The hope is that the left fielder finally had his breakthrough in the second half of last year.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The Mariners hope this finally is the year they get a season of steady, sustained excellence from Dustin Ackley. So far, he has merely tantalized with fits and starts of productivity.
They’ve hedged their bets, however, by obtaining Rickie Weeks for what essentially will be a left-field platoon. Manager Lloyd McClendon is loathe to use that word so as to reserve the right to go against strict left-right matchups if the situation calls for it.
But when McClendon says, as he did Monday morning, “As we speak now, Rickie will play against the lefties and Ackley will play against the righties,’’ well, that’s what they call in the trade a platoon.
Which is fine with Ackley, though it would seem somewhat of a comedown to go from No. 2 pick in the nation, with all the potential that entails, to part-time outfielder.
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It’s just another reminder — on top of the position change, minor-league demotion in 2013 and extended slumps along the way — that the road to stardom is not always smooth, even for the most highly touted of prospects.
“I think it’s something that’s up to us,’’ Ackley said of the left-field job share. “Mac has really stressed, you have to perform at this level. If I perform and help the team the way I know I can, I’m going to get the at-bats I want, and I’m going to get the playing time I want.”
The hope is that Ackley finally had his breakthrough in the second half of last year, when he hit .274 with 34 runs, 15 doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 38 runs batted in over his final 68 games. That included a .901 OPS in his first 40 games after the All-Star break before cooling dramatically in September, hitting .149 in 67 at-bats.
“For that month or two-month stretch, that was probably the best I’ve felt,’’ Ackley said. “I think that’s something I’m definitely capable of maintaining through a whole year.”
Ackley said he believes he figured some things out with regard to the mechanics of his swing, largely from watching Robinson Cano’s “load” and pre-swing setup and trying to do what he did.
More important, Ackley said he’s finally at a point, at age 27 with four big-league seasons under his belt, to handle the mental challenges of a slump. He was hitting .214 when he turned his season around by hitting .365 in July.
“I found myself in the past kind of talking down to myself, like, ‘Man, you’re not good, what is going on?’ That kind of stuff. Doubting myself. You’ve got to believe in yourself before you can actually do anything, whether you’ve got the best swing or the worst swing. That was a big turning point for me, believing in myself no matter what, and it pretty much went from there.”
But Ackley has had these seeming epiphanies before. In an attempt to circumvent the slow starts that have plagued Ackley the past two seasons, McClendon plans to play him extensively in spring training.
“I just want to try to force-feed him a little bit and find that groove a little quicker,’’ McClendon said.
Minimizing his appearances against lefties should help as well, though Ackley said he believes facing lefties is actually a good way to break a slump.
Last year, he had just a .553 OPS against southpaws, compared with .751 against righties.
“I feel like when I hit the way I’m capable of, it doesn’t really matter if it’s lefty, righty, whatever,’’ he said. “But you’ve got to maintain that and be consistent with it. That’s something over the years I haven’t done. I’ve done it the last couple of halves, but you’ve got to do it for the whole year. I think I’m ready and able to do that now.”
That’s the long view for Ackley. Of more immediate concern is getting reunited with his wife, Justine, and infant son, Parson, born Feb. 19. The story of Parson’s birth gave Ackley quite a story to tell when he arrived in spring training.
Ackley and his wife drive to Arizona every spring from their home in Lapeer, Mich. This year, with Justine due to give birth in late March, they had arranged for a doctor in Phoenix to make the delivery. The Ackleys’ big concern was that the baby would be late and the pregnancy would carry into the regular season.
Uh, not quite. Halfway through the trip — with two dogs in tow, by the way — Justine’s water broke, and they checked her into a hospital in Oklahoma City. Lo and behold, she gave birth, five weeks premature, to Parson, their first child. The Ackleys didn’t even have a middle name picked out yet — figuring they had plenty of time to mull it over — but settled on Bennett.
“It was crazy. It all happened so quick,’’ Ackley said. “We were just driving, and then eight or 10 hours later she has a baby. We thought it was going to be a normal trip, and it ended up being something pretty crazy.”
Parson was 5 pounds, 12 ounces at birth, robust for a preemie, but he needed oxygen in those early days and round-the-clock care. Ackley stayed in Oklahoma City as long as possible before flying to Arizona in time for the Mariners’ reporting day Feb. 24.
By that time, Justine’s mom had come to help. Justine and Parson are doing great; in fact, Ackley is hoping they will be cleared to fly out by Wednesday to join him. In the meantime, he’s had to settle for a slew of emailed pictures and videos, and a few Skype chats, to bond with his new son.
“Hopefully, our next ones will be better planned out than this one was,’’ Ackley said with a smile. “We thought we had a good plan set in place, but that changed pretty quick.
“It’s kind of a good surprise for us in a way,’’ he added. “We’ll have the first month with him in spring training, as opposed to the first month when the season’s starting.”
At that point, fatherhood will be shared with baseball that counts — and what Ackley hopes is his smoothest year yet.