Mariners' Ackley adjusting at second base
Ackley, the Mariners' first-round pick in 2009 (second overall) and maybe the top position prospect in the organization, is in his second full season at second base.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — The Mariners' future creeps a little bit closer to becoming its present with every step Dustin Ackley takes on the diamonds here.
Or, more specifically, with every turn at second to complete a double play, every break into the outfield to take a relay, every glance at the catcher to read a sign.
The crash course Ackley has been getting in his conversion from career outfielder and first baseman to second base is reaching graduate-level status now.
Ackley, the Mariners' first-round pick in 2009 (second overall) and maybe the top position prospect in the organization, is in his second full season at second base. If he can successfully make the transition, the Mariners feel they'll have an answer at that position for a decade or so, a seeming bright light for a franchise again attempting to rebound from disaster.
Last year, Ackley was trying to get comfortable at second. Now it's about getting major-league-ready at a position that's far more complicated than Ackley realized.
"You have to run every situation through your mind before any pitch is thrown," he said, including knowing what pitch is being thrown to anticipate where the ball may be hit.
"If there are runners on base you've got to be like 'OK, if the ball is hit to right or the right fielder has to go to the left or right, where do I need to be? Do I need to go to first? Second? Do I need to cut it off?' You've got to run through all those things before it happens, and if you don't you could be somewhere you are not supposed to be."
It helps that Ackley comes from a baseball family. His father John played in the Red Sox system for seven years, and an older brother, Jordan, played in college.
"My dad never really pushed it on us," Ackley said. "It was just something we started doing and we really enjoyed it."
Dustin Ackley grew to be one of the best players in college baseball at North Carolina in 2009, ending his career with a .412 average. The Mariners took him in the June 2009 draft after Washington selected Stephen Strasburg.
The Mariners envisioned a player who could provide outfield-type hitting at a middle-infield position.
So far, so good as Ackley made a smooth transition from Class AA to Class AAA, hitting .267 along the way.
Veterans have noticed the difference this spring.
"He's way better than he was last year," said Mariner shortstop Josh Wilson. "Last year when I got to see him, he had the look of a guy who had never played infield before. He even started to make some strides last spring training. But when I saw him early in camp now just around the bag working out, he looks a lot more natural. He looks like a guy who has been doing it a lot longer than he has. It's been impressive to see how far I think he has come."
Still, work remains, especially on the nuances of the position that can easily go unnoticed.
On Saturday, a day Ackley wasn't in the lineup, he spent an extra half-hour before the game on the practice field.
The first 15 minutes he worked on taking throws from third and making the turn. The next 15 on fielding grounders and making the flip to second.
"It's just getting a rhythm and getting your footwork down," he said. "You've got to realize and recognize the guys that are at third — how good their arms are, where they like to throw it. Just all those kinds of things, and maybe that's the toughest part to learn."
The new Mariners coaching staff hadn't seen much of Ackley and wasn't totally sure what to expect. Bench coach Robby Thompson, a former second baseman with the Giants, is working specifically with Ackley and says "I was pleasantly surprised coming into camp the first time seeing how he plays second base."
"Now we're trying to get things ironed out, the things he's not comfortable with. One of them is the feed from third base — when to come across the bag (to receive the throw), when not to."
That Ackley remains an unfinished product was seen in Sunday's 6-1 loss to the Giants.
In the sixth, he bobbled a grounder, then threw the ball away on his throw to first for an error.
"That's a play he will make in time," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. "That's why you want to continue to give him reps out there. It's tough to duplicate so many different types of plays in the game, so the only way you can give him that type of repetition is to let him go out there and play."
Said Thompson: "He will be a good big league hitter. We all feel that and know that. We're just trying to get that defense to catch up to his hitting, basically."
That seems to portend that Ackley will start the year in Tacoma (which also would help the Mariners in starting the clock a little later on his major-league service time).
"It'd be stupid to say that I wouldn't want to be (on the Opening Day roster)," Ackley said. "But I'm just going to give it my best shot, and if I play well enough, I can earn the job. And I would like to think I deserve it if I play well enough. But if I'm not on it, I'm not going to be mad or anything like that. I'll just try to get better and make it up there one day."
• There is still no definitive word on the status of catcher Miguel Olivo, who strained his groin on the left side Saturday, as results of an MRI won't be examined until Monday. But Olivo met with reporters and said he was optimistic that he would be ready for Opening Day. "I'll be OK, I guarantee you that," Olivo said.
• Nate Robertson, attempting to make the starting rotation as an invited free agent, gave up four runs on four hits and two walks in three innings. He had impressed in his first outing with three strikeouts in two scoreless innings. Said Robertson: "(I need to) work on things in a side session and tighten it up a little bit. But as far as healthwise, arm feels great and legs feel good and that's what's important at this stage."
• Reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez will make his first start of the spring on Monday against Oakland in Phoenix.
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699
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