I was looking through Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list the other day, and sitting at #11 was one Seattle Mariner, Mr. Dustin Ackley. Number 11 is the highest I remember seeing a Mariner since probably Felix, but truth be told, I was hoping he’d be even a little higher. The reason for my optimism: Ackley’s hitting, which I had heard the BA guys discuss beforehand on a podcast. Ackley was their choice for college player of the decade and is touted as maybe the purest hitter to come out of college in quite some time.
For those unfamiliar with baseball scouting, skills are assigned a rating from 20-80, 80 being the top. I have no idea where they came up with that range. Skills that are generally rated: hitting (meaning for average), power, speed, defense, arm. Those are the famous five tools that athletic young Venezuelan outfielders seem to unanimously possess. Pitchers work a little differently, with grades for individual pitches along with some other areas. A 50, as you might guess, is considered average. A player with all 50s is likely a serviceable starter, maybe a utility guy. As a tool gets closer to 65 or so, a player would approach all-star level, at least with that one tool. The more above average tools, the better. Some tools stand on their own better while others are more dependent on another tool to help them shine. 80 power with 20 hitting isn’t going to do much, since power needs contact to be effective. Similarly, 80 speed makes nothing more than a good pinch-runner, if he can’t get on base or catch anything.
BA gave a grade for each player’s best tool in the Top 100 list. These grades came from the writers’ scouting but was heavily influenced by scouts and coaches they talked to. There were a handful of 80s awarded, but only two for hitting. The first was to the player in the #1 slot, Braves mega-prospect Jason Heyward. The other? Dustin Ackley. An 80 hit grade for a Mariner prospect is a beautiful number. There aren’t many players at that level in all of baseball at any time. We just counted only two in the minors. The Mariners happen to have another in Ichiro. You’d add Pujols, Mauer, and maybe a few more: A-Rod, undoubtedly a few others I’m not thinking of. The point is, if a player gets an 80 hit grade, scouts see potential batting titles and line-up anchors. An 80 hitter has an elite ability to make contact and translate that contact into production.
Does this mean Ackley, the number two overall pick last year, is destined for MVP awards and the hall of fame? Certainly not. Plenty of elite prospects never reach their full potential. Ackley in particular has concerns about whether he can hit the ball hard enough to be a star, although 22 home runs and a .763 slugging percentage his last year of college, along with a frame that looks like it could add some weight and muscle, seem to indicate at least some power potential. Some pessimists see Jeremy Reed, a great college and minor league hitter who couldn’t quite cut it in the bigs. I’m not buying it and think Ackley is on a different level than Reed ever was, but that type of career is possible. He also grades as a 65 or 70 for speed and is athletic enough to likely end up at second or centerfield, positions where a left handed .330 hitter becomes one of the top players in the league, no matter how much power he has. By all accounts, Ackley is an extremely hard worker, has great baseball instincts, and an all-around Good Guy (kind of like some other people I know!).
What really excites me about Dustin Ackley is the potential for the Mariners to finally have one of those players who rockets through the minors, comes to the big leagues sooner than expected, and takes the league by storm. It seems like it’s been years since they’ve had a minor league hitter come up and not struggle in his initial time in the majors. Ackley is likely to start his first full professional season at AA, maybe AAA if he really impresses this spring, and I think the team would tell you they expect him to be in the bigs in 2011 or later. I, and I think Mariners’ management, wouldn’t be at all surprised if he comes up not long after the all star break and is one of the Mariners best hitters the rest of the year. I’m a big fan of having an elite skill in sports (not that I’m unique in this preference). A player with 55 tools across the board can fill a hole and help a team, but an 80 hitter is someone who can carry you to a pennant. I haven’t been so excited to see a Mariner minor league hitter reach the majors in a long, long time.