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.
Parent club: Nationals
2010 AFL stats: .343/.410/.629, 3 2Bs, 1 3Bs, 1 HR, 7 RBIs in 35 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (instructional): .319 average, .407 OBP; full stats N/A
Scout's take: "His power is incredible. I watched him hit balls where Barry Bonds didn't hit balls over that metal canopy in Scottsdale [the Giants' spring training home]. Incredible, man. There were balls up to 430 [feet].... Bryce Harper -- by far -- has the best arm down there.... He has a chance to be something special."
Parent club: Giants
2010 AFL stats: .372/.474/.557, 8 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 1 HR, 16 RBIs in 86 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (high A, AA, AAA): .352/.455/.620, 43 2Bs, 10 3Bs, 23 HRs, 112 RBIs, 22 SBs in 492 ABs
Scout's take: "He has a chance to hit, even for power. I didn't know he was as big as he is. He's 6'6" or 6'5". He's a physical-looking guy who can hit. He may be pretty close."
Parent club: Royals
2010 AFL stats: .203/.284/.291, 5 2Bs, 0 HR, 14 RBIs in 79 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (high A, AA): .338/.406/.571, 43 2Bs, 9 3Bs, 20 HRs, 86 RBIs, 14 SBs, in 520 ABs
Scout's take: "There's one [scout] who says he's probably the best hitter down there and says he's going to move [Billy] Butler off first base.... Hosmer has probably the second- or third-best arm down there.... He may even end up in the outfield."
Parent club: Pirates
2010 AFL stats: .274/.325/.462, 8 2Bs, 4 HRs, 23 RBIs in 106 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (AA): .272/.334/.397, 12 2Bs, 6 HRs, 35 RBIs in 272 ABs
Scout's take: "Some thought he was the best hitter in the Fall League a year ago, and then he ran into his troubles off the field and ended up getting traded to the Pirates. But I project him to be a legitimate hitter in the majors one day. I don't know how much power he's going to hit for, but he has Andre Ethier-type game."
Parent club: Cubs
2010 AFL stats: .250/.286/.333, 1 2B, 5 RBIs, 1 SB in 12 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (high A, AA): .297/.395/.493, 32 2Bs, 14 3Bs, 12 HRs, 66 RBIs, 103 R, 30 SBs in 491 ABs
Scout's take: "He can swing the bat. He's a nice body guy.... He's a better version of Scott Podsednik."
Parent club: Brewers
2010 AFL stats: .351/.415/.432, 4 2Bs, 0 HR, 8 RBIs, 9 SB in 74 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (Rookie, AAA): .271/.305/.366, 14 2Bs, 3 HRs, 24 RBIs, 33 R, 15 SBs in 262 ABs
Scout's take: "I might be going out on a little limb.... He is going to play in the big leagues and be a good player.... He swings the bat, plays the game, plays defense, has got a little flair but not too much.... Just remember that name: Eric Farris."
Parent club: Royals
2010 AFL stats: .328/.371/.578, 10 2Bs, 2 HRs, 13 RBIs in 64 ABs
2010 minor-league stats (AA): .322/.395/.460, 35 2Bs, 5 3Bs, 9 HRs, 65 RBIs, 92 R, 13 SBs in 522 ABs
Scout's take: "He's a nice little player. He'll play in the big leagues for the Royals. . . . [In the AFL] he hit well, had no fear, worked hard, has got a little pop and got a little chip on his shoulder."
Regarding Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias: "He was one of the better guys last year, but he was hurt and looked a little thicker this year than in the past. He still has those actions, but he didn't take a step forward for me.".... Angels infielder Brandon Wood batted .341 in 88 at bats in the AFL season -- after hitting .146 in 81 major league games -- but continues to only feast on sub-majors pitching. "He has the ability to hit and hit for power, but he's not a guy that I've seen make any type of adjustments. He's the same guy from the day I saw him in A ball to the day where he is right now.".... On A's outfielder Michael Taylor: "I've watched enough of him, and I'm just not in. I don't like his swing. I don't like his approach. He's a big guy with brute strength but not game power."