In discussing Dustin Ackley’s transition to second base, Mariners’ general manager Jack Zduriencik mentioned the seed was originally planted by Ackley’s coach at North Carolina, Mike Fox.
I called up Fox on Wednesday, and he chuckled when Zduriencik’s words were relayed.
“I heard through a couple of my players that Dusty said they were going to experiment,” he said. “That doesn’t really surprise me. We never really had Dusty at second base here, but he played shortstop in high school, and I saw him play third base in high school, and he played first base for us three years. I’ve seen him field a lot of ground balls. Obviously, it’s a different position, but I think he has the athletic skills to make it work.”
Fox remembers Zduriencik watching Ackley play in a game at Boston College prior to the draft, and meeting with him after the game. In fact, the Tar Heels specifically played Ackley in center field that day to show the Mariners and other teams what he could do in the outfield.
“I think I made the comment – it might have been directly to Jack, or someone else asked me where I thought you could play at the next level,” Fox said. “I said, most people are looking at him as an outfielder, but I think he could be a really good second baseman.”
Ackley played primarily first base at North Carolina because of Tommy John surgery, but major league teams weren’t looking at him as a first baseman. His skill set – a left-handed bat projected to hit for a high average with a high on-base percentage, with late developing power – just increases in value if he can make the successful transition to second base.
“As an infielder, I thought second base would be the best fit for him,” Fox said. “If his arm didn’t fully recover enough for the outfield, I initially thought second base was another good option.
“Dusty has that short arm swing (throwing). He had it at first, turning double plays. You can tell when a kid has that kind of exchange. He’s been making that short 90-foot throw three years for me. I think the adjustment and adaptation of that throw from second to first would be easier than the one he’s making now from the outfield.”
As far back as May, ESPN’s Peter Gammons – a UNC alum and close follower of the program – wrote that Ackley could be another Chase Utley as a second baseman. There have been references to Fox making the same comparison.
“I don’t know if I said that specifically; others may have made that reference,” he said. “I watched Utley in the playoffs for Philadelphia, and he’s pretty darned good. I would hope Dusty could one day be as good a player. When (Utley) was at UCLA, I coached against him, and I thought, ‘Whoa, this kid is really, really good.’ I’m hoping Dusty takes the same path. It’s a pretty good path to take.”
Fox added, “I hope they’re not totally giving up on him as an outfielder, but I think the more positions you can play, the better chance you have of getting on the field.”
Fox said he followed Ackley’s performance in the Arizona Fall League each day on the internet. The UNC equipment manager is close to Ackley and speaks to him often, keeping the coach updated on his progress and mindset.
“I saw him on television (in the AFL All-Star Game), and he looked like the same old Dust to me,” Fox said.
Ackley hit .315 with a .412 on-base percentage in 20 games in Arizona, but had just six extra-base hits (one homer and five doubles).
When I noted to Fox that many people (including myself, I must say) were taken aback at how slight Ackley appeared when he showed up at Safeco Field in late August after signing his contract, he said, “I knew that would be everyone’s initial take – ‘Gosh, he’s not ever big.’
“I think he’ll fill out more. Dusty lifted weights hard, but he lifts a little differently than others, I think. He’s just not going to be one of those guys that initially looks like he’s really bulked up and really strong, but he’s kind of that wiry strong. His core and his hands are his strongest part.”
Can he become a power hitter along the lines, of, oh, I don’t know, Chase Utley? This past season for UNC, Ackley hit .417 with 22 homers.
“I think he creates the bat speed, and that’s the ultimate test,” Fox said. “Is Utley all that big? I don’t think he’s all that big, either, but boy, can he can sure hit them out of the park. I think young kids physically fill out and mature at different stages. I think Dusty will get a little bigger.”
The idea of Ackley as a second baseman for the Mariners makes eminent sense, particularly with the prospect of Franklin Gutierrez filling center field for the foreseeable future, and the possibility that Jose Lopez will be used as trade bait. A middle infielder with the kind of impact bat the Mariners envision is worth his weight in gold (or Gold Gloves, but that’s getting greedy).
Zduriencik insists this move isn’t set in stone, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t have staying power.
(Seattle Times photo)