Some interesting news came out of Las Vegas today when Rainiers radio Mike Curto sent a tweet out that Dustin Ackley was penciled into the starting line-up in … left field.
Obviously, that’s a surprise considering that the Mariners drafted Ackley as an outfielder out of the University of North Carolina and then spent the better part of two years converting him to a second baseman. To his credit, Ackley became a better than average second baseman – even earning a gold glove nomination last season.
But with rookie Nick Franklin playing well at second base since being called up, the Mariners, specifically general manager Jack Zduriencik, called to ask Ackley on Tuesday morning if he would like to try some outfield while he was with Triple A Tacoma.
“I think it’s good for Dustin,” Zduriencik said. “Versatility is a good thing. He was wide open. That’s great.”
Of course, Ackley doesn’t really have much of a choice in the matter.
In an interview on Sunday with the News Tribune, Ackley didn’t seem quite as “wide open” about changing positions.
“That would be tough,” he said. “That wouldn’t be ideal. I’ve worked hard there the last two or three years. It would be a tough transition. It would be something that might take me a while to get used to another position.”
Of course, Ackley is far from the type of player to make waves or complain.
“But if I have to, if that’s what it takes, I’ve done it before, I’ve changed positions to second, I guess changing to somewhere else wouldn’t be something I couldn’t do,” he said.
Ackley took fly balls in center field and left field before Tuesday’s game. The Mariners also sent minor league outfield coordinator Brant Brown to join the Rainiers and work with Ackley on a daily basis.
“He really does a good job,” Zduriencik said of Brown, who was hired in the offseason.
This is far from a locked-in permanent position switch. The Mariners are going to take a serious look at Ackley in the outfield to see if he can help them there, but he can always go back to second base. Ackley will play in the outfield on a daily basis. The Mariners are using a rotation of Raul Ibanez, Endy Chavez and JasonBay in left field. Their combined age is 110 years old. Seattle also has really no outfield prospects coming up through the ranks. So it’s worth trying out.
“We’ll see him play the outfield and just see how it goes,” Zduriencik said. “We know what he’s done at second base. We’ll let him get his feet wet in the outfield. It will be good for him. Again, it’s versatility and giving us options and giving him options. As you look at all the different scenarios, you don’t know how it’s going to play out. But I think as long as guys have experience playing other positions, it can benefit the player, it can benefit the organization, and that’s the purpose in it.”
The move obviously looks like a response to how well Franklin has been playing at second base. The Mariners have quite a logjam of second baseman with Franklin and Ackley and Stefen Romero, who was also being converted to outfield. Romero will slide over and play right field and some first base. But Zduriencik shrugged it off as a direct reaction to Franklin’s early success.
“We’ve actually talked about this for awhile, ever since we’ve had Dustin,” Zduriencik said. ” We’ve switched positions by giving him a chance to go to second base. There were different times we’ve talked about having him play in the outfield. The timing never seemed right to do it, because he was playing second base in the big leagues. We didn’t want to upset the apple cart at that point. But I think now that’s he’s down there, in a little more relaxed atmosphere, the time is right.”
Ackley is relatively familiar with the outfield. As a freshman and sophomore, he started a handful games in left field and center field. He played outfield in summer leagues as well, but that was cut short when he suffered a ligament tear in his right arm, forcing him to have Tommy John surgery. But he still did play a few games in center field as a junior. Mariners director of amateur scouting Tom McNamara saw him play in the outfield a few times.
“I saw him as a freshman and a sophomore,” McNamara said. “The year we took him, he actually played – I couldn’t tell you the exact number of games and innings – but I’ve seen him play center field before. I’ve only him play centerfield and first base.”
So can he handle a transition to left field?
“He’ll be fine out there,” McNamara said. ”We took him as a hitter. In the back of our minds, we thought he may end up in the outfield because that’s where he played before he got hurt.”
The big question is Ackley’s arm strength. It’s one of the reasons he was converted from being a projected center fielder to a second baseman. He doesn’t have a strong arm. But it can be hidden in left field.
“I remember when he was being converted to second base,” McNamara said. “I remember asking his dad – he played seven years in the minor leagues – I said, ‘hey what do you think?’ And he said, ‘You know what, my son will make plays. He may not stand out.’ When you watch him play second base, he’s not flashy. But he does make the plays. That’s how he was in the outfield. He can run. You could see more of his speed when he played outfield. I still think that run tool could be more productive out there.”