BY Art Thiel 03:44PM 06/14/2013

Thiel: Good move by Mariners to put Ackley in LF

In the welter of injuries, misjudgments and disappointments that have followed the Mariners in 2013, making Dustin Ackley an outfielder is finally something that makes sense.

Moving Dustin Ackley to the outfield is one personnel move worthy of applause. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

So many roster issues are upside down for the Mariners this season — led in homers by a 41-year-old, nearly led in batting average by a 35-year-old, and mass failures by the young core — the assumption is that everything management does is a mistake. A fair, reasonable assumption by anyone. But for the sake of novelty as much as baseball logic, let’s offer one contrary thought:

The move of Dustin Ackley from second base to the outfield while in AAA Tacoma is smart, because the prospect of redeeming a quality bat and finding a lineup answer while averting another sunk cost is easily worth the risk.

Ackley, you may have heard, is tearing up the Pacific Coast League since his demotion, hitting .406 in 15 games. The Mariners also told him to take his glove to the outfield, where he played at the University of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, his replacement at second, rookie Nick Franklin, has shown at the plate and the field in his short time in the majors that the switch has a chance to be permanent.

Beyond Ackley’s numbers is a self-awareness that is developing after the first serious setback in a career that until then had a perpetual upward arc.

“I was just thinking too much up there,” Ackley told the Tacoma News Tribune this week about his time in Seattle. “About not getting out, not doing this and not doing that, when I should have taken the thoughts out of it.

“Just relaxing and taking my mind off the failures I had in the big leagues has been the biggest thing. There’s no pressure to do anything like there is at the big league level, and that’s really the mentality I have to take here and then continue to take up there.”

Certainly a 14-game sample at AAA is hardly sufficient evidence to suggest mission accomplished. And skeptics will read into his remarks that Ackley may be too soft to cut it in the majors, suggesting that if he felt pressure in Seattle with 13,000 in the stands, imagine what it would be like at Yankee Stadium.

But the pressure is only marginally from ticket buyers. Pressure comes from two people, manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik, both in their contract years trying to hold their jobs in the face of criticism that they are failing to develop quality talent, Exhibit A being Ackley, taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft.

While the consensus by many scouts in the 2009 draft was that Ackley was a legit No. 2 pick, there is now, in hindsight, criticism that the Mariners didn’t do the right thing in June 2011 when they brought him up to the majors, even though he was killing it in the minors. After his first half-season Seattle, Ackley’s bat has been in steady decline, finally hitting .203 before the demotion.

He had become a defensive hitter, taking strikes and attempting to avoid outs instead of taking command of the at-bat. A part of that had to be some result of team surrounding him being in a perpetual stage of roster tumult that produced so little, causing him and others to try things other than what they do best.

The decade-long franchise paralysis is an external factor over which Ackley, Mariners fans and the baseball universe has no control. In such a situation, Ackley and every player needs to simplify matters to see-ball, hit-ball, catch-ball, throw-ball and let individual ability and work ethic be the coin of their realm. There is no team sensibility here because there are no leaders, customs, traditions or sustainable success to create order and sense of mission. The organization is as much like, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, as Danny DeVito is like George Clooney.

If the owner and board of directors don’t act as if they care, the players have to use the situation, rather than let the situation use them. Which is why Ackley should embrace the shot he’s getting in the outfield.

He not excited yet. That’s OK, too.

“That would be tough,” Ackley told the Tribune of a possible position change. “That wouldn’t be ideal. It would be a tough transition. But if I had to, if that’s what it takes. I’ve changed positions to second, I guess changing to somewhere else wouldn’t be something I couldn’t do.”

Being pissed off is a good thing right now for Ackley. The demotion and the position switch run the risk of undercutting him. But the better chance is that a premium athlete will respond the right way.

The long-term outcome is hard to discern, because there is no long term when it comes to the Mariners. Wedge and Zduriencik have to win now to save their jobs, so they brought in Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Mike Morse, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Bonderman and Kendrys Morales on one-year contracts in the hopes that youngsters would produce their successors by 2014 and beyond. Instead, Ackley, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Franklin Gutierrez have been, for various reasons, unproductive.

Turns out that beyond Franklin and one game’s evidence from catcher Mike Zunino, little help is likely from AAA or AA. One short-term development that is modestly plausible is the revived bat of Ackley returning to left field while Franklin, with three-plus years of minor-league seasoning behind him,  produces around a major-league average level at second base.

With so many holes in the roster, playing two positions can only serve Ackley and the Mariners well. None of it may matter long-term because by the July 31 trade deadline, when the Mariners are 15 games behind the low-rent Oakland-freakin’-A’s, the lineup and the manager may be unrecognizable.

But that isn’t Ackley’s worry. See-ball, hit-ball, catch-ball, throw-ball.

 


YourThoughts

  • Trygvesture

    Decision? What decision? It’s a decision if there is a plausable choice. This is a forehead-smack realization, not a decision. The decisions of the last too-many Lincoln-led years paved this yellow brick road to the land of absolutely-not-baseball. Look behind the curtain and see the pathetic and impotent wizards at work. Any player worth his salt would want out. Soon.

    They’ve got a 41 yr old catcher “leading” a too-soon-promoted AAA catcher who hasn’t hit a respectable average in the launch-pad PCL. They’ve got tornadoes touching down everywhere because– why?– because it’s an organization that, as you say, cares not a lick about baseball from the owners and board on down through the franchise long established blood line of ‘gaming’ and FO incompetence.

    Hot seat.
    Yeah, Right.

    • art thiel

      It may seem obvious once done, but you can’t assume there’s a logical algorithm that precedes the decision. Ego, money and pride all have a place in any personnel decision with this team, so the outcome is not certain. When they do get it right, it is worth noting.

  • Tian Biao

    Art, you nailed it. THAT is the most accurate description of the Ms that I’ve ever heard in my life, and my life includes a whole lot of Mariner watching (not that I’m particularly proud of that): “There is no team sensibility here because there are no leaders, customs,
    traditions or sustainable success to create order and sense of mission.”

    • Tian Biao

      also, yes, Ackley in left field. definitely worth a try. We need outfielders, along with two or three starting pitchers, a shortstop, a closer, and a first baseman or DH, depending on where Morales plays. So Montero at first base is another worthwhile experiment.

      • art thiel

        Thanks, Tian. I’ve written similar things that speak to the dysfunction that is relentless under this ownership. But the criticism only hardens the resolve of ownership to do it the way they’ve always done it.

  • jafabian

    I guess why not move him to LF but his glove has never been an issue. But so far Franklin is playing well. But then again Ackley played well his first year with the club also. IMO, he was simply called up too early. He was an excellent hitter in the minor and in college but during his second year something happened, probably it all caught up with him. Hopefully moving to the OF will have more success for Ackley than it did for Chone Figgins.

  • RadioGuy

    Ackley’s problems at the plate in Seattle are symbolic of how the younger players have been approaching hitting: These guys look afraid to fail when they come up to bat…when you do that, you’re in trouble because so much of batting is having confidence that you WILL get your pitch and that you’ll make the pitcher pay dearly for throwing it. Think Ted Williams’ approach to hitting. I’m not seeing that with the young guys.

    Ackley has worked hard in becoming a good defensive second baseman, and he looked very good there by the end of last season. But (as Art says) Franklin has thus far made the transition from short to second work, and Brad Miller is waiting in the wings to take over from Ryan if/when the time comes. Then there’s Triunfel, who’s beginning to show why management was so high on him for so long. The middle infield looks good for the future in Seattle.

    On the other hand, Saunders is the only outfielder under 30 on the Mariners roster and he isn’t hitting either. A lot of the others are in the walk year of their contract, so there WILL be holes to fill by next year at the latest. Hitting woes aside, Ackley is a natural “ballplayer” in the truest sense…a guy you can put on the field just about anywhere who won’t embarrass himself out there. Moving to the outfield won’t be hard for Ackley, but the real challenge will be keeping that mindset at the plate he’s been rebuilding in Tacoma after he gets called back up to Seattle.