Ackley at ease whenever Seattle debut comes

Ackley at ease whenever Seattle debut comes

Ackley at ease whenever Seattle debut comes
SEATTLE -- It's only a matter of when -- not if -- Dustin Ackley will join the Mariners. But the team's top young prospect isn't playing that guessing game.

He'll play baseball all day, every day. But when it comes to predicting when he'll reach the Major Leagues, the 22-year-old from North Carolina lays off that question like an off-speed pitch in the dirt.

"I really haven't thought about where I'm going to be," Ackley said this weekend at the Mariners FanFest at Safeco Field. "I'm hoping for good things this Spring Training. I'm going to push for a job, whether that's Triple-A or the big leagues. I'll accept either way. They're going to put me where it's best for the team. And if that is Triple-A, then that's where it'll be."

Ackley admits, however, that it's impossible to walk across the grass at Safeco Field without feeling a little anticipation. And that feeling is mutual for Mariners fans anxious for the arrival of the No. 2 overall Draft pick in 2009, and fifth-rated prospect in baseball in the recent rankings.

After an initial slow start, Ackley made the jump from Double-A West Tenn to Triple-A Tacoma around midseason last year, then dominated the Arizona Fall League with a Most Valuable Player campaign in which he hit .424.

The debate over whether he should open this season with the Mariners or get a few more months of Minor League seasoning in Tacoma figures to rage even stronger if he plays well this spring in Peoria, Ariz.

Pedro Grifol, the club's director of Minor League operations, said the future is clear.

"All we want to see is for him to continue to progress," Grifol said. "If he can do that, he'll be a big league player for a long time."

General manager Jack Zduriencik continues to sound as if he wants to err on the side of caution, however, not wanting to push Ackley to the Major Leagues before he's ready. Zduriencik signed veteran second baseman Adam Kennedy and traded for middle infielder Brendan Ryan to give his club options heading into this season, but remains open-minded to whatever happens this spring and says he can't wait to see things play out on the field.

"Dustin is a very talented hitter and he can run," Zduriencik said. "When he went to Triple-A, he was impressive. What he did in the Fall League was icing on the cake. But we have to realize this is a talented player who has limited experience at a position.

"Psyche is important. Momentum is important when you watch how players adjust. You can keep a kid in the Minor Leagues too long and hinder his career. You can bring him up too soon. There are a lot of factors that tie into that. We'll see what happens. We'll see how he is in an atmosphere with big league players and big league coaches."

Ackley certainly seemed at ease during his FanFest appearances in the big league park. Though he's a reserved sort from a small town, the youngster handled himself well in front of the 12,000 fans that trooped through Safeco over the weekend.

When it comes to looking and sounding like a Major Leaguer, Ackley fits the part already. Able to focus on conditioning full time, he gained eight or nine pounds this offseason and looks broader across the shoulders at 6-foot-1, 195.

He says having gone through one Spring Training gives him a better sense of what to expect next month in Arizona. And yes, earning MVP honors in the Fall League didn't hurt either.

"That was a great confidence booster," Ackley said.

Ackley noted with some irony that second base was the one position he never played before the Draft, but he clearly has the athleticism to handle the spot and certainly has the potential to be a excellent-hitting middle infielder.

Kyle Seager, the Mariners' third-round selection the same year, has known Ackley since the two were 10 years old and playing on opposing Little League teams. They joined forces on the same Select squad in high school, then went to the University of North Carolina together and were roommates as freshmen and teammates for three years.

"He's an impressive guy, a really good guy," said Seager, who led the Minor Leagues with 192 hits and 126 runs last year for High Desert in the Class A California League. "I don't think he'll have any problem with this thing. Me and Dustin go way back. He's a very mature guy. He can handle a lot."

Asked about Ackley's weight, Seager smiled knowingly.

"He's a slender guy, but don't let that fool you. He's pretty strong," he said. "He uses his body really well. He uses what he's got and he's a good hitter, there's no denying that."

So Ackley will head to Peoria and let the chips -- and hits -- fall where they may. He'll let others worry about his placement and prospects.

"You can't really think about that," Ackley said. "The season is too long to focus your mind on certain things like that. You just have to go out there and play hard. Whatever happens, happens. You just set your mind on one thing, and that's getting better. And that's what I'm looking forward to doing in Spring Training."

In other words, whether he makes the Mariners out of camp or not, he plans on making the most out of his opportunity.

"It's a great chance to learn from veteran guys," Ackley said. "They brought in Brendan Ryan and Adam Kennedy. Those are guys that have had successful big league careers in the infield, up the middle. I can take things and learn from them. Whether I play in the big leagues or Triple-A, I'm going to draw a lot from Spring Training and feel a lot more comfortable at second base. It's going to make me a better player."

And by midseason at the latest, Ackley figures to be at Safeco Field to begin his own Major League journey. After taking in FanFest and spending three days on the Mariners Caravan with Michael Saunders meeting and greeting fans in Bellingham, Bellevue and Olympia last week, he sounded ready to return.

"It's great to see how passionate these fans are in Seattle," Ackley said. "And I was fortunate enough to play our [Pacific Coast League] playoff series against Sacramento here in Safeco. I've really enjoyed this stadium. It's awesome. I couldn't ask for a better place to play, if I do make it down the road."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohns1 as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.