Archive for July, 2015

Sweeping the Ashes: Trading Dustin Ackley

The 2008 iteration of the Seattle Mariners were 58-101 entering the final series of the season. There was a chance that this team, the first MLB team in history with a $100 million payroll and lose 100 games in the same season, could end up with the first round pick in the 2009 MLB draft. The last two 1/1 draft picks the Mariners had chosen ended up working out decently in 1987 and 1993 I guess. Perhaps the 2009 draft could be a future cornerstone for years to come.

Instead, the Mariners swept the Oakland A’s in that final 2008 series. The Washington Nationals lost all three games against the eventual World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies. The Mariners would have the 2nd pick in the 2009 MLB draft.

On June 9th, 2009, the Mariners selected Dustin Ackley with the 2nd pick. This was widely considered to be the sensible pick. Although his potential ceiling was not viewed to be as high as the 1st pick, San Diego State’s hyped Starting Pitcher Stephen Strasburg, Ackley had a high floor and was going to be a solid building block for the future under the new Mariners front office led by Jack Zduriencik. From a Larry Stone article from June 10, 2009:

“We think he’s a player that will move pretty quick…” Zduriencik said.


“…all the things you like in a hitter, he possesses.”

The MLB draft is strange as a fan. Just like any other draft, it’s all about the potential. But with baseball, there is a good chance that a draft pick – even in the first round – may never see the majors or be an impact player. But as Dustin Ackley made his way through the minor leagues, his potential seemed to be attainable. He slashed .303/421/.487 in AAA in 2011. When he was promoted to the majors on June 16, 2011, there was a real feeling of hope in the fanbase. The only concern was his defense. “His bat has never been a question,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners director of minor-league operations at the time.

I was certainly one of the hopeful, and I was lucky enough to be there for his debut on June 17, 2011 against the Philadelphia Phillies. With Roy Oswalt on the hill, Ackley fell behind 0-2 before rapping a groundball into center field.

I was sitting in the left field bleachers, and I was able to view the entire stadium erupt in a cheer that I was unaccustomed to. Ackley was part of the future. Despite the 2010 season being another $100 million, 100 loss atrocity, Ackley was the real sign from the farm system that this franchise was going to turn a corner. That base hit was going to be one of many. The potential of Dustin Ackley that I and many other fans had envisioned in 2009 was tangible.

It turns out that his first base hit was one of a mere 488 hits in a Mariner uniform. Despite an excellent .273/.348/.417 and 3 fWAR rookie season in 2011, it ended up being the only season of Ackley’s career where he was an above average hitter. His 2011 September — .182/.264/.247 – portended a disappointing and frustrating 2012-2015. His mechanics seemed consistently out of whack, despite changes to his approach that were somewhat hopeful as recently as the second half of last season. His defense at second base was actually above average in 2011 and 2012, and when he moved to the outfield in 2014 after the Robinson Cano signing, his defense remained a positive (according to Fangraphs). His bat ended up being a question that the Mariners could never answer.

The slow start to this season was the final straw for this front office: Ackley was traded to the New York Yankees today for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. The hope that Ackley once provided was extinguished long ago; this trade is merely sweeping up the ashes of the past six years.

I am not upset with Ackley. Being upset with a player for failing to live up to expectations would mean that the MLB draft is a more predictable endeavor. It would mean that our expectations as fans are reasonable (laughs audibly) and ultimately important in the grand scheme of life. The draft is clearly not an exact science, and baseball remains a game and a business that can be enjoyed voluntarily.

But I have chosen to support this team. I am forever tied to this team because fan allegiance is not rational. I cannot shake my allegiance to this team. I know I am not the only one.

I am upset that the path to Mariners success has extended further into the future. I am upset that this team clearly has a player development problem. Other than bullpen arms – 2011-12 Wilhelmsen, 2013-14 Farquhar, 2014-15 Carson Smith – and Ackley’s college teammate and fellow 2009 draft pick Kyle Seager (third round), the Mariners have whiffed on Ackley and their 2011 first round pick (Hultzen, largely because of injury). Mike Zunino, their 2012 first round pick, was perhaps rushed to the majors and until the past couple weeks (link to LL article) has looked about as helpless at the plate as a professional baseball player can possibly look (his 57 wRC+ has only been better than five other players with more than 300 plate appearances). D.J. Peterson, their 2013 first round pick, had a robust .636 OPS in AA and was promptly rewarded a promotion to AAA because moving forward is progress, I guess.

And that is why this Ackley trade makes me sad as a fan. Was this Ackley’s fault? I am sure he shoulders a large responsibility for his career trajectory, but the Seattle Mariners under Jack Zduriencik have done exactly what the previous front office had done from 2003 to 2008 under Bill Bavasi: fail to develop high draft picks. They consistently have questions — such as Ackley’s bat — that they fail to answer.

Ackley was the first draft pick made by Jack Z. The hope that Ackley engendered during his MLB debut turned out to be false, but his career thus far is a reminder that the hope Mariners fans had when the new front office was hired in 2008 was false as well. With the Astros set for the present and the future, the Angels set with one of the best young players in baseball history (who was selected with the 25th pick in the 2009 draft), the Rangers set with a good farm system and a recently acquired Cole Hamels to pair with a recovering Yu Darvish, and the Athletics set with a GM and front office that has run circles around the Mariners for about 15 years, the path to Mariners success is even cloudier now than it felt at the end of the 2008 season.

I am going to keep watching this franchise. Who knows if Jack Z will keep his job for much longer, or if the next front office will even have better success (or any success at all). But I certainly will be more skeptical of a top prospect’s debut the next time a moment like June 17, 2011 comes around. After the last six years, I should know better than that.

So long, Dustin Ackley. I’ll be rooting for you, just as I did four years ago. I just hope the next Dustin Ackley takes the hope of Mariner fans, takes that first base hit, and keeps me and the rest of us cheering from the left field bleachers in a more lasting manner.