The day after Dustin Ackley was shipped out to Tacoma, one American League East general manager called the Mariners’ Jack Zduriencik to see if Seattle would be willing to move the 25-year old once drafted one slot after Stephen Strasburg. “I still believe in the bat,” said the GM. “I don’t know how we’d use him. Maybe first, second, left, center…But I still believe he’s a .300 hitter who could hit 50 doubles.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t the only Ackley call Zduriencik fielded the first couple of days after the demotion. “I also believe in Dustin Ackley,” said Zduriencik. “He can still be a major part of our rebuilding.” Two weeks later, Tacoma manager John Stearns told his GM, “this guy is a .300 hitter who’s going to hit doubles and steal bases. He’s really good.”
After 24 games in Triple-A, Ackley was hitting .366. He was getting on base at a .467 clip. He was slugging .495. "I feel right again,” he said. “I don’t know what happened. I made some changes in my approach before spring training. Maybe that didn’t take. But I’ve been healthy (after the removal of bone spur in each ankle this past winter). It isn’t the move to second base; that was fine. I don’t know what happened, but I feel like myself again.”
Safeco is still a pitcher's park
Zduriencik thinks that while they moved some of the fences in, Safeco is still a pitchers’ park, a death sentence for hitters. Adrian Beltre was spooked at Safeco. Jesus Montero has disappeared back to Tacoma. Ditto Justin Smoak. “I’m a great believer in getting hold of someone who has struggled in Seattle but we believe can hit,” says another GM. Which is what the Red Sox did when they took the shot on Mike Carp.
“I got to Fenway, started relaxing, didn’t try to pull the ball and my old stroke came back,” says Carp. “Safeco is death on driving the ball to left-center, which is where I need to stay. Fenway is the opposite.” Ask Fred Lynn, Mo Vaughn, David Ortiz, Wade Boggs…
The fact remains that while the Mariners are second to last in the American League in runs scored at home, in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 they were last. Dead last.
Now, in a city like Seattle, with some of the most intelligent analysis in the baseball journalism universe, one cannot pawn off the Mariners’ ill-fated history. Erik Bedard for Adam Jones and Chris Tillman? Jeff Clement? No need to go further. But they began to worry that Ackley was part of the bad legacy.
Ackley wasn’t just a good hitter at North Carolina, he was a great hitter, hence being the second pick in the 2009 draft after Stephen Strasburg and the signing bonus of more than $8M. He played 90 games for the Mariners in 2011, hit .273 with a .348/.421/.908 slash.
But it didn’t hold. In 2012, bothered by his ankles, he fell to .226/.294/.328/.622. Then he started 2013 a mess, .205/.266/.250.
On to Tacoma. There they decided to let him play both left and center fields. “He took to both,” says Zduriencik. “He’s played both really well. His throwing has really come back."
In the meantime, Nick Franklin has played second base very well. Shortstop Brad Miller is starting to emerge in Tacoma. Catcher Mike Zunino is in the grooming process in the big leagues. And the off-season acquisitions of Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales have paid off, because they both can hit in Seattle.
“The most important thing is that the Seattle Mariners are returning to being a pitching team,” says Zduriencik. King Felix Hernandez is under contractual lock and key. Hisashi Iwakuma is really good, and his GM says, “believe me, he’s not going anywhere.” While Zduriencik admits he regrets trading Doug Fister, he projects Taijuan (Sky) Walker, Danny Hultzen and Erasmo Ramirez in the Seattle rotation by this time next season.
If that pitching is as good as they believe and Ackley, Franklin, Zunino and others join Kyle Seager in developing in Safeco, the Mariners can get good again, in a hurry. Parity? NFL equality? Fine, if you live in Seattle, you deserve a reason to believe.