the plate and at second base I think it all just started to click and I was able to slow the game down a little bit and feel better about what I was doing and feel more confident,'' Ackley said. ''It all went from there.''
That kind of continued growth is what the Mariners envision from Ackley this season. If he proves ready to start the season on the major league roster, Seattle's management won't hold him back.
The Mariners envision Ackley and young first baseman Justin Smoak forming an All-Star right side of the infield for years to come.
''I feel like I'm pretty ready, as close to ready as I'll be, and with some more practice there at second base, more reps, that I'll get to the point where I feel really confident playing there and go out there every day and make plays and not worry about it and take that into hitting or anything like that,'' Ackley said. ''I don't think it's something I'm too far from.''