It's been a long, strange year for Seattle Mariners second baseman/outfielder Dustin Ackley.
Perhaps more than any other Mariner this season (and arguably last), Ackley has left fans in the Pacific Northwest wondering what exactly to make of him—and by extension the Mariners.
For those of you who may have lost track of Ackley after his promising debut two summers earlier and his sophomore slump last year, allow me to summarize his performance this season by the month:
April was rough after what had been a decent spring training.
May was so brutal that he was demoted and replaced at second base.
In June, he rebounded at Triple-A Tacoma and returned to Seattle by the end of the month.
In July, he really didn't distinguish himself at the plate or on the field.
Then suddenly in August, Ackley became an animal, both literally and figuratively.
Growing out a beard more reminiscent of a man in quest of the Stanley Cup than a baseball player, "Wolfman Ack" slowly but surely put together an impressive month, per ESPN, hitting .390 with 2 HR and 10 RBI with 10 runs scored. But perhaps even more exciting was the fact that both his OBP and slugging percentage were simply off the charts.
Yet the funny thing is that Ackley's metamorphosis occurred to very little fanfare, all the way at the bottom of the M's lineup.
It wasn't until last Friday night in Houston, while all eyes were focused on rookie Taijuan Walker's debut, that Ackley basically put on a clinic, spraying four hits for four RBI and made a nifty catch on his knees near the bullpen in right-center to cap off what would be Walker's first win.
Maybe it was just one night, but is this the Dustin Ackley we've all been waiting for?
For the better part of two years we've been waiting for a sign of something but have only captured brief glimpses amidst several false starts.
According to Ackley, this recent turnaround may come down to a simple matter of trust, as described to Ryan Divish at the Tacoma News Tribune:
"I think now it’s just something where I can really trust in my swing, where before I didn’t really trust it and all that,” he said. “Now it’s gotten back to how it used to feel and that’s why I’m mentally focused every at-bat and ready to hit.”
Deep down I want to believe in Ackley, but it seems only fitting that since Friday night he has once again lost the magic touch.
Which is why long-term projections for Ackley seem foolish, because in all honesty, which Ackley will show up?
I suppose the good news about his August performance is that at the very least, Ackley appears to be a serviceable piece of the puzzle with a fair degree of versatility in the field. Which is nice if you're willing to take a chance on him for your fantasy baseball team by adding him to your bench.
The reality, though, is that Ackley still doesn't strike me as a force, an "X-Factor" type player as I had hoped he would become during spring training a few months back. For me at least, one good month doesn't wash away nearly two full seasons of mediocrity. What's even more frustrating is that you could say the same of first baseman Justin Smoak.
Next year I imagine both will have starting roles, but neither seems well equipped to do something extraordinary in helping the team contend, which if memory serves me was kind of the point in giving both significant roles with the Mariners from the start.
Perhaps it was too much too soon?
I suppose we are well past that point in the discussion about Ackley and Smoak, but what worries me is seeing that torch passed to another group of youngsters, specifically Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino (I'm excluding Brad Miller here because he's on another planet at the moment, and Taijuan Walker because he only has another two-to-three starts left this year).
Like it or not, Franklin and Zunino are the "next wave" and are already learning on the fly without much of a safety net in the same fashion as Ackley and Smoak did not too long ago. So far they've both shown promise, but both have also struggled—especially Franklin for the past month.
Which begs another question: Who should start at second base in 2014?
A month ago the answer to this was obvious, but for the next few weeks it's something to keep an eye on. In an ideal world both Franklin and Ackley can coexist; however, that experiment is still in progress as the M's continue to reshape their roster.
My best guess is that unless Ackley proves that August was no fluke and brings the same confidence at the plate to spring training, he will likely start next season in the outfield while situated at the bottom of the batting order. The fact is that Ackley doesn't steal bases or hit for power, and therefore he's going to need to keep his on-base percentage high enough to make manager Eric Wedge consider moving him up.
Essentially, he would need to become a poor man's version of Wade Boggs.
For those of you too young to remember Boggs, just take Ackley's August and stretch it out over an 18-year Hall of Fame career.
So can a resurgent Dustin Ackley be an offensive force in the future with the Mariners?
Nothing is impossible, but it would seem to be improbable, as Ackley would need to rake morning, noon and night. Games like Friday night's in Houston would need to become the new normal for Ackley rather than Monday's 0-for-4 performance in which he couldn't even lay down a sacrifice bunt when asked.
Feel free to consider both performances outliers in what has been another long season in Seattle, but if Ackley still wants a significant role with the Mariners, he has what would appear to be a very long climb ahead of him.