Seattle Mariners top prospect, second baseman Dustin Ackley, will make his highly anticipated major league debut tonight at Safeco Field in a 7:05pm (EST) game against the Phillies. Drafted second overall in 2009, directly behind all-world baseball prospect Stephen Strasburg, Ackley will make his MLB debut with little more than a full season of professional baseball under his belt. Ackley was called up from AAA Tacoma by the Mariners front office yesterday in hopes of lighting a fire under the team’s punchless offense.
After primarily manning first base and centerfield for the North Carolina Tarheels as a college ballplayer, Ackley has spent much of his professional career developing his defense as a second baseman– the position the Mariners’ prefer him playing. Because he was forced to spend so much time learning a new defensive position, Ackley’s lackluster 2010 debut was largely excused. Twice a finalist for a Golden Spikes award in college, Ackley is the only player in UNC baseball’s storied history to bat over .400 twice. So, when he batted just .267 with a .775 OPS making his professional debut in the Southern and Pacific Coast Leagues, there was some mild cause for concern.
Ackley has recovered much of his star power this year however. After taking home the Arizona Fall League MVP award last November, the young phenom has carried his production over to the Pacific Coast League. So far this seasons, while playing a solid second base for Tacoma, Ackley has .303 with 9 home runs, 29 extra base hits and a .908 OPS through .271 at bats. He ranks third in the PCL in runs scored (57) and 18th in on-base percentage (.421).
What can the Mariners’ reasonably expect from the prospect with the gaudy $7.5 million (totaling $10 million after debut) MLB contract? While many overzealous analysts and fans have compared Ackley to a player he’ll face tonight, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, it’s both unreasonable and unfair to compare the twenty-three-year-old prospect to one of the best in the game’s history. A five-time All-Star, World Series champion and the owner of four Silver Slugger awards, Utley is simply a superior player. While Ackley has a sweet swing, plus running speed and great plate discipline, he won’t ever possess Utley’s mix of power, clutch-hitting and seasoned defensive skills. Utley’s skill set is so rarely found in a second baseman and the Phillies great will likely have a plaque in Cooperstown after he retires.
Though Ackley’s career minor league triple slash line of .287/.387/.822 looks almost identical to Utley’s minors numbers at a similar age– .282/.357/.824– the two players are very different now and when compared as young prospects. In terms of power, Utley possessed a bigger frame, with more muscle and his powerful cut and immense bat speed easily produce slugging percentages that few middle infielders can threaten. Ackley has better plate discipline than a young Utley did, he possesses similar hand-eye coordination and his swing is just as smooth, but his small frame and contact-oriented approach won’t ever produce more than 15-20 home runs in a season.
While Ackley is new to the middle infield– and still rough-around the edges defensively, Utley had spent the majority of his immense career at UCLA playing second base before he was drafted by the Phillies a decade ago. Utley was (and is) a much smoother fielder with a stronger arm while Ackley’s glove and movements at second resemble that of Skip Schumaker– he doesn’t look natural. Utley hasn’t ever won a Gold Glove award, but his defense has been consistently above-average throughout his career in Philadelphia. On the other hand, Seattle would be lucky to ever get even average defense out of the inexperienced Ackley.
In terms of pure speed, Ackley could outrun a career-prime, 2005-2009 version of Chase Utley any day. On the basepaths however, Utley’s athleticism, polished instincts and all-out/gritty style make the competition much closer. Ackley does possess 6.7 (seconds) 60-yard dash speed , but his wheels have produced just seventeen stolen bases (in 23 attempts) through 200 professional games.
Dustin Ackley isn’t a young Chase Utley, but he should still be a very valuable, everyday big league second baseman. He’s adept making contact, and his immense pitch recognition and plate discipline should make him an on-base machine. He should always keep his batting average on the better side of .280 and has the potential to compete for a batting title once he reaches his prime. This season in the Pacific Coast League, Ackley has walked more times (55) than he’s struck out (36) and has posted a .303 batting average. He isn’t a slugger, but his hand-eye coordination and balanced, fluid swing could produce 10-15 home runs and 50 extra base hits annually. Adding his athleticism and speed to his offensive profile will make him a nice number-tw0 hitter with nice runs scored totals.
For now, lets take it slow. Ackley will begin his MLB career tonight and that should make this Mariners-Phillies game worthy of any baseball fans’ Friday night.