Dustin Ackley settles in at 2B; plus other Arizona Fall League prospects
As the Mariners' director of minor league operations, Pedro Grifol pours through daily reports of his players, and rarely has he been so happy to see the word "routine" stamped on such a report, as when the Peoria Javelinas' coaching staff used the word to describe Dustin Ackley's play at second base in the Arizona Fall League.
"I watch him play, and I'm expecting him to make the plays," said Grifol, who also watched Ackley in person during the AFL. "I'm watching a second baseman play baseball."
Ackley, 22, was drafted as a bat without a position. Seattle's No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft -- one slot behind Stephen Strasburg -- played outfield and first base in college for North Carolina, but the Mariners wanted to teach their 6'1", 185-pound prospect how to play second, a process that has predictably taken its time.
His offense has never been in question, especially now after Ackley led the AFL in its just-completed regular season in batting average (.424), on-base percentage (.581), slugging (.758) and runs (28) while pounding 10 doubles and four homers among his 28 hits in 66 at-bats.
"Hitters hit," said one National League scout. "When they invested the money they invested in him [a five-year, $7.5 million contract], I couldn't wait to see him because I knew it was something special. I'm still trying to figure out who I think he's going to be at the major league level. He's kind of a cross between Chase Utley and Mark Kotsay."
But the question of Ackley's major league readiness will ultimately be determined by his glove. He has above-average speed and athleticism but learning to play the middle infield takes time. If he's defensively sound, he could reach Seattle in 2011, especially given the club's desperate need for offense. The Mariners only scored 513 runs in 2010, a full 100 runs fewer than any other American League team.
The transition to second took its toll early, as Ackley batted just .182 through his first 24 games at Double-A, admitting that he sometimes took his fielding to the plate with him. He made 13 errors in 70 games at Double-A, but the Mariners believed that his lefty-swinging bat was ready for a promotion -- he had raised his average to .263 and had a .389 OBP -- and so he moved to Triple-A, where his defense improved. He became more sure-handed, committing only five errors in 51 games at the higher level.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Grifol said. "Is he going to be major league ready next year defensively? I'm not real sure. He's going to have to come to spring training and do his thing. That'll have to be a decision made by the organization. I think he's going to make it tough."
Grifol has seen flashes of Ackley's promise in-person. He remembered attending a Triple-A game in July when Ackley turned two double plays in key spots and thought, "OK, this kid's a second baseman."
The NL scout, however, isn't quite as convinced just yet, wanting to see Ackley again after he logs more game experience. For now the scout worries about the second baseman's instincts and footwork.
"For some reason everyone thinks you can just run a guy in to play second base," he said. "It's not that easy. I didn't seem him grasping onto it as quickly as I thought. As long as you hit, your defense looks better. If he hits like people think he will, they won't talk about his defense."
Ackley hit plenty at UNC, batting over .400 in each of his three seasons and leaving after his junior year as the school's career leader in average, hits, runs and total bases. His bat started slowly in Double-A, but he turned it on as a singles and doubles hitter. Then at Triple-A, though his OBP dropped by about 50 points, his slugging percentage rose by about the same margin, as he showed some strength in his wiry frame.
"He's got power in there," Grifol said. "Is it 'game power' right now? It's below-average 'game power' right now, but there's some raw power that can eventually turn into some home runs down the road. It wouldn't surprise me if he starts off as a [No. 2 hitter] and ends up as a [No. 3] as the power starts to increase a little bit."
Ackley, of course, wasn't the only standout player in Arizona. The scout cautioned against reading too much into pitchers' performances in the AFL, because their arms are tired by November and the average pitcher this fall threw in the low 90s with a poor breaking ball.
Though this year's position players likely won't match last year's banner crop of high-ceiling rookies -- Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Starlin Castro and more -- the scout was especially impressed by the following prospects, predicting solid major league careers for each.
Regarding Red Sox shortstop