When the 2013 season ends, the Seattle Mariners -- and presumably-returning General Manager Jack Zduriencik -- are going to have a lot of work to do. Already with five full years at the helm, if Zduriencik is given 2014 to prove that "the plan" is working, it will undoubtedly be his final shot to show results at the major league level. That means that the club needs to make decisions on players and make a commitment to who they are tying their hopes to before the gun sounds to start 2014.
What appears to be one of the easiest spots to see marked improvement going forward is second base. Seattle has received just a .212/.283/.333 line from their second basemen so far in 2013, with castoff Robert Andino actually being the most productive in terms of OPS (at .706) at the position. The job was more or less handed to Nick Franklin near the end of May, and he started off out of the gate looking like he'd never surrender the position. But he has slumped badly over the last month-plus, and the man he originally replaced and displaced -- Dustin Ackley -- has now reemerged and is once again hitting like a legitimate big leaguer.
Franklin still ranks among the rookie leaders in home runs (12) and RBI (43) and he showed early that his bat could be a very potent weapon when he's going well. But the 22-year-old switch-hitter has been getting attacked with fastballs up and breaking balls down and has seen his strikeout rate climb to 32.6% over his last 36 games, bringing his season rate to 27.2% in 360 plate appearances -- the 15th highest number among all American Leaguers with 300 or more plate appearances. He's being exposed and, like Ackley over the last few seasons, has not been able to adjust to the adjustments made to him.
When Ackley was sent down, it was to get his bat going, for sure, but it was also to transition into being an outfielder. He's hitting .298/.363/.419 in 58 games since his recall and really showing a much better approach at the plate hitting the ball where it is pitched and not pulling off as he was before. The extra base punch has started to show itself more over the past few weeks and the plate discipline -- which was one of the biggest contentions that manager Eric Wedge had with Ackley before -- has once again become a strength. He's walked 10 times in his last eight games and has only struck out 11 times in his last 100 plate appearances.
But the other development here is that Ackley is seeing more and more time as the starter at second base while Franklin continues to struggle. Ackley came back from Tacoma as an outfielder, and although he's seen 47 starts and 437 defensive innings in center and left field, he still doesn't really look like an outfielder to me. His arm strength and even throwing motion aren't ideal and his jumps and routes are still lacking as compared to what most proven, veteran MLB outfielders give. This probably means that he would be best suited defensively as a left fielder, and as I wrote about back when his demotion took place, that just puts a ton of pressure on his bat. And even though he's hitting much better since he's been back up, left field is typically a position where teams aim for offense first, often sticking a slugger out there. Ackley has all of three homers this season and just 21 in his career. He is not going to be a slugger. Dustin is playing well at second base again, and while his defense doesn't look pretty there and never has, his value is clearly highest to the Mariners if he can play that position.
Of course, the same could be said for Franklin. He's only played second base and shortstop to this point in his career in the minors and majors. And while the advanced defensive statistics don't love his performance at second so far with Seattle, scouting eyes tell a different story. He clearly has more range and a far superior throwing arm than Ackley. He also has more natural middle infield movements to his game. But if Ackley best serves the team at second, where does that leave Franklin?
Nick has mentioned before that he doesn't care where he plays as long as he's on the field. He's also more athletic and -- as I said above -- has a stronger arm than Ackley. Would the Mariners perhaps consider moving him to the outfield and give him and Ackley yet another option to coexist? It could happen.
But as we head towards a vital off-season for Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners, it seems very likely that either Ackley or Franklin could be offered as part of a trade package to try and improve the club in other areas. The Mariners figure to have a lot of money available to add to the payroll in 2014 with more than $30 million set to come off the books and with the assumed boost in TV money with the new ROOT Sports package. With Zduriencik (reportedly) in the last year of his contract and the attendance falling to lows not previously seen in Safeco Field the club figures to be aggressive this winter with free agents, and that will likely spread to the trade market, too.
Ackley (pre-Arb year one) and Franklin (MLB minimum) are both still relatively cheap and young and they could interest a number of teams as a potential trade chip that be moved in a deal to help improve the M's in some of the many places where they are lacking. Having their options open at the second base position -- and, again, "dealing from a position of strength" -- can only benefit the Mariners.
Whichever way they ultimately go, it is clear that the Mariners are going to need to make a commitment to one of the players as their second baseman entering 2014.
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