PEORIA, Ariz. – No one ever had to ask Dustin Ackley twice to taking batting practice.
“I’ve always loved hitting,” said the Seattle Mariners first-round draft pick from last June. “Now, I love taking ground balls, too.”
At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Ackley has always been a batting cage rat, and at 22 he has played almost everywhere on a diamond with the exception of one position – second base, the very position the Mariners are asking him to play.
“I’m playing a new position for the first time, and there’s a lot of learning involved,” Ackley said Thursday. “I’m trying to learn how my teammates throw to second base – one third baseman’s ball might sail a little, one might cut in – and I have to learn how to take them at second base.
“From Little League through high school and college, I’ve probably played every position on the field except second base. … Getting the footwork and glove work down, I’m learning as I go.”
Infield coach Mike Brumley spent a week working with Ackley in December and said the difference between Ackley then and now is significant.
“You watch him take ground balls, he looks like any other good middle infielder,” Brumley said. “Great, soft hands, a strong arm, good range. I think he’s going to be a very solid second baseman.”
That doesn’t mean he’s there yet.
“Every second baseman has three or four ways to make the double play pivot and get out of harm’s way,” Brumley said. “Dustin has only turned the double play as a shortstop to this point, so we’re trying to get him comfortable with one or two styles that will help him.
“He’ll learn more as he goes, but we don’t want to overwhelm him before he plays a game out there.”
The second player taken in the ’09 draft, Ackley is an offensive force As a senior, he batted .417 during the regular season – then .500 in the College World Series for North Carolina. Last fall, playing against other blue chip prospects in the Arizona Fall League, Ackley hit .315 with five doubles, a home run and 12 RBI in 20 games.
“I didn’t really get going until the end of the AFL, when I started playing every game,” he said.
A left-handed hitter with exceptional bat control, Ackley is gaining strength and seeing the results of his work in the weight room.
“I’m stronger than I was last September when I took batting practice in Seattle. I can see the way the ball comes off my bat,” Ackley said.
The son of John Ackley, who was drafted by Boston in 1979, Dustin Ackley isn’t intimidated by anyone, and the Mariners have embraced him this spring in his first big-league clubhouse.
“My dad played minor league baseball in the ’80’s, and he’s told me a little about his experiences, about the travel. I’m sure a lot has changed since then,” Ackley said.
“This clubhouse isn’t that different than the one at North Carolina except for who’s in it. I mean, Ken Griffey Jr? He’s pretty hard not to watch or listen to. Mike Sweeney kind of took me in last September, and they’ve made me feel comfortable.”
Ackley knows he’s not here to win a job.
“I know I’m not ready now. My job is to be ready when an opportunity comes,” he said.” I don’t have a timetable for getting to the big leagues.”
At the same time, he’s not overly patient. Asked how he’d deal with it if, for instance, he wasn’t in the majors in three years, Ackley looks shocked.
“I’d be disappointed if I’m not in the big leagues in three years,” he said. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and I hope I’m closer than that. I want to get there.”
The Mariners don’t disagree.
“He’s learning to play second base, but his bat is special,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “We’re just letting him learn, trying to make the transition to a new position go smoothly. We don’t have to change him as a hitter.”
The Mariners sprung a new conditioning drill on the team after morning stretch, having the entire roster run hard from first to third base – three times. The man who led the charge, setting a brisk pace, was Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey had knee problems last spring that kept him from doing much running, but at age 40 he seems rejuvenated and happy to show it. … Erik Bedard update: The left-hander played long toss for 10 minutes from 100 feet. He’ll be stretched out to 120 feet and 12 minutes, then begin shortening the distance but increasing the effort. So far, no shoulder problems. … Pitchers threw to hitters for the first time Thursday, but hitters didn’t swing – they simply tracked pitches. Mike Sweeney came away impressed with Mauricio Robles and his change-up. … After undergoing operations on both hips this winter, catcher Rob Johnson is trying an altered setup position behind the plate to ease stress on his hips. … Pitcher Yusmeiro Petit reported to camp, having resolved personal issues that kept him home in Venezuela the past 10 days.