Dustin Ackley looked like a man who needed a vacation.
It was late August at Cheney Stadium and the Seattle Mariners’ top prospect was sitting in the dugout waiting out a batting practice rain delay. He looked exhausted.
Sure, there was maybe a five-day break here or there, but for Ackley, it was all baseball all the time since he was the No. 2 overall pick in June 2009 and signed with the Mariners that August.
“I’ve been going pretty much nonstop since I signed,” he said.
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He still had a few months of baseball ahead of him – the end of the regular season, the postseason with the Rainiers and then a second consecutive appearance in Arizona Fall League.
Of course, Ackley would never complain about having to “work” that much. It’s not in his nature. And he certainly wouldn’t ask for a break.
But the Mariners – knowing how much their prized prospect had played in the past year – made sure he got a nice long rest this offseason.
On Saturday at Safeco Field at the Mariners’ FanFest, Ackley had the look of a rested, relaxed and recharged person.
“He really needed the break,” Mariners director of minor league operations Pedro Grifol said. “After a full year of baseball, the body not only needs a break, but also the mind.”
Even Ackley admitted his body was wearing down.
“It was good to let my body rest,” he said. “I really needed it. At the end of the regular season, I was starting to feel it. My body was starting to get a little tired adjusting to my first season.”
It was an interesting first season for Ackley. Shortly after signing with the Mariners, the team asked him to make a position switch to second base. In college, Ackley played mostly outfield and then first base after arm surgery.
“His makeup is unbelievable,” Grifol said. “When we made the move to second base, we told him it wasn’t going to be easy, it was going to be hard work and you aren’t going to have any time off. And he was all-in. He knew what was in front of him. He was willing to put the work in.”
Ackley started the minor league season at Double-A West Tenn with high expectations. He struggled while adjusting to the new position, hitting with a wood bat, even finding a style and model of bat he liked.
He was hitting .201 on May 21.
The comfort level slowly came. By the time he earned a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma after the All-Star break, he had lifted his average to .263 and his slugging percentage from .299 to .384.
With the Rainiers, he also struggled a little early, but kept his average around .300. But the fatigue started to show, he had two hits in his final 19 games, dropping his average to .274.
“There were times when I was exhausted,” he said.
Ackley finished the regular minor league season, hitting a combined .267 (134-for-501) with a .368 on-base percentage and a .407 slugging percentage. Ackley had 33 doubles, eight triples, seven homers and 51 RBI while scoring 79 runs and stealing 10 bases.
But Ackley wasn’t done. He went to Peoria and participated in the Arizona Fall League – reserved for the best prospects.
Tired or not, he dominated. He won the batting title, hitting .424 (28-for-66) with 10 doubles, four homers and 19 RBI.
He also led the league in on-base percentage (.581), slugging (.758) and runs scored (28). He was 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts.
But it was his play at second base that made him happier.
“It was a great confidence boost,” he said. “I did well at second base. I learned from my mistakes I made earlier in the year. And I was more comfortable with double plays and where I needed to be in the field.”
After the Fall League, Ackley finally got his break. He returned home to North Carolina.
His first day home, he didn’t even set his alarm clock.
“I think I slept till noon,” he said. “I felt kind of guilty for that.”
He golfed, hung out with friends, saw some of his family.
“Just stuff I couldn’t do when I would come home for less than a week,” he said.
But it wasn’t all just lazy days.
Ackley isn’t that type.
“I started feeling like I was getting behind after a while,” he said.
So he concentrated on workouts in the weight room and getting stronger.
“I think he put on eight or nine pounds,” Grifol said.
Jokingly, the slender Ackley was asked if the added weight put him up to 145 pounds.
“Yeah, I’m probably about 130 on a good day,” he said, grinning. “Actually, I’m up to about 195. A lot of people think I weigh about 170, but I weigh right around 185 during the season.”
Ackley knew he needed the extra pounds and strength.
“It’s hard to maintain in the season when you are traveling and on the road,” he said.
Ackley is already back in Arizona and preparing for spring training. He has a chance to make the Mariners if he has an outstanding spring.
“We’ll see what happens,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He comes in, he competes, and we’ll see how he is in a big-league atmosphere with big-league players and coaches. I think that will tell us a lot.”
Many fans want Ackley to be on the Mariners. Zduriencik wants Ackley to be ready when he makes his big-league debut.
“This is a talented player who has limited experience at a position,” Zduriencik said. “Psyche is important, momentum is important when you watch how players adjust. Timing is everything. You can keep a player in the minor leagues too long and hinder a career. You can bring him up too soon and hinder his career.”
Ackley isn’t trying to think about it too much.
“I’m hoping for good things,” he said. “I’m hoping to push for a job whether it’s the big leagues or Triple-A. They are going to do what’s best for me.”