Selected second-overall by the Mariners in the 2009 MLB Amateur June Draft– out of the slot behind super prospect Stephen Strasburg– former University of North Carolina Tarheel Dustin Ackley is already poised to make his major league debut despite his lack of professional baseball experience. Since the Mariners front office signed Ackley at the August 2009 deadline to an eye-popping $7.5 million contract, the young phenom has consistently met lofty expectations with his promising debut last season and his breakout performances in the AFL and to begin 2011.
Immediately after signing Ackley, General Manager Jack Zduriencik announced the organization’s decision to move his primary defensive position to second base. While the former college centerfielder hadn’t ever played an infield position besides first base (playing there while rehabbing an elbow injury) the Mariners’ believe that his skill set would profile well up the middle. The twenty-two year old’s sweet swing, plus speed and athleticism could definitely make him one of the position’s top run producers.
After a promising-though-un-exciting debut season spent in the Southern and Pacific Coast Leagues, Ackley broadcasted his immense potential to the baseball world when he lead the Arizona Fall League in a handful of categories including batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. His defensive play at second base was solid as well, and while he still has plenty to work on, he didn’t give any reason to doubt his defensive future. For his videogame stat-line he was selected as one of the Arizona Fall League’s Rising Stars, and he later earned the AFL MVP award for his performance.
Ackley is a polished hitter with phenomenal hand-eye coordination, a sweet and fluid swing and nimble bat control. He’s an intelligent hitter who works the count well and uses his big-league-ready pitch recognition to reach base in even the most difficult situations. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches and should pile up nice walk totals while keeping fairly low strikeout totals. His swing covers the entire zone and he’s reliable at moving baserunners and keeping the ball in play. His vision and bat control allow him to barrel difficult pitches and his quick hands allow him to hit to the opposite field with precision. He strokes line drives to all fields and keeps the defense honest.
Ackley is a smart, poised batter and a good situational weapon. He hits in all counts, with men on base and particularly well with two-strikes. He should drive in plenty of runs despite his lack of raw power. He’ll always have a high batting average, an on-base percentage near 40% and nice runs scored totals as well. His hitting skills are storied and he tallied the most hits in NCAA College World Series history; he holds numerous other University of North Carolina batting records as well.
Beyond his hitting ability, Ackley also offers plus speed and good athleticism. He legs out extra base hits and beats out infield singles. Although he wasn’t an aggressive base-runner in 2010, he has the speed and quickness to steal 20+ bases annually. While his arm strength falls short, his range and athleticism is tailored for demanding defensive positions like second base and centerfield.
While Ackley’s tools at the plate allow him to project as a .300 hitter in the Big Leagues, he’s not so polished defensively. He’s new to playing second base and will need plenty of time to develop his glove and footwork. After having Tommy John surgery in college, Ackley was limited to 1st base during his senior year at the University of North Carolina and while he could pursue a career as a Darin Erstad-type outfielder/first baseman, the Mariners insist upon developing him as a middle infielder. If Ackley’s athleticism and speed don’t compensate for his lack of experience at the position, his lack of power and arm strength will drastically dampen his value at other positions. While he’s developing at a good pace as a second baseman, ultimately, he probably won’t ever grade better than average there.
Although he does stand slightly above 6’0” tall, Ackley’s build is slender. His body frame is small and he will have difficulty both adding and maintains muscle and strength. His hand-eye coordination and sweet swing consistently barrel pitches and allow him to make hard contact in all parts of the zone, but his size and lack of physical projection greatly limits his power potential. Now that he’s switched from metal to wood bats, his homerun totals have dwindled and his slugging percentage will primarily be comprised of batting average, doubles and triples in the MLB. Because he’s so adept at squaring up good pitches though, and because his swing adds nice spin and loft to his hits, he should still be able to hit between 10 and 15 home runs annually. Somewhere down the line, he could even break 20 home runs in a season.
If he lives up to the Mariners’ expectations, Ackley could become a very valuable everyday player in the big leagues. While he lacks the power and premium speed to be a true impact star, his athleticism and his ability with the stick gives him the potential to be an above-average run-creator similar to Brian Roberts or Greg Jefferies. To say his future “depends heavily on his defensive development and power” would be an understatement. However, if he does have to move positions he could still have a solid career as a first baseman/outfielder similar to Darrin Erstad.