Don’t tell the Seattle Mariners they are settling for Dustin Ackley with the No. 2 pick of the 2009 Major League Baseball draft. Yes, the Mariners may have missed out on a once-in-lifetime, everyone-says-can’t-miss pitching prospect in Stephen Strasburg, who was taken with the first pick by the Washington Nationals.
But the Mariners were more than pleased to grab Ackley out of the University of North Carolina. The first baseman/outfielder was labeled by several prognosticators and scouts as the best hitter in the draft.
It was something that was reiterated on Tuesday at Safeco Field.
“We’re fortunate to get a guy who we think has a sweet swing,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “You see a lot of these guys that can hit for a high average and run over the years. We think this guy has the potential to be a middle of the lineup hitter that can get on base and hit for average.”
Ackley has hit over .400 all three years at North Carolina. This season, he’s hitting .412 with 17 doubles, 22 home runs and 70 RBI. He also has an on-base percentage of .513.
He’s a three-time All-American, a three-time All-ACC selection, the 2009 ACC player of the year and a finalist for the 2009 Golden Spikes Award as college baseball’s top player.
“I’d say about a month ago, I started feeling pretty good,” Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara said when asked when Seattle decided on Ackley. “There were a couple guys out there were in the mix, but he kind of stood out for us.”
Ackley was in Chapel Hill, N.C., when he got calls from both Zduriencik and McNamara while watching the draft on the MLB Network and hearing his name read by commissioner Bud Selig.
“To be the Mariners’ first overall pick is very exciting,” he said in a conference call. “I’m really excited to play in Omaha and get out there and then after that to play for the Mariners.”
Omaha was a reference to where Ackley and his Tar Heels teammates will be traveling later this week to play in the College World Series. They will face Arizona State on Sunday.
“The draft is just kind of a little extra bonus going into the College World Series,” he said. “We’re so focused on that right now.”
Ackley will be playing first base for the Tar Heels, which he has done in almost every game this season. However, the Mariners drafted him as an outfielder. He played first base this season as he was recovering from offseason surgery.
Ackley had Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm elbow in August and the recovery process limited him in throwing to start the season.
The Tar Heels played him at first base to protect his arm early in the season, and he stayed there for the rest of the season.
“At the beginning of year, I wouldn’t have been able to play outfield,” he said. “But they needed me at first base ... .”
He did see action in the outfield in a few games, and McNamara was there, watching closely.
“We’re pretty comfortable with his athleticism and things he can do and the things he’ll be able to do,” McNamara said.
As for his arm, Ackley said it’s not an issue anymore.
“My arm right now is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “I feel like I could play out there every day right now if I had to.”
But would it be center?
“I’ve played all of them; if I had to play one of them, I’d probably prefer center field,” he said.
The Mariners are hoping it works out that way but aren’t locked into it.
“We see him as a center fielder, but if it’s left field, fine,” McNamara said. “We’re just happy to have him.”
Actually, they only own the rights to him. The team must still negotiate a contract with Ackley and that could a little difficult, since he’ll be represented by notoriously tough agent Scott Boras. The asking price for a signing bonus could be somewhere near $7 or $8 million.
Zduriencik said there have been no formal meetings to discuss a contract since Ackley is still playing. And Ackley didn’t have much to say on the issue of getting a deal done soon.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “I’m just focusing on the College World Series and putting all that on the back burner.”
Ackley was only the beginning of what McNamara has often referred to as the “most important draft” in the organization’s history.
Seattle had five picks on the first day of the draft, including a second first-round pick at No. 27.
With that pick, Seattle selected shortstop Nick Franklin out of Lake Brantley High School, in Almonte Springs, Fla.
It’s the same school that produced Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks and former Mariners first-round pick and Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek.
“There’s a term in basketball called a gym rat; well Franklin is a baseball rat,” McNamara said. “He’s a confident player with a lot of ability and we’re excited to have him.”
The Mariners aren’t exactly loaded with high-level shortstop depth in the organization, with the exception of Carlos Triunfel.
“Middle infielders are difficult to find,” Zduriencik said. “We were fortunate to have an extra pick in the first round to select the guy.”
The remaining Mariners picks were all position players.
With the No. 33 overall pick, received in compensation for losing to Raul Ibañez to the Philadelphia Phillies in free agency, they selected high school catcher Steven Baron.
They also picked University of Georgia first baseman Rich Poythress at No. 51 and Ackley’s teammate, infielder Kyle Seager, at No. 82.
The draft continues today with rounds four through 30. The draft will conclude on Thursday.
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE MARINERS’ DRAFT PICKS
1B/OF DUSTIN ACKLEY
University of North Carolina
Chosen: First round (second overall)
Vitals: 6-1 /184
Born: Feb. 26, 1988, in Winston Salem, N.C.
Skinny: The best position player in the draft, Ackley can run, hit for average and has potential for additional power. In three seasons with Tar Heels, he never hit below .400 and his on-base percentage never went below .448. Elbow surgery forced him to play first base much of the year, but with his arm healthy he’ll move to his natural position – center field.
SS NICHOLAS FRANKLIN
Lake Brantley High School, Almonte Springs, Fla.
Chosen: First round (27th overall)
Born: March 2, 1991
Skinny: Labeled a “baseball rat” by those who have watched him play, Franklin is versatile athlete and a tireless worker. His high school has produced major leaguers Felipe Lopez (Diamondbacks), Rickie Weeks (Brewers), Jason Varitek (Red Sox) and top Oakland shortstop prospect Jemile Weeks, Rickie’s little brother. In his senior year, Franklin hit .538 with 11 home runs.
C STEVEN BARON
Ferguson High School, Miami, Fla.
Chosen: Compensation pick (33rd overall)
Born: Jan. 1, 1990
Skinny: Reports were that the Mariners had a predraft deal with Baron to take him at No. 33, earlier than he was projected to go. Baron is one of the top defensive catchers in the high school ranks. He threw out 13 of 24 runners attempting to steal bases.
The hitting is still coming along: He hit .345 with eight doubles and two homers and 16 RBI in 30 games his senior season.
1B RICH POYTHRESS
University of Georgia
Chosen: Second round (51st overall)
Born: Aug. 11, 1988
Skinny: A power-hitting first baseman, Poythress hit .376 with 25 home runs and a school-record 86 RBI this season.
It was the second straight season he topped 70 RBI for the Bulldogs. An obvious first-team All-SEC selection, Poythress was also named to the SEC’s all-defensive team.
2B/3B KYLE SEAGER
University of North Carolina
Chosen: Third round (82nd overall)
Born: Nov. 3, 1987
Skinny: He projects as a second baseman since he doesn’t quite have the power of a third baseman. Seager is second behind Ackley on the Tar Heels in hitting with a .386 batting average. He has 24 doubles, four triples, five home runs while driving in 59 runs with a .480 on-base percentage.
Ryan Divish, The News Tribune