Note: I wrote this before last night's news of Brian Roberts likely signing with the Yankees. It would still not be a bad move for the Yankees to pursue Ackley, especially since Roberts will probably get hurt eating flapjacks this morning.
The Seattle Mariners currently have three second basemen on their roster who have arguments to be legitimate starters on a major league team. One is Dustin Ackley. One is Nick Franklin. The third is Robinson Cano. It will truly be a magical mystery tour to discover who the Mariners will pick to be their second baseman next year, but just in case they gamble with Door #3, they will have much less of a need to retain Ackley and/or Franklin.
Just a month ago, it would have seemed crazy to conceive the notion that the Mariners and Yankees could swap second basemen, the possibility might very well come to pass. The Mariners might be more willing to deal Ackley away than Franklin, since the latter just went through his first year in the majors and finished with a 96 OPS+, two-win season, which is just fine for a rookie. Cano is taking his job and fellow rookie Brad Miller played quite well at shortstop, Franklin's other position, but the Mariners might be more willing to do some creative work to keep him in the fold since his stock is currently higher than Ackley's. (That or include him in a trade package for a better return than what Ackley would likely bring. Regardless, Franklin's trade target post is for another day.)
Ackley was picked by the Mariners just after the Washington Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg with the first pick of the 2009 draft. The 58-101 Mariners of '08 inexplicably swept their final series of the season while the 59-99 Nationals dropped got swept by the Phillies; it took somewhat incredible odds for the Mariners to not end up with Strasburg. Nonetheless, few saw their selection of UNC center fielder Dustin Ackley as a bad consolation prize at all. They decided to convert him to second base (and after briefly seeing his arm in center this year, they were wise to do so), and Baseball America declared him the 11th-best prospect baseball entering the 2010 season. He started that year in Double-A and just 14 months later, he found himself in the major leagues.
Ackley's rookie year was just about ideal for Mariners management. He hit line drives like crazy, impressing at the plate with a .273/.348/.417 triple slash, a 117 wRC+. In the field, he was above average at second base, and ultimately generated 2.9 fWAR and 3.7 rWAR. He earned some scant AL Rookie of the Year votes despite only appearing in 90 games, and the Mariners' future looked bright at second.
Then came the next year and a half, a complete nightmare for Ackley in which he went from future All-Star to cannon fodder. He was miserable all year long in 2012 with a .226/.294/.328 triple slash and a 75 wRC+; for Yankee fan comparison's sake, that is a figure only slightly better than Vernon Wells's 2013 wRC+. Things somehow got worse for Ackley during the first two months of 2013, when he hit .205/.266/.250 in 45 games. With Ackley's game in shambles and Franklin crushing the competition in Triple-A Tacoma, the Mariners had to pull the plug on Ackley. They sent him down to work on his approach at the plate, and he was gone for about a month. When he returned, it didn't take him long to catch fire, and he hit .285/.354/.404 in 68 games for the rest of season. Ackley just seemed to get better as the season progressed, a stretch highlighted by a .390/.420/.597 month of August. Overall, his 2013 numbers were worse than they were in 2012, but his second-half adjustments helped him reclaim some of his dignity. Ackley will only be turning 26 in February. He still has plenty of time to turn his career around. Should the Yankees be interested since they need a second baseman? Did the first half or the second half of 2013 represent the real Ackley?
At Lookout Landing, new head honcho Scott Weber noted that the lefty had fallen into a bad habit of rolling over pitches and sending meek grounders toward second. Weber also suggested that Ackley was watching too many borderline pitches go by for strikes when he could have been a little bit more aggressive at the plate in order to perhaps slash the ball the opposite way. At USS Mariner, old Lookout Landing head honcho and current FanGraphs scribe Jeff Sullivan did some research and determined that surprisingly, Ackley's plate discipline statistics from 2011-13 were almost identical to those posted by Mike Trout during the same timeframe. Curiously, Sullivan noted that the whole problem might very well have been psychological:
The important thing is that Dustin Ackley has been hitting. He’s been spraying line drives and hitting balls to gaps, and yesterday he finally sent a ball over a fence. People who know about this stuff have pointed out some improved swings, and Ackley himself says he’s feeling more confident...
What’s maybe most interesting is how the improvement is mostly psychological. Ackley has admitted he wasn’t ready to hit before, and now he’s feeling more like himself. This season, we don’t observe big changes in his swing rates. Ackley hasn’t gone from being passive to being aggressive, not outwardly, not in the numbers. Though he’s swung more in the second half, he’s also seen more pitches in the zone than any other Mariner in the second half, and that’ll lift a guy’s swing rate. You’re not going to figure out Dustin Ackley by examining his plate-discipline statistics.
...earlier this season Ackley’s confidence hit a professional low. His confidence pretty much mirrored Tom Wilhelmsen’s, and as difficult a concept as that is to analyze, confidence is one of the most fundamental components of on-field success. Enough smart players have said as much, to smart people. Now Ackley’s confidence is returning, and with a tweaked swing, he’s generating numbers that aren’t pathetic.
As both Sullivan and Weber concluded, it's far too soon to say that Ackley is "fixed" at the plate. If the Yankees do decide to trade for Ackley, it will be a gamble. That's assured.
However, it will be a gamble that probably won't cost the Yankees too much. The Mariners don't really have to play the "keep rolling the dice on Ackley" game. They could keep trying Ackley in the outfield like they did in the second half of 2013, but he's not a good defensive outfielder and he's likely never going to be an overpowering enough hitter to make up for these defensive shortcomings. He is a fine defensive second baseman though, and if the Yankees think that perhaps a change of scenery would do Ackley's hitting well like it did for Paul O'Neill getting out of Cincinnati 21 years ago, then there's no harm in trying him at second base given the current dearth of options. Moving to Yankee Stadium as a lefty after three years at Safeco Field couldn't hurt the ol' confidence too much, either.
If the cost is minimal, then Ackley could turn out to be a savvy buy-low acquisition. If he disappoints again, the Yankees have no emotional attachment to him, so they could just drop him. Either way, Jack Z. and Brian Cashman are no strangers to trade talks, They should collaborate again to give a fallen prospect a new beginning.
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