As the persistent Arizona sun beats down on the backs of the 2011 Seattle Mariners, the biggest question in the minds of fans—besides "when oh when will we be relevant again?"—is when Dustin Ackley will be ready for the Show.
The Mariners’ offseason middle infield moves say a great deal about the timetable for their biggest prospect since King Felix matriculated.
With Jack and Josh Wilson already on the roster and able to man any of the infield spots, the Mariners were able to compensate for the loss of Jose Lopez—albeit with a pair of bats that would fit in better in Everett than Seattle.
Chone Figgins is set to slide back to the hot corner, where he is not only a better fielder, but also a drastically better hitter. (That is, assuming he is not traded). The Mariners also traded for Brendan Ryan, one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, and signed World Series-winning second baseman Adam Kennedy to a minor league contract.
Five serviceable infielders are more than enough for a 25-man opening day roster, and spring training has shown how creative new manager Eric Wedge is willing to be to get the bats into his lineup. Kennedy recently received his first spring start in left field, a first in his 12-year career.
Meanwhile, Jack Wilson—former sabermetrics-anointed best defensive shortstop in baseball—and Brendan Ryan—reigning best defensive shortstop in baseball—are flipping between second base and shortstop. Josh Wilson has spent time at all three skill positions in the infield and will presumably fill the utility backup role he played last year.
The best guess going into the season is that Jack Wilson will man the shortstop position with Ryan playing second base—a waste of Ryan’s relative youth and his defensive prime. Figgins will hit in the two hole and play third base, and Josh Wilson will back the three of them up.
A week ago, I would have projected Kennedy to start the season in Tacoma, but as he displays his defensive versatility in March he may end up with the 25th spot on the roster.
Selfishly, I’d love to see Ack start April 1 at second base, but leaving him in Triple-A until roster expansion is the right thing to do. As athletic as he is, he is still below average defensively at second base (though he did roll a nice double play earlier this week).
His bat came around in a big way following his promotion to Triple-A last year, and he continues to hit well this spring. He had a pinch-hit RBI double late in a 2-0 win over the Angels. On Monday morning he followed up with a home run in the “B Game” and capped that off with a pinch-hit, two-strike single up the middle on an off-speed pitch that had him fooled.
So yes, it appears the kid is seeing the ball well.
The issue is that his bat likely won’t be the difference between contention or not (maybe if the Mariners had four or five of him, and he could pitch…). If Nick Franklin, who has shown flashes of brilliance as the Mariners' shortstop of the future, can put it all together in the next few years (he’s only 20), he and Ackley will be a formidable top-of-the-lineup duo. But that’s in 2014, not 2011.
So as much as I hate to admit it, Ack will most likely have to wait until September. There’s an outside chance the Mariners contend, in which case they would have to consider seeing what Ackley can do at a major league level. It is not as if Ryan, Wilson, Wilson and Kennedy are going to tear the cover off the ball at the middle infield positions.