Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, and the future of second base in Seattleby Jeff Moore
October 18, 2012
The Seattle Mariners weren't expected to be competitive this season, but they were expecting to have some high-points to build upon. One of main causes of pre-season excitement was the anticipation of Dustin Ackley first full-season in the majors, and the start of a new era of Mariners offense.
Fast forward six months, and there are questions about Ackley's future after he hit just .226/.294/.328 on the 2012 season as a part of a putrid offensive team performance.
The Seattle Mariners offense has been so bad for the past few seasons their management finally caved and agreed to move in the fences for next season.
The Mariners have been desperate to conjure up some offense in any way they can, to the point that they traded a young, team-controlled pitching prospect (the most valued commodity in baseball) for a catching prospect destined to become a lifetime DH. You can argue whether or not the Mariners knew something about Michael Pineda's arm that the Yankees didn't, but regardless, the pitching for hitting trade signified just how desperate the Mariners have become to find offense.
That desperation is only going to get stronger, as ace Felix Hernandez is joined in their starting rotation by a stable of young pitching prospects, led by Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. That group of pitching prospects is as good as any trio in one organization as there is in baseball right now, and the Mariners don't have to look too far into the future to see a day when they have a playoff-caliber starting rotation.
Now they have to figure out how to have a decent offense to support it.
It remains to be seen how the new fences will change the offensive strategy of the Mariners, but it won't be a cure-all for their offensive woes. There's no doubting the effect of Safeco Park on offensive production, and enough has been written about it that I don't need to touch on it here, but the fact remains that the Mariners offense hit just .247/.300/.403 on the road, meaning they just weren't that good no matter where they played.
The new dimensions could benefit Ackley as much as anybody, but his .658 OPS on the road signifies much larger problems with his offensive game.
There were those who doubted Ackley's bat when the Mariners selected him second overall in 2009, but one season is certainly not enough time for the Mariners to give up on him. When, in their desperate search for more offense, the Mariners look towards their farm system, however, they find Nick Franklin, a shortstop who has been playing more and more second base in each of his professional seasons.
Franklin is the closest thing the Mariners have to a major league-ready offensive contributor in their farm system. Drafted as a shortstop, Franklin played almost as much second base in 2012 and is playing there primarily in the Arizona Fall League. Most scouts don't believe in Franklin as a shortstop, and their shifting of him towards second base indicates that the Mariners don't either.
The problem is that Franklin will be ready for the majors before the Mariners are prepared to make a decision on Ackley's future. Franklin will begin the 2013 season in Triple-A, where he spent the second half of 2012. He struggled there slightly offensively, but should be fine there next season. If he remains healthy and hits the way he has in has throughout his minor league career, he should be ready for the majors by mid-season.
Franklin should offer more power than Ackley, but it was Ackley's hitting acumen that got him drafted in the first place. Ackley has acclimated himself nicely to second base, but he's no gold-glover there and could find a new home in the field. No matter how much Ackley struggles, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Mariners are ready to give up on him by the 2013 all-star break. Come July, the Mariners are going to have to find a way to get both Franklin and Ackley in their major league lineup.
The obvious answer is to leave Franklin at shortstop for the time being. He'd certainly be an offensive upgrade over the defense-only Brendan Ryan, who literally didn't hit his weight this season, but the Mariners have built their current roster around pitching and defense, and this could constitute a major philosophical change.
Which may not be the worst thing. But it's not a long-term answer.
Franklin may be able to handle shortstop for the second half of the 2013 season, and if the Mariners are out of contention, then they might as well make the defensive sacrifice in order to get both him and Ackley major league at-bats. But ideally, Franklin and Ackley both become productive major league hitters, right? Then what?
One of them will almost certainly have to play in the outfield. Ackley has played first base, but no matter how he progresses, he's almost certain to be an offensive black hole compared to other first basemen. Even as a corner outfielder, Ackley will have below-average power and will have to be a .330 hitter to be better than league average. Additionally, his weak throwing arm would limit him to left field.
The Mariners haven't had to cross this bridge yet, but it's coming. Franklin should be the Mariners shortstop by the end of the season, but defensively, he's not their long-term solution at the position. His bat should have enough power in it, however, that the power-hungry Mariners will need to get him in their lineup one way or another.
Ideally for the Mariners, Ackley begins to hit as expected and gives the Mariners a problem like this to deal with. Otherwise, the answer could be painfully simple.
Jeff Moore is the creator of MLBProspectWatch.com, your one-stop site for all the information you need about minor league prospects. He can be reached via e-mail at mlbprospectwatch AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter at @MLBPW