Dustin Ackley. I just have to. I first noticed him as a freshman at North Carolina, and imagined how good he could be. For a fleeting second, I even wondered how wonderful that left-handed stroke would look in Safeco.
That was a pipe dream. Tomorrow, it's reality.
As a precautionary tale, the last time I can remember being this excited for a position player's debut mid-season was Jose Cruz Jr. in 1997. He was picked third overall in the 1995 draft out of perennial baseball power house Rice. He promised to be the left-fielder that the Mariners had never had, and in his first couple months in the majors, he fit the bill. Then, there was heartbreak as the Mariners traded him to the Blue Jays for Mike Timlin and (gulp) Paul Spoljaric at the deadline in '97, in an effort to bolster the bullpen in the thick of a pennant chase.
In the end, both sides lost the deal. Cruz was a nice player, but never became a star. Spoljaric melted down, and while Timlin had a long stretch of success after the trade, most of it occurred after the Mariners let him go in free agency. I suppose the Blue Jays were winners, but I'm not sure they even saw themselves as winners.
Really, with regards to the storylines, Cruz and Ackley have more similarities than I am comfortable with. While they have different skillsets and join quite different looking Mariners teams, both are highly-touted former college stars joining flawed pennant contenders. Here's hoping that things turn out differently with Ackley...
...And they will. Jack Zduriencik does not have the same penchant for wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline like Woody Woodward did. I also doubt that he will so easily part ways with his first draft pick as Mariners GM. I like Dustin Ackley's chances at appearing in more than 49 games as a Seattle Mariner.
What will we see? "Professional" at bats, first and foremost. Ackley knows how to work a count. Even as a rookie, he will get some walks. I also think his level stroke will produce hits to all fields. Once Ackley gets comfortable, pitchers will have a hard time adjusting to him, given how good of an idea he has of what to do at the plate, and also his ability to cover the plate and use the whole field. Given these talents, and that he will be "stealing" at-bats from the likes of Chone Figgins and Jack Wilson, Ackley is in a heck of a spot to instantly upgrade the offense.
Defensively, I guess we'll see, but from my limited looks of Ackley at second base, he doesn't scare me. I think he will handle the position respectably.
More than anything, the 2011 season feels real to me now. That probably is not fair to everything that has already happened, but there was no doubt in my mind that Dustin Ackley is one of the 25 best players that the Mariners have. Even with the month-long surge that (as of now) has the M's only a half game out of first, it did not feel to me like the team was in contention with Ackley in Tacoma. Teams in contention play their best players as much as possible, period.
Now the race is on. The 2011 season just got serious. My head still tells me that a healthy Rangers team can run away and hide with this division, but the Mariners finally have done everything they can to position themselves for a run.
For many reasons, tomorrow will be very exciting.