Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a "graduate" of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix Arizona. Prior to getting into baseball, Bernie served as Dean of Campus Life at Loyola University Chicago for 27 years. He is married and lives with his wife Lynn in Cave Creek, Arizona. He'll share his weekly thoughts on prospects with RotoWire from a scouting perspective.
I often question myself about my scouting opinion and overall evaluation of Mariners prospect Dustin Ackley. Hereís what goes through my head; ďAre you sure? Are you making a mistake? Take another look. Go ahead.Ē Iíve taken several looks. I've watched games in the Arizona Fall League. Iíve watched video. Iíve talked to scouts. Iíve talked to people who have evaluated talent for years. With the exception of one person (more about that later,) the individuals with whom I have discussed Dustin Ackley are effusive in their praise. They think heís a terrific hitter.
Based upon my personal observations, I do not believe Ackley was worthy of being the No. 2 prospect taken in the 2009 first-year player draft. Seattle took him right after Washington grabbed pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg. Apparently, there was little disagreement among baseball folks that Ackleyís hitting prowess deserved that standing. However, I first reported my concern for Ackleyís hitting mechanics in my Arizona Fall League notebook on Rotowire. My concerns remain.
Ackley was drafted following his junior year as the first baseman at the University of North Carolina. He was an outstanding college hitter, posting a .400-plus batting average in each of his three years covering 840 at-bats in Chapel Hill. Prior to playing first base for the Tar Heels, Ackley was their center fielder. Tommy John surgery performed in July of 2008 caused Ackley to shift his defensive position to first base. Ackley was a prime prospect that many folks believed to be the best hitter in the country.
Ackley is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound 22-year-old with a rather wiry body. He doesnít look overly athletic. He has a smallish upper body with small shoulders. He looks in good shape, but he canít be mistaken for a powerful, prototypical first baseman. Thatís fine. He wonít be playing first for the Mariners. Or will he? Recently, the Mariners switched Ackleyís position once again from second base to first base. It remains to be seen if he will settle in that role. My prediction? He ends up in the outfield. Or perhaps at second. Not at first. At least I hope not.
The first time I saw Ackley hit, I thought it was someone else. This couldnít be the guy I had heard so much about. He was lunging at pitches, and hitting off of his front foot. His stride was very long and he lost control of the trunk of his body right before his swing. He's got very little, if any torque in his swing. He showed very good wrists and a quick swing for his style. I thought his bat speed was quick enough through the ball to compensate for the poor footwork and lack of thrust from his hips and lower body. He finished his swing with good extension, but time after time he wasnít getting any lift or drive on the ball. His swing looked awkward to me. He was jumping and thrusting at the ball from the left-handed batterís box and not employing an even stride. I had to seek another opinion.
An individual I trust completely was seated next to me at one of Ackleyís games. He has evaluated countless players during his tenure in and out of uniform in the major leagues. I had to consult with him. I wrote the following on a piece of paper Ė ďlunges to the ball on his front foot.Ē I tucked the paper in my pocket because I didnít want to say anything for fear of making a complete fool out of myself. ďWhatís your take on Ackley?Ē I asked. Here was his response, and I remember every word. ďHits off his front foot. No way he can generate power. I have no idea what those guys were thinking taking him at 2.Ē I showed him my paper. He congratulated me on being on target. To this day, he might be the only other person I have heard that critical of Ackleyís swing. I felt vindicated. But thatís whatís so exciting about scouting players. There isnít one correct answer. Different scouts see things differently. I sure did see things differently about Dustin Ackley. So did the man I consulted.
I must say that following a very tough beginning to his career during the 2009 Arizona Fall League, Ackley improved and finished the short season hitting .321 with one home run and 13 RBI. The Fall League is a hitterís haven. The pitching is mediocre, and the environment is very favorable to hitting for power. In all honesty, Ackley is following the same pattern with Double-A West Tennessee in his first professional season. He had a miserable April. He is improving in May. The power has not been evident. Not at all. Maybe heís just a slow starter?
Seattle played Ackley in the outfield during the AFL. However, sensing a need for improvement at second base, the Mís began Ackleyís career with him playing second base. It would be yet another position to learn. It made total sense, as Ackleyís bat is much more suited to be a middle-infielder. Including high school, Ackley has played shortstop, outfield, first base and he has pitched. The move to second base should not have been difficult. It was to have been a path for him to the big leagues. It may yet become his full-time position. But who knows? The move to first base could be permanent. I doubt it.
Of course, players have to show more than one skill to be ranked the second-best player in the June draft. Itís established that Ackley can hit for average. I hope for his sake and the sake of the Mariners that it will happen. However, there are other skills that are required of a big league player. Ackley runs well, and he has above major league speed. He should steal some bases. His arm strength has been compromised slightly by his Tommy John surgery, but it should be good enough for him to play second base at the big league level. His defense at second is a work in progress.
Finally, I donít believe he will hit for power. That is, I donít believe he will come anywhere close to hitting 25 home runs in his prime. I just canít see it at this point. Itís certainly possible that he can hit the ball out of the park on occasion, but not enough to be called a power threat. Especially not at Safeco Field in Seattle. I just donít think it will happen with any type of frequency. Perhaps that will change if his upper body develops and if he changes his hitting mechanics to derive more flight and thrust on the ball. Thatís why I canít see the Mariners keeping him at first base. So basically, I feel Ackley has two true skills at this early point of his career; his ability to hit for average and his ability to run well. Playing first base makes me really wonderówill he have enough power to be a force at a power position? Should the Mariners leave him at second and let him learn the position? Yes, they have Chone Figgins. But Ackley was a No. 2 overall draft choice and Figgins can play third base. To me, first base is a reach. A big reach at that. What about the outfield? Heís played there and heís athletic. A good fit? Maybe.
It may take an entire season for Ackley to learn several positions and refine his hitting. College players have to adjust to using wood bats, learn to hit more developed pitching and become acclimated to making a living playing professional baseball. Thatís a great deal on the plate for any player. Ackley will remain high on the radar of the parent club because so much is expected of him. His continued adjustment to wood bats is an important component of his development and it should not be dismissed. But as I said, May has been promising for him at the plate.
In summary, while I donít feel Dustin Ackleyís talents were worthy of him being the second player selected in the June 2009 draft, I do think he will be a good hitter with the potential to hit for average in the big leagues. I would like to see better hitting mechanics.
I think Ackley is slow adjusting to new surroundings and increased pitching quality. The higher quality of players, the greater intensity of the games and the change of environment requires making adjustments. Perhaps Ackley is slow to adjust. Perhaps he will improve steadily as he becomes more comfortable with his situation. As of this week, one year after being drafted second overall in the 2009 first year player draft, Ackley is hitting .251 with one home run in 50 games and 167 at-bats in Double-A. He has only 18 runs batted in. For me, thatís slow progress. It reflects much of what I saw in Arizona in the fall.
I still look for Ackley to take over at second base or become an outfielder for Seattle as early as 2012. Both are positions of need for the club (as is first base for that matter) and he fits the equation well. But both the guy I sat next to at the Fall League game and I want you to be cautious.
Ackley needs repetition at the plate and in the field. He has the raw tools to be a good hitter with good foot speed, good athletic ability but with below average pop. The Mariners have to make up their minds about where he will play defensively. To me, that means second base or the outfield.