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June 16, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Dustin Ackley Arrives

by Joey Matschulat

It's the middle of June, the Seattle Mariners and their bizarre upside-down run differential continue to play the role of meddlesome pest in a division race that they weren't supposed to be this competitive in, and now their opponents have to deal with a new and potentially dangerous injection of talent in the Pacific Northwest: Dustin Ackley. Less than one hour after winning a 3-1 Wednesday night thriller at home over third-place Los Angeles to climb within one game of the slumping Rangers (a game which was ultimately decided by the luckiest damn single of Carlos Peguero's life), M's manager Eric Wedge conveyed the good news to the Seattle press, and the future and the present drew ever closer together:

"It's time to get him up here,'' said Wedge. "We sent him down after spring training so he could get more experience at second base, get some more at-bats at the Triple-A level. He's ready to be up here."

Kevin Goldstein suggested just two days ago that Ackley's ascendance to the majors was very, very close, and, well, here it is. The long and short of the reason for Ackley's promotion is that there was nothing of material value left for the 23-year-old second baseman to pick up in pitcher-friendly Tacoma, with his .297/.415/.487 showing in 321 plate appearances – which included the second-best walk rate (16.8 percent) among the league's 103 qualifying hitters, as well as one of the best BB/K ratios (1.42) in all of professional baseball—somehow appearing even more impressive when you consider that he hit a punchless .211/.336/.305 in April. His defense has been more of a liability than an asset at the keystone, but indications are that he has made legitimate and sustainable progress in this regard since the outset of the season, and there are no contractual considerations (e.g. avoidance of Super Two status, or the securing of an extra year of club control) in play here. It truly is the perfect storm.

Now, to be clear, I don't think one can reasonably or fairly expect Ackley’s results to match up with his talent right out of the chute, and the extent to which he's going to pull up the Mariners' cellar-dwelling offense is subject to debate. If you peg his median projection the rest of the way at something like .260/.350/.390 and figure that he won't kill Seattle with the glove, you have an indubitably useful second baseman and somebody who immediately becomes one of the Mariners' best position players, but perhaps not a player who will make a truly profound impact on the race. That being said, rookies emerge from the minors all the time who immediately perform above and beyond expectations, and the combination of advanced contact ability, approach, and polish could make Ackley an immediate game-changer. I'm not sure how prudent such an expectation would be—but then again, the Mariners aren't exactly conforming to expectations themselves.

* * * * *

While things have taken a decided rainbows-and-lollipops turn for the second-place Mariners, the first-place Rangers are giving North Texas abundant reason to remain on a continued basketball high and ignore baseball until the major-league product rediscovers its groove. Since sweeping first-place Cleveland in four games during the opening days of June, the Rangers have dropped seven out of nine games—including two out of three to the lowly Twins—and have looked progressively worse as time has elapsed, with their last four games split between Minnesota and the Bronx yielding a run differential of 38 runs allowed to just 10 runs scored. There's some manner of schedule relief on the horizon in the form of six upcoming games against the worst team in baseball (the Astros) during the final 11 days of June, but it remains to be seen whether the Rangers will manage to capitalize upon it.

Speaking candidly, as someone who watches virtually every Rangers game, the most troubling aspect of their current malaise is in their approach, or lack thereof—their month-of-June team walk rate is an abysmal 5.1 percent, which is well-positioned to become the worst single-month mark for any major-league team since the Astros stumbled to an even 5.0 percent mark in April 2010. Some of that is undoubtedly traceable to the heightened quality of the Rangers’ competition, but one also gets the sense in watching them that they're too tightly wound and too eager to make something happen. That's certainly correctable, and it’s unlikely that opposing pitchers can keep any offense comprising the likes of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler down for too terribly long, but the mediocrity the lineup has exhibited since April (and even since Hamilton and Cruz returned from the disabled list) is up there on the list of reasons why Texas hasn't taken firmer control of this division.

* * * * *

Two of the AL West's premier BABIP-suppressing monsters have recently hit the skids in some form, but one is much worse off than the other. While Alexi Ogando's seasonal BABIP jumped 16 points—from .210 to .226—after a single disastrous 1.2-inning, six-hit, six-run outing in New York on Tuesday, the woes of Oakland's Trevor Cahill extend over a much greater span. Since entering his May 25th start at Los Angeles with a pristine 1.79 ERA, 52-to-20 K/BB ratio, .259 BABIP, and opponents' batting line of .217/.279/.296 over 65.1 innings, Cahill has logged just 26.2 innings over five starts and yielded a 7.43 ERA, 15-to-21 K/BB ratio, .333 BABIP, and an opponents' batting line of .324/.434/.514, which has only served to worsen last-place Oakland's increasingly desperate plight.

While Ogando's one-start blip was publicly publicly ascribed to his being too amped up about facing the Yankees and too emotionally charged to keep his command in check, the Cahill situation is decidedly more bothersome; a scout told John Perrotto that his command has slipped significantly as of late, and Cahill himself proclaims that there are no physical issues in play, which, if taken at face value, can be viewed as either great news or unwelcome news. If his struggles really are simply a product of his being in a "funk," he could hypothetically snap out of this as quickly as the Rangers' Colby Lewis did after his horrendous start to the season—which worked out great for seven starts between April 30th and June 1st, until his fastball command once again vanished into the ether over his last two starts and culminated in 15 earned runs allowed over 4.2 innings. Just because the problem is psychological as opposed to mechanical doesn't necessarily mean that it's any easier to fix.

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