Mariners top prospect Dustin Ackley will step into a major-league batter’s box for the first time when he faces off against Philadelphia’s Roy Oswalt just about 12 hours from now. You probably shouldn’t wait that long to pick him up.
Similar to the other version of this column, which hits on Thursdays, the Friday edition offers a take on elite prospects, lesser-known farmhands and veteran minor leaguers — all with a nod to their fantasy relevance and impact, specifically, for this season. To help owners, I’ll include a player’s Talent Rating; but just as important is the Opportunity Rating, which points out the likelihood that a player will make his way to the majors during this season.
Before we get to Ackley, it’s worth a quick mention that Braves prospect Randall Delgado, a 21-year-old righty, is also making his major league debut today filling in for Tommy Hanson, who is dealing with shoulder tendinitis. Delgado often gets lost in the shadow of Julio Teheran and Mike Minor, but he’s a legit ‘spect in his own right. The 2006 signee out of Panama is sporting a 3.54 ERA — which would be more like 2.50 save for one heinous 10-run outing in late-May — and a 1.29 WHIP, to go along with a decent 7.8 K/9. He’s not someone to get overly excited about this year in redraft leagues, though, because Atlanta is reaching down to Double-A to pluck Delgado, so he’s basically a shoo-in to return to the minors after the start. Seeing him in the bigs again before September would be surprising, as the Braves will want him to pitch a full season at Gwinnett. The Talent Rating here is a 7, but the Opportunity Rating is about a 3, this start notwithstanding. Now onto the man of the day…
Dustin Ackley, 2B
Current Level: Majors
Statistics: .303 BA; .908 OPS; 9 HRs; 35 RBIs; 7 SBs; 38:55 K:BB over ABs
40-man roster: Yes
Opportunity Rating: 10 (out of 10)
Talent Rating: 8 (out of 10)
If I’m being honest, I started this endeavor figuring I would wind up painting Ackley in a negative light even if I didn’t really mean to. It’s not that I think he’ll be a bad player. It’s simply that I’m pretty sure the second pick in 2009 will wind up in the better-in-reality-than-fantasy camp. But that doesn’t mean owners should dismiss Ackley. Rather, despite what isn’t necessarily the most fantasy-friendly profile, owners everywhere should be adding him in any league where he’s still available. But how you use him going forward depends on the type of league. Confused? Let’s talk through it.
Perhaps the best way I can put it is this: Ackley is useable in all leagues, but he’s a significantly better value in deeper play (say, 14-plus teams) and in those leagues that employ a middle infield position. What I’m trying to say is I don’t want Ackley to be my starting second baseman in 10-team leagues if I can help it. A quick look at the keystoners on ESPN.com’s Player Rater will provide some context. Among the Top 10, the only two I would consider sitting in favor of Ackley are No. 5 Ryan Roberts — he’s been great so far, but a dropoff is likely for a 30 year-old former utilityman who’s never had more than 304 at-bats in a season — and No. 10 Howie Kendrick.
Actually, Kendrick is a very apt comparison in this case: Both Kendrick and Ackley came up through the minors carrying labels like “pure hitter” and “future batting champion,” with most of their value tied into batting average, as opposed to power or speed. And while owners kept waiting for Kendrick to morph into this great big-league hitter, he instead turned out to be merely a good hitter — and one who doesn’t bring many above-average skills to the fantasy table. Ackley could follow a similar route. Which is to say, he might not knock your socks off.
Just how good of a “hitter” is the 23-year-old Ackley? Well, after an April in which he hit .211 with a .642 OPS, he’s batting .352 and OPSing north of 1.000, with 14 doubles, three triples, seven homers and 28 RBIs in 43 games since May 1 at Triple-A. And his K:BB in that time was a silly 21:37 — as in, almost twice as many walks as whiffs. That’s where Ackley and Kendrick (4.5% career walk rate) differ most, as the former has a great approach at the plate, an awesome ability to get on base (.387 OBP), and his walk (17%) and strikeout rates (15%) will translate well to the bigs. Also good? There are no signs the lefty-hitting Ackley has any real issues with facing same-sided pitchers, as his BA and OPS versus southpaws (.299, .960) are just as good as his rates against righties (.304, .887). And the former college first baseman has done this while continuing to work on moving to second base, where reports of his defensive progress range from cautiously optimistic to less-than-glowing. Still, handling such a transition has to count for something.
Here’s the but. All that contact is going to result in tons of singles and lots of doubles, but not much in the way of homers. Sure, his 9 jacks this season are already more than he had all of 2010, when he hit 7. And yes, he did lead the Arizona Fall League in batting average (.424), on-base (.581) and slugging (.758). So while he’s capable of hitting balls over walls, it’s more likely that he’s taking advantage of big-time hitter’s environs rather than developing legitimate power. Consider: Of his 16 homers in 772 minor-league at-bats, 14 have come since he moved up to Triple-A Tacoma. You’d think that’s a good thing — hey, he’s improving against better competition — except the entire PCL is posting a .447 SLG and an .805 OPS. And the Tacoma team averages are even better at .451 and .816. So while a handful of homers for the rest of 2011 is a good possibility, I’m not I’m not counting on more than 8, especially when he plays home games at Safeco, a park where lefties have a tough time hitting homers and almost all offensive stats are below league average.
Beyond the batter’s box, there’s also the question of how Ackley will fare on the bases. He does have good speed, but it hasn’t manifested itself in the form of stolen bases yet. In fact, he’s managed just 17 swipes at a sub-75% success rate in a season-and-a-half. So what’s an appropriate over/under on thefts for the rest of the year? Let’s say a useful-but-not-special 8.
Back to the Player Rater for a sec. While we looked at the Top 10 before, let’s focus on Nos. 15-20 this time. Those players — Darwin Barney, Daniel Murphy, Jamey Carroll, Ryan Theriot, Maicer Izturis and Adam Kennedy — are the ones who many owners are starting at 2B or MI in deeper leagues. That’s exactly where Ackley is really going to make a difference as a replacement option. None of those guys bring an elite skill, and all of them have some kind of risk or flaw. They’re more placeholders than needle-movers for fantasy lineups. But being able to deploy Ackley instead of them — thus relegating those guys to spot start duty — will bring the best return and a noticeable improvement.
One popular fantasy strategy that is often floated with a top prospect is to trade him just as he’s about to debut or soon thereafter, figuring that the hype won’t get any bigger — and the chances are good that expectations won’t be met in the end. In this case, I think that’s a savvy play in shallow non-OBP leagues, where some overeager owner will jump at Ackley, thanks to his name and the surrounding buzz — and of course, his 2B eligiblity — and be willing to offer something of value in return, be it straight up or as part of a package deal. But if you’ve been struggling to find help at second or middle infield in deep leagues, especially in those that use OBP, then I would certainly grab and hang onto Ackley for what should be a good average, along with useable pop and speed. At the end of the season, you’ll be happy enough, but your socks will probably still be on your feet.
ETA: Now! And he’s up for good.
When it comes to monitoring players for this column, I’ll do the grunt work, but if you have any suggestions for minor leaguers that you would like to see tracked, discussed and evaluated in Mining the Minors, feel free to post suggestions in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get to as many as I can going forward.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11