Maybe It’s Time For Dustin Ackley To Play Some Outfield
The Mariners outfield is a complete disaster. Not that this was that hard to see coming, but with Michael Saunders looking more like the 2011 version of suck than last year’s useful role player, the Mariners simply don’t have a single outfielder on the team that projects as any more than a decent bench player going forward. Talk of sending Saunders down or giving him time off to work on things falls apart when you actually look at what that would leave. Endy Chavez is a replacement level scrub at this point in his career, but he’s the only other guy on the roster who can play center field, and if he’s in center, you’re locked in to Ibanez playing everyday, and that is nothing short of a total disaster out there.
Michael Morse can’t play the outfield either, not in any kind of competent way, and not without one of his oversized muscles giving out. While the people who built this abomination of a roster might not want to admit it, the realities of building a team full of designated hitters are currently punching the Mariners square in the face. If they want to stop running out embarrassing line-ups, they need an entirely new outfield.
Unfortunately, the team’s total lack of off-season planning has left the organization bereft of outfielders, even at the minor league level. Carlos Peguero is still terrible. Eric Thames is not much better. Abe Almonte is Endy Chavez with worse defense. There’s no one in Tacoma’s outfield who is any better than replacement level either.
So, while I’ve been resistant to the idea in the past, maybe it is finally time to ask Dustin Ackley to start taking some reps in the outfield. No, I don’t think Ackley should be converted into an OF full time — and I still prefer him to Nick Franklin long term at second base — but with Franklin playing well enough to deserve a real shot at second base, Ackley’s best path back to the Majors this year involves him having some defensive versatility. And he’s got both the history and the skills that suggest that he could probably pick up the OF fairly quickly.
OF isn’t a new position for him, as he played there when his arm was healthy enough to allow it in college. Most of the people who were skeptical about his ability to become a quality defensive second baseman have projected Ackley as a long term OF since he has the foot speed to cover some ground out there. You’d probably want to give him a little bit of time to get used to reading balls off the bat again, but it wouldn’t be long of a process to get him to a point where he’s an upgrade over what the Mariners are using in the outfield right now. After all, anyone who isn’t an amputee is an upgrade defensively from Ibanez and Morse.
Ben Zobrist is probably the model you point to here. Zobrist is an excellent defensive second baseman, but he spends a few hundred innings in the OF every year so that the Rays can take advantage of platoon advantages and mix-and-match their roster of role players to best fit on a daily basis. Ackley’s bat isn’t at Zobrist’s level and might not ever be good enough for him to hold down a regular OF job, but giving him the versatility to be able to play the OF when needed can’t hurt his long term value. And it’s the only real way for the Mariners to get both Ackley and Franklin into the line-up together in the second half.
The Mariners are probably going to have to pick between those two at some point, as both are most valuable at second base and neither one has the defensive chops to be a true super utility guy, but with 2013 a lost season and the team in desperate need of competent outfielders, giving both Ackley and Franklin extended looks won’t cost them meaningful wins. This isn’t a pitch to try and fix this roster or turn the season around — that’s an impossible task, and everyone should, at this point, just admit that this roster is bad and the season is over — but it might give the Mariners their best chance to put a decent group of Major League players on the field together, and give them a few months to evaluate, side by side, whether Ackley or Franklin should be their long term answer at second base.
Unlike with Montero, this isn’t the kind of position change that has been long overdue and is required by some kind of skill deficiency. Ackley can still play second base and could still be the organization’s future everyday second baseman. Right now, though, they need three new outfielders, and he is the only guy in Tacoma with any hope of providing value out there. Getting him some versatility and a path back to the big leagues make this a move worth considering, at the least, and maybe worth implementing immediately.
Whether they like it or not, the Mariners are once again building to the future. Endy Chavez, Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, and Jason Bay are not the future. Dustin Ackley might be. The best way to get him back on this team in the second half is to have him replace one of those guys, and the best way to do that is to have him start playing the outfield again.