About a month into the season, Dustin Ackley is grinding through another “Will-he-or-won’t-he break out of it?” slumps. Again.
It’s an annual ritual for the Mariners’ inconsistent left fielder. Get off to an OK start. Look lost toward the end of the opening month. Appear hopeless in May. By June, fans start wondering if he has the physical tools and mental fortitude to be a major-league player.
When warm weather rolls around in July, Ackley starts to hit.
In five big-league seasons, his career splits prove the point.
March/April slash line: .242/.286/.339
In July and August, Ackley is the left-handed producer the Mariners thought they had when they took him out of the University of North Carolina with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft.
The rest of the season? Not so much.
Ackley, 27, entered Tuesday with a .244 career batting average and .673 career OPS.
In 2015, the former top prospect is hitting .190 (12-for-63) with three homers and three RBIs in 23 games.
After hitting well in the second half of 2014, this was supposed to be the year Ackley benefited from more rest and favorable match-ups against right-handed pitching. In February, the Mariners signed 32-year-old Rickie Weeks, a seasoned right-handed hitter. The plan was to convert Weeks from second base to left field and give Ackley periodic days off against southpaws.
But Weeks began Tuesday with a .200 batting average, two homers and seven RBIs in 18 games. After spending his entire career at second, his first month of his first season in left can generously be described as shaky.
Ackley, meanwhile continued his usual early-season struggles, going 0-for-3 Monday night in the 3-2 road win over the Los Angeles Angels. He is 6-for-46 (.130 batting average) since April 14, and 3-for-22 (.136) over his past 10 games.
Last week in Houston, manager Lloyd McClendon intimated Ackley can still help the offense, which began Tuesday 13th in the American League in runs (3.65 per game), 12th in batting average (.234) and last in on-base percentage (.288).
Instead of a traditional platoon with Weeks, he plans to study match-ups and write the lineup accordingly.
“The numbers will dictate that, too,” McClendon told The Seattle Times. “If I look at the numbers and they say Rickie Weeks is 8 for 12 with three homers off this right-hander, I’d be foolish not to play him. Vice versa, if Ackley is 12 for 23 with five homers off a lefty, I’d be foolish not to play him.
“You have to be fair to the entire ballclub. I love all my players, but I can’t manage one player at a time. I have to manage all 25. If a guy is at a point where he can’t help us, then I’ve got sit him down.”
Most would agree Ackley, once lauded for his natural ability to spray line drives to all fields, should be past the point of needing a confidence boost.
Plus, demoting him wouldn’t make any sense after the outfield depth took a hit Sunday when CF Austin Jackson sprained his right ankle and subsequently landed on the 15-day disabled list. The club recalled reliever Mark Lowe to fill Jackson’s roster spot, while SS Chris Taylor was recalled from Tacoma and immediately thrust into the lineup Monday. (Relievers Yoervis Medina and Tyler Olson were demoted and southpaw Joe Beimel recalled).
Regular starting SS Brad Miller has been reportedly taking fly balls pre-game with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke. Miller committed four errors in 25 games after winning the shortstop job by default in spring training when Taylor was hit by a pitch that broke a bone in his right wrist.
Tuesday, McClendon announced Miller was changing positions: First base and outfield. Taylor returns to starting shortstop.
McClendon said the plan is for Miller to learn outfield and also work at first base and be a “super utility” type player
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) May 5, 2015
With Jackson out, that shifts Justin Ruggiano, a reserve outfielder capable of playing all three spots, to a full-time role in center. So Ackley has time to right his swing and approach — as he’s done in the past.
Triple-A Tacoma outfielders James Jones or Stefen Romero remain options, but each failed to lock down a roster spot out of spring after spending parts of last season with the Mariners. They would benefit most from full Ackley meltdown.
Though his trade value is low, it’s fair to note Ackley was the subject of trade speculation last season. In June, leaked information from the Astros front office revealed an email exchange in which general manager Jack Zduriencik offered Ackley to Houston in exchange for C Jason Castro. When the Astros declined, Zdruriencik tried to to double down and offer another player to go along with him.
Prior to the 2014 trade deadline, the Yankees wanted to trade for Ackley but talks stalled when the Mariners asked for right-hander Bryan Mitchell in return, according to The New York Post.
Ackley, making $2.6 million this season, is arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2016. He isn’t eligible for free agency until 2018.
Could Ackley’s future in Seattle depend on another mid-season turnaround?
Say this: Warm weather can’t come soon enough.