When Dustin Ackley was called up, I literally skipped across the street. And I mean that in the way "literally" is supposed to be used, not the B.S. second definition that means the opposite of its original interpretation. Dustin Ackley was called up from Tacoma, and I bound across a street like an idiot.
I remember exactly where I was. The Mariners had just beat the Angels on a cool Wednesday night, and I was walking from the ballpark to the office to pick up a few things. At the exact moment the news broke, I was crossing King St. on First Avenue, right in front of Cowgirls, Inc.—relishing in postgame chatter on a game decided by a Carlos Peguero ricochet off the second base bag, and there on Twitter was the news M's fans had been waiting all season for: help was on the way, in the form of a hitting phenom out of North Carolina.
We look back on Ackley's 2011 rookie campaign as something of a lost season, as the Mariners would finish 67-95, but it's easy to forget that, at that time, they were 35-34 with a big interleague series against Philadelphia on tap. Ackley made his debut in a Friday night gem, rolling a ground ball back up through the middle against Roy Oswalt in his first big-league at-bat. Later, he made a dramatic double play turn (1:15) that had Mariners fans at Safeco and elsewhere howling.
The next night, in a loss, there was this:
Early on, you could see a fantastic career laid out before him, envision Ackley as a cornerstone on the next great Mariners team. In that rookie season, he put up 2.9 wins above replacement—paced out over a full 650-PA season, that would've been worth five wins. Or, roughly, 2014 Robinson Cano.
But, of course, that hasn't been how it's gone.
After many ups and downs, and more of the latter than the former, Dustin Ackley is not expected to be a cornerstone on what's widely presumed to be the best Mariners team in years—but instead, a platoon outfielder.
What's been suspected was all but confirmed this morning as Lloyd McClendon told members of the media that "Rickie [Weeks] will play against the lefties, Ackley will play against the righties."
Just don't call it a full "platoon" to Lloyd. Shannon Drayer has great perspective on this and, in her piece, an extended quote from McClendon:
"If there is a favorable matchup, whether it's left or right and the guy hits them real well, then you have got to put them in there. That's why I am not crazy about the word platoon, because it puts you in a box," he explained. "You want to be a little more dynamic than that with your managing skills and my players know there are chances where there are days they may play against a righty, they may play against a lefty."
This is something we've seen frequently from McClendon, that he's not afraid to play the match-ups. And, as I wrote on a little more than a year ago, there's a chance this acceptance of more flexible strategies played a role in his hiring. Here's what McClendon had to say, shortly after his hiring, about platooning when asked on The Steve Sandmeyer Show about the practice:
"There’s no question about it. It’s a specialized game now. People are depending so much on matchups—left on left and right on right, platooning. It’s just the nature of this game now and you certainly have to be able to adapt and be progressive in how you attack other teams."
At the end of the day, this isn't some enormously advanced way of thinking. Really, it's simple: you put your players in the best position to succeed so that you're putting your team in the best position to succeed.
Lloyd's said it a number of times: he loves these guys, and he does want them to do well, but he loves this job more—and he's going to do whatever he can to keep it.
Still, there's some humor in this, that Jack Zduriencik is protecting against Ackley's downside with another second baseman he took second overall in the draft who didn't quite live up to expectations. Though, as we've touched on a number of times here, Ricke Weeks brings forth quite the track record, and a skill-set that should play well.
Even in what's been a little bit of a mid/late-career swoon for Weeks over the past three years, he's managed to hit lefties to a 117 wRC+ clip (128 wRC+ for his career). And even last year, something of a bounce-back campaign for Ackley, he was dominated by lefties to the tune of a 57 wRC+.
Though, by the numbers, this strategy makes sense, it's meaningful just as much in what it says about the direction this organization is headed—and that's forward, with or without Ackley. Now, slotting him into a platoon role before the team even plays a Cactus League game doesn't mean they've given up on him, that they aren't still interested in the upside he seemed to display in the second half of last year. But it does mean that they aren't banking on it, which is the important thing here.
And this isn't about sending a message, it's about depth—plain and simple. And depth isn't only there for injuries, when the unexpected wrongs rear their heads, it's also to make make sure the floor for performance is at an acceptable level for a team trying to win a title.
The organization didn't have to go out and sign a platoon partner for Ackley. They could've well rolled with what they have, and, as they've done a number of times before, hoped Ackley would consistently be the type of player he's shown flashes of being. But good teams shore up weaknesses and add talent wherever they can—and put lottery tickets in roles where not hitting big on them doesn't crush the season.
Dustin Ackley can still be a big part of this, as he was latter half of last season, when he did all he could to carry the offense through a tough stretch. There's still time for him to be an organizational cornerstone, even if it isn't to the superstar level we'd all hoped.
But the Mariners aren't counting on it. They're doing everything they can to put Ackley in position to succeed, giving him a role where he's more likely to thrive and—if he's earned it—receive more playing time. But, for the first time in a while, they're prepared if he doesn't. For a team more focused on winning now than grooming 27-year-olds for the future, this is exactly the right course.