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Originally published June 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 10, 2009 at 12:25 AM

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Jerry Brewer

Dustin Ackley might be a safe pick, but he's a good pick for the Mariners

Since psychics normally don't double as baseball draftniks, it's not like you can fork over $19.99 and expect to learn whether Dustin Ackley...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Audio: Conference call with Dustin Ackley

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Since psychics normally don't double as baseball draftniks, it's not like you can fork over $19.99 and expect to learn whether Dustin Ackley truly is the Mariners' star of the future.

He's a mighty good college hitter with good athleticism and good character. All that makes him is — you guessed it — good. Not even those with Gammons-esque baseball knowledge would be foolish enough to declare him the center-field version of George Brett without inserting a few qualifiers. But the kid sure has fans, and of all the raves attached to Ackley, perhaps these words from his college coach are the most comforting for a franchise that needs some nourishment.

"I don't want to jinx him, but if he doesn't make it to the major leagues, it won't be because of him," North Carolina skipper Mike Fox said in a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine. "It'll take something unfortunate, something that takes him out of being able to play the game like we all know he can play it. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone within college baseball or anyone here watching him play in person who wouldn't agree with me on that."

Why? Because Ackley, the North Carolina star, is as dependable as he is talented. Fox, whose Tar Heels will play in the College World Series this week, has offered more effusive praise of Ackley, going as far as calling him the best player he has ever seen, but how many "best evers" have become puzzling trivia questions in draft history?

It's far more impressive to know that Ackley isn't so much a phenom as he is a hard-nosed, hustlin' ballplayer with the drive to match his skill set.

He's not some brawny slugger. He hits for average (.402 as a sophomore, .417 as a junior, .412 as a senior) and gradually developed his power. This season, he has put it all together, with four triples, 17 doubles, 22 homers and 70 runs batted in in 63 games. His on-base plus slugging percentage is a ridiculous 1.289.

"All of the things you like about a hitter, he possesses those natural abilities," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "He has a sweet swing."

Will it transfer to the big leagues? It's impossible to know for sure. Are they likely to transfer? Hear Ackley's story, and you're left with legitimate optimism.

It means that the Mariners, who haphazardly used their last three top picks on pitchers who are now relievers, definitely are being led by a new regime. And the first day of this draft showcased some solid thinking from Zduriencik, director of amateur scouting Tom McNamara and the rest of the front office.

It started with Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick. While it would've been nice if the Mariners had acquiesced in the final three games last season and secured the top pick, Ackley looks like more than a consolation prize for losing the Stephen Strasburg Sweepstakes. Ackley's ceiling may not be as great, but it's also impossible that his floor is sturdier than Strasburg's. Based on what we know, it's hard to envision Ackley being a complete bust.

He's a small-town kid from Walnut Cove, N.C. (pop: 1,467) who learned the game from a father who played in the Red Sox organization. And what's up with Seattle teams and high draft picks from the state of North Carolina? First, the Seahawks took linebacker Aaron Curry. Now, the Mariners have Ackley. Both are considered safe picks. Both are considered steady players. Maybe we need to mine the Tar Heel State for more talent.

But back to Ackley: He endured Tommy John surgery and moved from the outfield to first base this season without any problems. He says his right elbow is back to full strength, and the Mariners see him as a center fielder right now. He's very health conscious, to the point of banning soda from his diet. Ackley admitted to gulping a soft drink Tuesday. Maybe the stress of the day got to him.

"I'm not really a health freak," he said. "I just try to stay away from bad stuff. I was forced to have one [Tuesday], but before that, it had been a long time."

Asked what it's like to be called a future star for a team that groomed Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr., and Ackley says shyly, "That's crazy to think I'm following in their footsteps."

If he's to be a success, Ackley can't merely follow those footsteps. He must make his own.

This city knows well about the few guarantees a high draft pick can provide. With Ackley, though, perhaps he's equipped not to let the expectations consume him. Perhaps he can succeed like he always has: one sweet swing at a time.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Mariners picks
Rd. (Overall) Player, pos., school
1st (2nd) Dustin Ackley, OF, North Carolina
1st (27th) Nick Franklin, SS, Lake Brantley HS, Fla.
1st (33rd) Steven Baron, C, Ferguson HS, Miami
2nd (51st) Rich Poythress, 1B, Georgia
3rd (82nd) Kyle Seager, 2B, North Carolina

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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