Dustin Ackley did his best not to carry his work problems home. But going on two years of failure was a new experience. The kid from Walnut Cove, N.C., had never missed at anything, be it Ping-Pong or putting his bat squarely on a baseball.
So, when the Mariners second baseman was playing poorly enough to be demoted to Class AAA a month ago, it hit the 2009 No. 2 overall draft pick hard. Now, he’s back with the Mariners trying a new outfield position, with the foundation of a rebuilding plan quite possibly riding on his slender shoulders.
“It was one of those things where, if you’re not playing well, it’s not fun,” Ackley said. “You want to compete, you want to play well, you want to help your team out. And when you aren’t doing that, it’s definitely a tough thing and it starts to get to you a little bit.
“Because you aren’t doing the things that you want to do. And you’re not playing how you’re capable of. I think I just got away from the thinking I was used to in college, or in AA or AAA, where I was just going out there and playing and not thinking.”
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The Mariners need Ackley to get his bat going, above all. But a key to his future — and that of the Jack Zduriencik regime that drafted him — could lie in his ability to play center field.
Ackley played second base, left field and center field in Tacoma and it’s in center that the Mariners have a glaring weakness and might need him the most. They chose not to fill it this winter by signing free agent Michael Bourn. Instead, the team — focused on preserving a 12th overall draft pick that would have been lost by signing Bourn — went instead with Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders as their primary center fielders and leadoff men.
Gutierrez has been hurt all season, while Saunders has hit just .181 with an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) mark of .488 since May 5.
With the Mariners seemingly no longer able to count on either as a future full-time option, the ability of Ackley to play center field and hit would solve serious long-term issues for this team. So would his ability to lead off, which he demonstrated early prowess at last year before a prolonged slump.
Ackley spent some time in the outfield at the University of North Carolina, as well as in summer leagues and the Arizona Fall League.
“I had the experience before to where it wasn’t that far removed for me,” he said. “But I still had to get out there and get the reps. Whether I’d played it a couple of years ago or not, there still had to be a time period where I had to get used to it.”
The toughest part was adjusting to balls hit over his head and to the gaps.
“You’re so far away from the action now that the ball is a lot smaller,” he said. “You’ve got to get better reads off the bat, especially on balls in the gap.”
The Mariners need Ackley to succeed right away. At 11 games under .500, their season is likely done from any competitive standpoint, but the futures of the coaching staff and front office are very much on the line.
Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge might be in danger if the season falls completely apart and the team fails to win 70 games. Wedge has grown increasingly flabbergasted by the inability of his offense to produce numbers beyond the paltry totals of the past two years.
“I’m tired of even talking about approach or mechanics, or this, that and the other,” he said after Wednesday’s loss to the Pirates. “You’ve got to hit. We can break it down 10 times and then break it down 10 times again. And we’ve been doing that for 2½ years. There were reasons the first year and reasons last year.
“This year, we’ve had a couple of injuries. Outside of that, there are no reasons.”
Ackley was supposed to be a potential .300 hitter with gap doubles power. For his career, he’s hit .237 with an OPS of .651 in 1,096 at-bats.
He’s already been replaced at second base by fellow first-rounder Nick Franklin. Now, he could potentially replace Gutierrez and Saunders in center, meaning this rebuilding plan will have seen a whole lot of wheel-spinning and name changing in four-plus seasons, with few tangible signs of progress.
Unless, of course, Ackley becomes the center field and leadoff answer long-term. Do that, and Zduriencik and Wedge can point to some of the puzzle making sense and give themselves a fighting chance when they try to justify the 2013 season to those who matter.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on Ackley. He didn’t handle it well in 2012 or earlier this season, but he said his mental approach is stronger now.
“I was thinking too much about the result and thinking too much about what I was doing at the plate,” he said. “I think I’ve just got to get away from that and just see the ball and just go out there and play.”
And he’s got to do it right away.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners.