Tar Heel is "the best player I've ever seen at this level," according to his college coach.
Tom McNamara, the Mariners’ first-year scouting director, telegraphed his intentions with their coveted No. 2 overall pick in mid-May when he summoned his boss to Boston.
North Carolina was playing Boston College, and McNamara wanted Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik to see the player that McNamara was increasingly focused on: Dustin Ackley, the Tar Heels’ left-handed hitting machine.
“There were a couple of other guys in the mix, but he stood out for us,” McNamara said. “When you bring your GM to a game, you’re pretty much making a statement.”
And once the Washington Nationals selected pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick on Tuesday, the Mariners made that statement official by taking Ackley, considered the best bat in the draft.
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The Mariners believe Ackley, who has a .410 career average at UNC, will be on a fast-track to the major leagues.
“We think he’s a player that will move pretty quick,” Zduriencik said.
The Mariners had four other picks Tuesday, and in what was regarded as a pitching-dominated draft, all five of their choices were offensive players. The draft resumes today with rounds four through 30.
With their second first-rounder, No. 27 overall (the Phillies’ pick as compensation for signing Raul Ibanez), the Mariners selected switch-hitting high-school shortstop Nick Franklin. He attended Orlando’s Lake Brantley High School, which also produced Jason Varitek, Felipe Lopez, Rickie Weeks, and Jemele Weeks.
Their third pick of the day — No. 33 overall, also compensation for the Ibanez signing — was high-school catcher Steven Baron from Ferguson High School in Miami. And in the second round (No. 51 overall) they went with Rich Poythress, a power-hitting first baseman from Georgia.
With their final pick of the day, the Mariners selected Ackley’s UNC teammate, infielder Kyle Seager, who played second and third base for the Tar Heels.
Though Ackley played first base for the Tar Heels — breaking most of the school’s offensive records in his three-year career, which still has the College World Series remaining — the M’s project him as an outfielder. They believe he has the ability to play center field.
“We’re pretty comfortable with his athleticism and the things he can do — and the things he’ll be able to do,” said McNamara.
Ackley’s play in the outfield this year was limited, partly because he was recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery that he underwent last July.
“My arm right now is the best it’s ever been,” Ackley said in a conference call from Chapel Hill. “I feel I can play out there every day if I need to.”
Signing Ackley might not be so easy, however. He is represented by Scott Boras, and there have been rumblings he will be seeking a hefty bonus. Players have until Aug. 17 to sign, the deadline having been extended two days by MLB because Aug. 15 falls on a Saturday.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Ackley said of negotiations. “The only thing I’m thinking about is the College World Series. I’m putting all that on the back burner and focusing on winning a national championship.”
Ackley, who hit 22 homers this year while playing the bulk of his games at UNC’s cozy new ballpark, has been compared to Wade Boggs, George Brett and Todd Helton at the high end, and Darin Erstad more realistically. Zduriencik said he had his own comparables, but declined to name them to avoid putting pressure on Ackley.
“He has a very nice set of skills,” Zduriencik said. “He can run, he’s a good hitter, he has power; all the things you like in a hitter, he possesses.”
As for Franklin — rated the 48th-best prospect by Baseball America — McNamara likened him to a “gym rat” in basketball.
“He’s a baseball rat,” McNamara said. “He’s a confident shortstop with a lot of ability. We’re ecstatic to have him.”
Franklin, who has orally committed to Auburn but is expected to sign, hit .483 as a junior in leading Lake Brantley to the 6-A state title, with six homers and a school-record 57 hits. This year, he is hitting .538 with 11 homers and has just five strikeouts in 100 plate appearances.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Baron has signed to play baseball for Duke, but he reportedly reached a predraft agreement to sign with the Mariners. Baron is hitting .345 (30 for 87) with eight doubles and two home runs in 30 games this season and is considered a defensive standout.
Poythress hit .376 for Georgia this season, with 25 homers and a school-record 86 runs batted in.
Seager hit .386 for UNC (second to Ackley) with 24 doubles, four triples, five homers and 59 RBI.
Meanwhile, Kyrell Hudson, an outfielder from Evergreen High in Vancouver, Wash., was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the third round. Hudson was the 106th player taken.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org