As recently as last spring, it was intriguing to envision a pair of former first-round draft picks forming the Seattle Mariners’ double-play combination for, oh, the next decade or so.
Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall selection in 2009, appeared established at second base. Nick Franklin, chosen No. 27 in the same draft, was a top farm-system prospect who considered shortstop his natural position.
The middle-infield collaboration never happened, and it never will.
Two months into the 2013 season, Ackley’s once-sweet swing was an overthought mess, and on May 26, the Mariners sent him to the Rainiers and promoted Franklin as his replacement. By the time Ackley returned in June after raking Pacific Coast League pitchers to the tune of a .365 average in 25 games, Brad Miller had merited an extended audition at shortstop, creating a middle-infield logjam with consequences that remain unresolved.
The quandary forced Ackley’s position switch from second base to outfield, and it only intensified when the Mariners signed Robinson Cano, the best second baseman in the world, to a contract so long it will outlive some young redwood trees.
Cano’s acquisition turned the shortstop position into a Cactus League tryout between Franklin and Miller, who won the job in a “race” that brought to mind Secretariat’s home-stretch defeat of Sham in the Belmont Stakes.
Franklin did just fine, but the just-fine line doesn’t cut it when the other guy is hitting .439, with 14 extra-base hits in 19 games.
Because the Mariners didn’t want the odd man out to sit on the bench in a utility role (they got veteran Willie Bloomquist for that job), Franklin was optioned to Tacoma, where he’ll begin the Pacific Coast League season Thursday night on a team stocked with — you guessed it — middle infielders.
There’s Franklin, 23, who ran on empty during the second half of his rookie season but still managed 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 102 games. There’s second baseman Ty Kelly, 25, who hit .320 with Tacoma after the Mariners picked him up in a midseason trade that sent outfielder Eric Thames to the Orioles. There’s Gabriel Noriega, 23, a Venezuelan shortstop renowned for a glove that devours baseballs and a bat that misses them.
And there’s Chris Taylor, the organization’s 2013 minor league player of the year. Although the University of Virginia product wasn’t drafted until 2012, the 23-year-old is five months older than Franklin. The shortstop is a legitimate prospect, and the Mariners didn’t assign him to Tacoma so he could enjoy the view of Mount Rainier on those clear summer nights with sunsets fit for a postcard.
Taylor began last season, his second as a professional, at High Desert in the advanced-A California League, then was pushed up to Double-A Jackson. His combined numbers – a .314 batting average, 165 hits, 8 home runs, 60 RBIs and 38 stolen bases – profile a player whose signature baseball skill might be that he is good at all of them.
The challenge for new Rainiers manager Roy Howell is to figure out a way of keeping Franklin sharp while assuring quality time for Taylor, Kelly and Noriega.
Four players about the same age, with similar physiques, are vying for two spots in the lineup. A problem, no?
“It’s a good problem,” a smiling Howell said Wednesday afternoon at Cheney Stadium, where the Rainiers held a light but brisk workout. “When you’re building a ball club, you build it from the middle.”
Howell has yet to manage a game in Tacoma, but it’s clear he’s got a long-term solution for a short-term logjam: Versatility will be stressed.
Franklin will start the opener at second base, for instance, but he’ll get plenty of work at shortstop and won’t be a stranger to the outfield. Kelly also can play the outfield, as can Nate Tenbrink, a third baseman with experience at shortstop and second base.
“You’d like to run them out there every day at the same position,” Howell continued, “but that’s not going to happen. They know that, so we’ll work together and make sure everybody gets time. I don’t like guys to have three or four days off.”
As for Franklin, he has taken his demotion to Triple-A with the poise of an old pro. The Mariners’ “shortstop of the future,” who briefly resembled a 2013 rookie of the year candidate as a second baseman, posed the idea of gaining traction in the outfield to Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon during spring training.
“As long as I’m playing,” Franklin said Wednesday, “it doesn’t really matter where. I told him I wanted to be in the lineup — whatever it took.”
Howell likes the sound of those words.
Juggling infielders between short and second and sometimes the outfield or at designated hitter, while making sure their swings are crisp at the plate in case of an emergency call-up, will be Howell’s primary task this season.
It’s all in the game, a game with a set of basic rules that have endured for 150 years.
Howell can think of one way to make it better.
“I wish,” he said, “we had 11 positions.”