Dustin Ackley’s Future in Seattle

After falling one win short of a postseason berth in 2014, the Seattle Mariners have spent their off-season attempting to improve themselves in their two weakest areas; offensive production and the outfield. Adding outfielders Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, and Seth Smith during the off-season and Austin Jackson at last year’s trading deadline improves their offensive outlook and  dramatically transforms the team’s outfield situation.

By adding these players and turning the page on Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, and Abraham Almonte, the Mariners are certain to have two different starting outfielders and a different designated hitter on April 6th when they open the season against the Los Angeles Angels. The lone holdover from Opening Day 2014 appears to be left fielder Dustin Ackley.

Ever since Ackley posted a .273/.348/.417 triple slash and hit a team-leading seven triples in just 90 games during his 2011 debut season, Mariners faithful have been waiting for the former North Carolina Tar Heel to become a mainstay in Seattle’s lineup. Unfortunately for the Mariners and the number two overall pick in the June 2009 Amateur Draft, he hasn’t approached those heights again.

How much time is enough?
Young players need experience, plus the patience and support of their organization to adjust to playing in the major leagues so they can eventually flourish. For example, Kyle Seager struggled during his 53 game debut in 2011, but has incrementally improved with each passing season and is now one of the best third baseman in either league. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value and future role have normally become clear. This is not an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to have that conversation.

For most of Seattle’s core of young position players, it’s too early to determine their long term value or role due to their relatively low amount of major league service time. It’s a challenging proposition for a team with designs on making their first postseason appearance since 2001; develop youngsters while attempting to contend. Among Seattle’s current crop of young players, Seager and Ackley have reached the 2,000 plate appearance mark with Logan Morrison quickly approaching that milestone.

Consistently inconsistent
While Morrison will eventually come under similar scrutiny, Ackley is a far more enigmatic figure in Seattle thanks to being a high draft selection, quickly ascending through Seattle’s minor league system, initially being successful in the majors, and subsequently struggling since 2012. My initial perception of Ackley was that he was a slow starter who performed much better in the second half of seasons; that’s not completely accurate. Although it’s true that his overall career numbers are better in the second half, he’s both struggled and flourished during the first and second half of different seasons. I believe that best way to describe his offensive production is “consistently inconsistent.”

To better illustrate that point, I decided to use his month-by-month on-base plus slugging (OPS) because OPS is a metric that takes into account a player’s ability to make contact, their plate discipline, and their power. Although the league average for OPS fluctuates from year-to-year, the league-average hovers near .730. Fangraphs provides the following table as a reference for assessing a player’s performance based on their OPS.

With the exception of his torrid 2011 debut season, Ackley has been limited to bursts of productivity surrounded by longer periods of ineffectiveness. Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s been significantly below the major league average for OPS in all but four months and has only been over league-average for two consecutive months once; July and August of 2014. Since 2012, his OPS has been below-average for each season.

The .286 OPS for June 2013 is not a typo, but it’s important to note that he only played in three games in that month after spending most of the month at AAA-Tacoma in an attempt to regain his swing. The main reason for his quick return was an injury to outfielder Franklin Gutiérrez.

Possible turning point?
So, what changed and led to Ackley putting together his best OPS in consecutive months and best overall half-season since 2011? Perhaps, it was a change to his batting stance. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill touched on mechanical adjustments made by the left-handed hitter in two July 2014 tweets.

My interpretation of those comments are that, thanks to the changes made at the plate, Ackley was able to handle middle-away pitches better by being closer to the plate and by closing his batting stance. The July 24 picture illustrates the changes, which may be the underlying reason for Ackley’s resurgence in July and August.

After July 15th, Ackley was 23rd in the American League (AL) in OPS for the remainder of the season, finishing ahead of teammates Cruz (25) and Seager (41).

September swoon
Despite his mid-season adjustments, Ackley’s performance fell off considerably in September when he posted a .149/.205/.299 triple slash during 18 games. One contributor to his September decline were bone spurs in his left ankle that hampered him and resulted in him missing four games. This isn’t the first time that Ackley has experienced problems with bone spurs; he had surgery to remove bone spurs after the 2012 season. At that time, it was believed that the spurs affected Ackley’s ability to push off at home plate and to run the bases.

During this off-season, he visited an ankle specialist who made recommendations to the team on how to handle the situation going forward. Every indication from the team is that Ackley is physically ready to go and will be played frequently during Spring Training by manager Lloyd McClendon. The question that lingers going into 2015 is whether his September struggles were injury-induced or a regression back to previous consistency.

2015 role with Mariners
The general consensus among fans and national pundits has been that Ackley will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder barring injury; that’s not necessarily certain though. During his January 17th Hot Stove Report podcast for 1090 The Fan, Jason discussed General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s comments about the left field position on the Steve Sandmeyer Show. Zduriencik stated that he and manager Lloyd McClendon plan to “put the best club on the field whatever that is.”

“To say that anyone is on scholarship or somebody’s got something locked in, they’ve got to prove it in Spring Training.”
— Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on The Steve Sandmeyer Show

To me, Zduriencik’s comments open the door to the possibly using Smith in left field against tough southpaws or even Ackley losing left field playing time to either Ruggiano or James Jones. I don’t McClendon will proclaim Ackley as his left fielder early in Spring Training as he did last February.

There’s a clear benefit to using the left-handed hitting Smith over Ackley against southpaws. Smith’s 2014 OPS against left-handed pitchers was appreciably better than Ackley’s. Smith’s career OPS versus lefties is lower than Ackley’s, but the 32-year-old veteran has been far more productive and consistent than Ackley during his eight-year career.

Conclusion
With the exception of his 2011 debut season, Dustin Ackley has struggled to sustain long periods of average to above-average production and hasn’t matched the lofty expectations placed upon him after being selected one pick after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft. If the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn’t continue his 2014 second half performance into 2015, the team should transition in a new direction just as they did with first baseman Justin Smoak. After entering last season with 1942 plate appearances, Smoak was waived by Seattle after playing in 80 games and 276 plate appearances in 2014.

If Ackley’s 2014 mechanical adjustments are a permanent fix, he’s best suited to be part of a left field platoon and play primarily against right-handed pitching. The thought of Ackley being a part-time player will disappoint many Seattle fans. However, being a platoon player gives him the best opportunity to repeat his 2.1 fWAR value and help the team contend for the AL West crown.

 

 

 

More from Prospect Insider

The following two tabs change content below.

Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

23 Comments

  1. Weeks resisted changing positions while with Milwaukee, turns 33 this season, and would cost more than Ackley. It’s hard to envision Seattle signing Weeks when they’re paying a super utility guy (Bloomquist) $3 million.

  2. One clarification for kaehlaone…

    I don’t know if I’d call this offseason bad. It was more mediocre. The Saunders trade was the only thing they did that I absolutely hated. Cruz was dumb, but more of a suboptimal improvement. It at least was an improvement. Beyond that, I just would have liked to see more bold moves and a few more additions to improve depth. Not catastrophic, but uninspired.

  3. “He doesn’t perform, he get’s replaced. This shouldn’t be a mystery, or worth 18 posts saying the obvious. He doesn’t perform, then they look within their system…..They don’t have any realistic options if Ackley fails? Come on, there are options.”

    This is true. They do have options. They just don’t have GOOD options.

    Steffen Romero is unlikely to be more than a bench bat. He was completely overmatched last year. After that? Endy Chavez? Guti hasn’t played in years, so the expectations for him should be nothing. He’s a lottery ticket. There isn’t anyone else who could even fake it for a while.

    The M’s do have some very good outfielders in the organization. Alex Jackson, Austin Wilson, Gabby Guerrero, Tyler O’Neill, and Gareth Morgan are all guys with upside, but none will even be in AAA this year. Patrick Kivlehan could end up helping us in the OF, but he likely needs a full year. I like what the M’s have done with acquiring a lot of good hitters in the organization. But none of them are going to help anytime soon.

    Its not too late. If I were the M’s, I’d talk to Rickie Weeks about potentially being a super utility guy. He’s probably fast enough to learn the OF, and his defense at 2B is so brutal the he’s not likely to find a job elsewhere. He could be a great under the radar addition. I’d also talk to the Red Sox about their glut of OFers. One more legit option would be really smart.

    Its not just Ackley. Austin Jackson was terrible last year, and James Jones was worse. Even the Smith/Ruggiano platoon is far from a sure thing. The M’s are thin in the OF, and if one of those guys fails, it compounds that problem.

    I still think Ackley could turn into a good player. But you have to hedge your bets. I wish the M’s would do that.

  4. Jerry…I think you have overstated the chances that Ackley fails. I don’t think “high probability” is an accurate statement at this point in time. I do think its likely 50/50 at this point but it’s not some horrendous corner we’ve painted ourselves into as much as you’d like to continue to beat the drum that this offseason was bad.

  5. Honestly, how is Ackley any different than any other non-rookie player with four years+ of experience? He doesn’t perform, he get’s replaced. This shouldn’t be a mystery, or worth 18 posts saying the obvious. He doesn’t perform, then they look within their system…..maybe a healthy Guti (fingers crossed), Chavez, or if they are in position to make the playoffs,trade for an upgrade.

    They don’t have any realistic options if Ackley fails? Come on, there are options. Do they have a “ready in the box” option? No, but because you don’t see an option at this point in time, doesn’t mean they don’t have any. Should teams stock up on “failure” options, and potentially stunt the growth of some of their prospects “just in case”? I don’t know many (if any) teams that has every contingency covered. But, a left-fielder is one of the easier positions to fill in trade. Might not be an All Star, but can be reasonable effective option.

  6. If Ackley has played himself off the team by June, there’s a very good chance that’s when they pull the trigger on a deal. My thought is that they could make a deal now if they wanted to, but would rather see what version of Ackley they get and go from there.

    The payroll will be their for a midseason upgrade, a la Austin Jackson 2014, and the club has the assets to make that kind of move.

    If Ackley does flail at the outset, Smith and Ruggiano can see more playing time. It’s a temporary solution. Chavez and Romero will only see regular time in an emergency situation where somebody is hurt, or Romero breaks out. I don’t disagree that those players are platoon guys for a reason, but this is just presumably how the depth chart works at the moment.

  7. “The best plan B for Ackley flailing isn’t Chavez or Romero or Montero forcing Cruz to RF. It’s Ruggiano and Smith playing beyond their platoon roles.”

    That’s a bad plan. Those guys are pure platoon players for a reason.

    That’s the point: the M’s don’t have any realistic options is Ackley fails. Counting on players who have not been able to adjust to big league pitching over multiple years sometimes works out. But if you go that route, you need to have depth in the event the player fails.

    There is a high probablity that Ackley plays himself off the team by June. If that happens, the M’s are in deep shit. They put themselves in this position for no good reason.

  8. I believe this Is the last year Ackley will be a starter. To me he is a good 4th outfielder. I could see moving smith and ruggiano to left field platoon and going after a corner outfield in The off season. There should be quite a bit of power in the free agent pool for corner outfield next offseason. Whom ever is that guy would be holding the position until Alex Jackson is ready………

  9. The best plan B for Ackley flailing isn’t Chavez or Romero or Montero forcing Cruz to RF. It’s Ruggiano and Smith playing beyond their platoon roles.

  10. Doesn’t m,atter all the Jack Z bullshit he keeps pushing these guys 2 quick never lats the develop like ack Zunino etc

  11. Im tired of hearing about potential its been 13 years and Ackley isn’t good and never has been im ok qwith the rest but this article is smoke

  12. The bottom line is that Ackley has to demonstrate that he should be playing LF ahead of all other options who might make the 25-man roster…Smith, Ruggiano, Jones, Romero, Chavez, Gutiérrez, etc. The team is better if he can do that.

  13. If he isn’t better than his historical averages by the trade deadline, I would be looking for a better option. But that does not mean we would find one. Or, it also doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have a bigger hole to fill.

    A league average hitter in LF is less than ideal. But that statement is made in a vacuum. It assumes we have better options. At this time, I do not think we do. We’ll see what the case is in July. But we should play our best option in LF at this point without much concern that he was the #2 pick.

  14. Another factor for 2016 could be cost. Ackley is making $2.6 million this year and has two arbitration years remaining. In addition to Ackley…Morrison, Ruggiano, Wilhelmsen, Furbush, Medina, and Farquhar will be arbitration eligible meaning they’ll all get some sort of pay raise if they’re offered arbitration. Although the team is spending more money, they definitely have a disciplined approach to committing resources. Seattle will have to decide if Ackley will be worth retaining from both baseball value and financial value.

  15. Luke,

    I completely agree, that that’s the big problem: the M’s have no alternatives if he doesn’t pan out. Everyone would love to see him turn into the Darrin Erstad/Mark Kotsay player that I think is his upside. However, that is unlikely. I hate to be the eternal pessimist, but I’d put the chances of him turning into an above average player no higher than 50/50. And that’s a bit optimistic, I think.

    The problem: no depth! If Ackley plays like he has the past few years, the M’s need to move on. But that means Steffen Romero or Endy Chavez playing everyday. Or hoping that Guti finally beats his chronic health problems. Or maybe that Jesus Montero turns into a legit player, and pushes Cruz to RF. None of those are ideal, and the latter would hurt the defense.

    We also have Austin Jackson, who’s been in decline since 2012 and was absolutely atrocious for us late last year. If he fails, we at least have James Jones, but he is anything but a sure thing. I’d put Morrison into that category too: he’s shown flashes, but has been incredibly inconsistent and hasn’t developed into a good player yet. He might, but he might not. If he doesn’t, we have no viable alternatives.

    The M’s have put themselves in a situation where if Ackley or Jackson or Morrison fail, we are going to have a black hole in the lineup. I have no idea why they seem to love Ackley so much, and ditched a better player in Saunders in a silly trade. Ackley is more durable, but that just means more games with a player who is terrible way more often than he’s good.

    I have no problem whatsoever with taking a shot on talented players who haven’t put it together yet. But to do that, you need to have a good Plan B, and ideally a Plan C that won’t be a sucking chest wound. The M’s failed to do that. This team could be really good if things go well, but it could easily be really bad, especially in the OF. The reason why: no depth, and too many inconsistent, unproven players.

  16. If Ackley doesn’t improve and improve a lot, I could see the M’s moving on. Marginal improvement to become league average isn’t enough. Typically your LF is a hitter, not a defender. We need a guy who we can rely on to get on base and propel the offense.

    And frankly there are a couple of minor leaguers that will be taking his spot in a couple of years anyway. You can’t play inferior talent over superior talent, no matter if they were the #2 pick in the draft.

  17. I believe Ackley is going to take a solid step forward this year and I would give him until the trade deadline to make any determination. If he is at his career norms at that point, as outlined by Luke above, I’d have to see if I could improve that position for the stretch run. This, of course, assumes we are still in the race as expected.

    With that said, my belief is that Ackley is somewhere in the .270/.330/.420 range which is slightly above league average and acceptable to me. Anything above that would be great but I think that is a realistic area he could reach.

  18. For those of you who believe that there’s still hope for Ackley, how much longer are you willing to wait for him to develop? For example…if he isn’t any better than his career triple slash .245/.309/.366 at the All-Star break, what should the Mariners do? Or, if his 2015 season numbers are less than league-average, what should the Mariners do with him going into 2016?

  19. Agree with the general sentiment. It is time to get over Ackley being the #2 overall pick. It happened, and it is over. If he is the best option for us in LF, we should play him. But we should be playing the best overall option. If that is someone else, play them. He should no longer be on either side of the hallowed ground of being the #2 pick. Drop the expectations but also drop the guaranteed playing time.

    That said, I am looking forward to a pretty good year from him. I expect to see marginal improvement over last year. Say he continues the trends since 2012 of increasing his OPS by .30-.40…he would be at the MLB avg of .730. Then get a couple years of MLB avg to above average. I’ll take that.

  20. And, making Ackley a platoon player, is NOT the answer. His value comes from playing everyday. Platooning him now, would be like punting on third down.

  21. Is this news to anyone? Some players develop quicker than others. It’s more likely both Smoak and Ackley trying to do too much, because they didn’t have a lot of support around them. At any rate, nobody knows how Ackley will turn out, and frankly, I’m not going to worry about it, or try to over-analyze it. He either produces, or they find someone who can. It’s that simple. I don’t think Ackley will ever be a superstar, but he can be a very useful player. Teams have a lot of those kind of guys, and they have value.

    As bookbook said, many players are labeled as potential superstars before the draft, and don’t reach the hype. That’s baseball. And, there are guys like Kyle Seager who propel beyond expectations. So, if Seager becomes the player Ackley was supposed to be, and Ackley becomes the player Seager was supposed to be, it’s a wash. But not worth trying to overstate the obvious. For Ackley, he’s got to become a useful player, but doesn’t have to be a superstar.

  22. As previously argued, it wasn’t insufficient time in the minors for either player. If it had been, 2,000 PAs in the majors would have been sufficient to figure it out. These guys aren’t as good as hyped. Happens all the time…

  23. Ackley will have to produce this season or face hitting the bench or road, a la Smoak as you point out. The bad part is that he and/or Smoak might go on to figure things out with another team. Both might well have benefited from more time to learn their trade in the minors. Hopefully the team is getting less desperate going forward and prospects will be accorded the time they need to perfect their craft.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.