An odd reunion
Photo: Jon Wells
Dustin Ackley returns to the Mariners—or at least, to the Rainiers
January 9, 2019
In a weird but no-risk move today, the Mariners signed Dustin Ackley to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training.
Ackley, of course, has been here before—in 2009, Jack Zduriencik's first year as Seattle's General Manager, Ackley was the Mariners' top selection in the amateur draft, chosen second overall and hyped as the next great impact player. It didn't work out that way; Ackley was a huge disappointment and became a poster boy for Zduriencik's failures as a GM. Since leaving the M's in 2015, Ackley struggled to stay in the game—he played in 51 games for the Yankees, batting just .212, then toiled in the Angels' minor-league system in 2017 and '18.
Now 30, Ackley is the longest of long shots to make the Mariners' roster in 2019. Even if he manages to impress in spring training, the only chance he has to fit on the squad is as a utilityman, and though he's competent at first base, second base, and left field, he's never played the critical positions of third base and shortstop professionally. The outfield is already crowded, second base is Dee Gordon's domain, and both Ryon Healy and Dan Vogelbach would have to self-destruct to create any opportunity at first base.
Drafting Ackley number-two overall (second only to Washington's Stephen Strasburg) was not seen at the time as a boneheaded move, and in fact might have worked out under different circumstances. He had a spectacular college career—twice named All-American; Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year for 2009; finalist for the Golden Spikes award (again second to Strasburg); batted .402, .417, and .399 in his three years at North Carolina—and might have deserved his hype as a top draft pick.
But this was the Zduriencik era for the Mariners, and position players under Jack Z tended to be rushed through the minors without any development time to speak of. Ackley began as a pro in Double-A, batting .263/.389/.384 in 2010. Given his college line of .412/.487/.648, a promotion to Triple-A may not have been warranted, but he moved up in mid-season anyway. At Triple-A Tacoma in 2011, he had a strong first half and was brought up to the Majors in mid-June of that year, having logged all of 1½ seasons in the minor leagues. The remainder of 2011 wasn't bad for Ackley—he actually finished 6th in AL Rookie of the Year voting—but the lack of experience in the lower levels really showed itself the next year, and he never again managed to perform respectably in the big leagues, amassing a career line of just .241/.304/.367.
The '09 draft class included a number of players who became big-league All-Stars, and instead of Ackley, Zduriencik could have chosen, say, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, or A.J. Pollock. But what might have happened had Jack Z taken Trout and San Diego or Baltimore ended up with Ackley? Would the Mariners have been the beneficiary of a two-time MVP and four-time MVP runner-up, or would Trout have been rushed to the bigs and become a more ordinary player? And with more deliberate development time in a better farm system, would Ackley have turned into a superstar as a Padre or Oriole?
Tellingly, the Mariners had two selections in the first round of that '09 draft, and both of them bombed—Nick Franklin actually found himself a teammate of Ackley's as an Angels minor-leaguer in 2017 before landing in the lower levels of Milwaukee's farm system last year.