Two weeks into the season it's already clear to me that both Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager should be in the starting lineup regularly. This year is already about next year, and both Ackley and Seager look like two of the better hitters on the roster anyway.
It is convenient to look at Ackley as the crowned jewel among recent M's position prospects. That view was created, and maybe even warranted, when Ackley got picked second overall in the 2009 draft. The hype only escalated when Ackley was rated the M's top hitting prospect by pretty much any national scouting service as he worked his way through the minors. Seager, the M's third round pick from the same draft as Ackley, is hopefully one among the supporting cast.
Assume, at least for the next couple paragraphs, that Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager were both signed off the streets by the Mariners for $250,000. If that's too low of an amount for you, raise it. Would the perception around Ackley, and the prospects around him, be any different if they had entered the organization as perfect equals?
Ackley and Seager are the same age, and even played college ball at the same school (North Carolina). Their similarities help make this comparison easier. Dustin played in AA his first pro season, while Kyle was in high A. Ackley's OPS was .775 between AA and AAA, while Seager's was .921, and included a batting title. Ackley played in more advanced leagues, as well as a more pitcher-friendly environments, but a nearly 150-point differential in OPS is substantial. If Ackley and Seager had come into the Mariners system perceived as equals, there might have been a debate around which one was better after their first full pro season.
The debate might have shifted last season. Ackley opened up in AAA and raked, to the tune of a .908 OPS before being promoted to Seattle in June. Seager, on the other hand, opened up in AA, but hit well enough to get promoted to AAA, where he posted a 1.029 OPS before getting promoted to Seattle less than two months after Ackley. In the majors, Ackley was worth about 1.5 WAR more than Seager, although with almost twice as many plate appearances. Still, doubling Seager's playing time wouldn't cover the gap. He'd still be over 0.5 WAR short. Advantage Ackley.
On the other hand, Seager didn't make the majors much later than Ackley, despite starting a level lower. His hitting numbers in the minors are superior to Ackley's, and (very) early in 2012, his hitting numbers are better again. Seager is also considered the better defender between the two, both by scouts and by metrics.
If Ackley and Seager had started their Mariners careers on completely level ground, I don't think one would be seen as significantly better than the other.
Of course, there is a reason that Ackley got picked earlier than Seager. He was better in college. He batted over .400 for his career. Seager was fantastic, but clearly a step below Ackley. The Mariners treated Seager accordingly by drafting him later, and starting him lower in the minor leagues.
The blessing and curse of higher draft picks are just how high they are. Signing bonuses escalate exponentially as they near the top of the draft board, and somewhere between that, the hype, and prospect rankings, it is easy to place an elite draft pick on a pedestal above everyone else. In reality though, most high draft picks only have a step or two on the prospects drafted a few rounds after them. Ackley and Seager demonstrate this phenomenon quite well.
To the Mariners credit, I heard Jack Zduriencik quick to praise Kyle Seager as he came through the system, and I always sensed genuine excitement around him and Ackley. The M's did their best as an organization to keep from separating Dustin Ackley above all other draft picks. The hype still happened though. It's probably unavoidable.
Hype yields to substance as players reach the majors and establish themselves. In the Mariners case, with their dearth of offense for years, Kyle Seager's msy quickly become a household staple. It definitely will if he can maintain a batting average that flirts with .300 (complete with extra base hits!)
In the end, the hype around draft picks and prospects impacts fan expectations more than a player's development. Hype is one of those things that feels like a big deal, but might not really be much of a big deal in the end. It warps our sense of reality as fans, but we don't draft, sign, trade, or do anything else to players.
The Mariners have the number 3 pick this year. We will generate and face the hype of another prized talent only a few months from now. The draft may very well be defined by how successful the first pick turns out to be.
However, sometimes for every Dustin Ackley there is a Kyle Seager. For every Danny Hultzen there might be a Brad Miller. Teams have farm systems. It takes a bunch of good draft picks to develop multiple MLB players and ultimately fill out lineup cards with homegrown talent. Supporting casts are highly important, and a good one is filled with players just a step or two below a team's marquee stars. Hype can overlook the talent that builds quality depth. Supporting talent isn't overlooked in the win-loss columns though.