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June 19, 2013 at 11:42 AM

Why the Mariners are taking so long with Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley is honing his outfield skills at Class AAA Tacoma and will be key to the next phase of the Mariners attempting to salvage their 2013 season. Photo Credit: AP

Dustin Ackley is honing his outfield skills at Class AAA Tacoma and will be key to the next phase of the Mariners attempting to salvage their 2013 season. Photo Credit: AP

Dustin Ackley keeps on hitting down in Class AAA Tacoma. The Mariners keep not hitting at the major league level — scrounging up three runs over 10 innings for a win last night, though it took two home runs and an extra frame to reach that meager total.

So, why no Ackley?

Well, the Mariners keep saying they want to make sure his hitting is “real” but by the time they figure that out, this season could be pretty much over for all intents and purposes. With jobs now on the line in the front office and coaching ranks, there’s probably a limit to just how large a sample size the M’s higher-ups can really afford to have with Ackley since none of these numbers and samples will offer any type of guarantee when it comes to his hitting in the majors.

So, no, that hitting being “real” isn’t the big reason he’s still down there. But his ability to play center field consistently is one of the reasons and looking at the team now, it’s probably the biggest reason he hasn’t been called up yet. Mariners manager Eric Wedge finally seemed to admit as much yesterday when I asked him about it pregame.

“I want him to have a little bit more time in the outfield in general,” Wedge said. “Whether it be left field or center field. Either way for me I think it works good. The reps in center field would just be a concern right now. I want to make sure he can do that.”

And that makes a little more sense given the context of where this team now sits. Because the Mariners aren’t liable to gain a whole lot more certainly with Ackley at the plate simply by waiting another few days or even a week to bring him back up.

But several more days of reps in center could make a difference. Especially given what the team needs to do next.

The Mariners need Ackley to be able to play center because they need a backup at the position to spell Franklin Gutierrez at least a couple of days per week. And realistically, once Gutierrez comes off the 60-day DL — he’s eligible as of Saturday and I’d expect the team to move rather quick — there still has to be a backup plan, for a variety of reasons.

First, nobody really knows how long Gutierrez will stay healthy. The Mariners have tried to insist before that they knew and had reasonable expectations for his good heath. They were wrong — for whatever reason, be it bad luck, injury-prone tendancies, slow recovery, whatever. They just don’t know for certain and haven’t guessed right yet.

So, if he goes down, there has to be a backup plan.

Right now, center field is manned by Michael Saunders and Endy Chavez. It’s doubtful both will still be here once Gutierrez and Ackley arrive.

First, the team will have to find a 40-man roster spot for Gutierrez.

One candidate would be Chavez. Then, they would have to find a major league spot for Ackley. Saunders seems to fit that bill.

But if Saunders is sent to AAA and Chavez sent packing, that would leave just Gutierrez and Ackley capable of playing center. And if you know Gutierrez can only play four or five times per week max, then you’d better be darned sure that Ackley can handle center at least twice a week.

It’s possible the team would keep Chavez and drop somebody else off the 40-man roster if Saunders is indeed sent to AAA. That would likely involve a minor leaguer, though Aaron Harang┬áhas been inconsistent in the rotation and Erasmo Ramirez has been getting healthier down in AAA. So, there’s always that possibility of Harang’s roster spot.

There are multiple options at-play here.

Now, if Gutierrez gets hurt again, you could always call Saunders back up from AAA and have him man center while Ackley backs it up. But if the reason Saunders was sent down to AAA in the first place is because he seemed “lost” and unfixable in MLB, you don’t want him playing seven days per week for the Mariners either. You might not want him playing even five days per week.

So, Ackley has to be able to handle center with more frequency than just an emergency backup. He can’t be the Kelly Shoppach of center fielders, whose game declines if played more than twice in seven days.

Now, the plug hasn’t been pulled on Saunders just yet. After all, with Ackley able to play second base, you could send Carlos Triunfel to AAA and use Nick Franklin as the backup shortstop.

Saunders has several more days to show he’s figured something out. Despite attrocious numbers since early May, Saunders has started to collect a few hits and drove the ball harder last night than I’ve seen him do in weeks on a flyball that Peter Bourjos prevented from being a home run with a leaping catch.

The Mariners are not about to ship Saunders out if they get the sense he’s finally turning things around.

And if that’s the case, then Chavez is the one most likely to go. Wedge has said over and over again that he isn’t about to carry six outfielders.

And if you add Ackley, that’s technically seven outfielders. What will likely happen going forward is that Michael Morse will get most of his playing time at first base and the DH spot. With a little outfield mixed in. So, we can knock the seven outfielders down to six.

That’s still one too many.

And if Chavez goes, then you lose your backup center fielder who also backs up both corner positions.

That’s the j0b Ackley would take over.

Either way, though, Ackley has to be able to truly play center. So, in this case, another week or so of reps there will really make a difference. If not for that, this team would have called him up before the start of this road trip because the Mariners had to win some games on it and were falling apart health-wise from overuse at the first base position. Ackley at first base for even a few days made sense to buy time. Turns out, the Mariners were able to scrape by without him a few more days.

They  have a 3-2 record on the trip and now have Justin Smoak back.

The next issue now becomes the outfield. Getting a suitable long-term arrangement in center, plus options to spell corner outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay from overuse.

The key to that whole deal is Ackley.

He’s the new Gutierrez insurance going forward. And he’s the key to getting Ibanez and Bay some needed rest. Also the key to sending Saunders to AAA if his recent positive signs of the last few days turn out to be just a blip in a downward spiral. If Saunders is kept, then he and Gutierrez have some type of sharing arangement in center and Saunders can also bounce to the corners if needed. Ackley could then be used primarily in the corners and maybe a day per week in center to give Gutierrez or Saunders some rest.

Maybe Saunders goes back to the corners again full-time and Ackley becomes Gutierrez’s backup in center?

We’ll see what the plan is. I’m not sure the Mariners even know definitively what the plan is because of Saunders and a situation that appears in-flux.

The big thing now will be for the Mariners to at least split these next two games in Anaheim and secure a winning record on this trip. They can’t head back to Seattle 10 games under .500.

But finishing the trip eight games, or even seven under .500 at least gives them some hope of whittling things a lot closer to three or four under before the team has to make July trade decisions. In other words, a winning record n the trip buys them another week or so.

And gives them time to implement Phase II of their 2013 salvation effort. The phase to which Ackley is so critical.

Comments | More in outfield | Topics: Dustin Ackley, endy chavez, franklin gutierrez

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