PHOENIX—Opening day of the Arizona Fall League’s 18th season, which kicks off Tuesday, will feature the professional debut of college baseball’s premier player at his position.
No, it’s not pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the first overall pick in the 2009 draft, who will get his first start later in the week.
Dustin Ackley, taken by Seattle as the second pick, is also kicking off his career with his first official appearance since playing with North Carolina at the College World Series in June.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for me to come out here and show what I can do,” said Ackley. “There’s a bunch of great competition here . . . the best players that have played in the minor leagues and proven themselves. I’m really glad to have the opportunity to come out here and compete with them, and hopefully put up some great numbers.”
The 21-year-old Ackley was regarded as the best pure hitter in college baseball during his Tar Heel career and was a clear favorite to be the first position player selected in last June’s draft. Like Strasburg, he was undrafted out of high school, in part because he played at a smaller high school just north of Winston-Salem, N.C., primarily against 1-A competition.
At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, he doesn’t have the size of a prototypical slugger. The lefthanded-hitting Ackley thrives with exceptional hand-eye coordination and athletic ability, and set North Carolina records for career batting average (.412), hits (346), runs (227) and total bases (544) in just three seasons. He also led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 22 home runs in 2009, after hitting 17 in his first two seasons combined.
“I don’t consider myself a home run hitter,” said Ackley. “I just try to do all the little things . . . try to hit gaps. I’ll occasionally hit some balls out. I’m not going to be a guy that tries to hit a bunch of home runs . . . That’s really not what I’m here to do
“Mainly (I’m here) just get my feet wet in the pro ball, just take it a step at a time and work on every aspect of my game.”
Ackley is expected to use his AFL time to showcase his ability to play the outfield. He was restricted to playing mostly at first base due to an elbow injury suffered during his senior year of high school. He had Tommy John surgery in late summer 2008 and played a handful of games in the outfield as a junior, but that doesn’t keep scouts from projecting him as an above-average future defender in center field thanks to his plus speed.
It’s where Ackley prefers to play.
“They’ve had me working in center field and left field,” he said. “I think my speed will play in the outfield. There’s a lot of room to cover and you’ve got to run down balls. I think I’ll be a good player and fit the outfield role pretty well.”
Ackley is now champing at the bit to get his professional career underway. He spent a few days in Seattle observing the big league club just after signing in August before reporting to the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Arizona. He played in a few instructional league games but mostly has been working out in preparation for the AFL season.
At least he’s had some familiar faces to keep him company since instructional league season started late last month. Former UNC teammates Kyle Seager (Mariners), Brian Moran (Mariners), Alex White (Indians) and Mark Fleury (Reds) were all taking part in instructs with teams based in the west side of the Valley of the Sun.
“I was out here for a month with nobody here except myself,” Ackley said. “It was great to see some of the guys here and just see how they’re doing and how they’re making adjustments.”
While he’s got the Fall League season ahead of him, Ackley is also looking forward to going to spring training next year with the big league club.
“I’ve heard about spring training but never really been there, ” said Ackley, whose father John reached Triple-A in the Red Sox organization as a catcher in the 1980s.. “I heard it’s a great opportunity and hopefully I’ll set myself up to have a great season.”
• Ackley won’t be the only 2009 first-round draft pick to play in the Arizona Fall League. Five of the first 10 overall picks will be in the AFL, including No. 1 pick Strasburg (Nationals), No. 7 selection Mike Minor (Braves), No. 8 Mike Leake (Reds) and No. 10 Drew Storen (Nationals).
• Major League Baseball often has used the AFL as a proving ground for proposed new rules and regulations. This season’s rule change to debut in the AFL is the introduction of new protective helmets that will be mandatory for all minor league players in 2010.
The “S100″ helmets, manufactured by Rawlings, have been tested to withstand a 100 MPH pitch while current headgear in use throughout baseball can sustain only a 70 MPH impact. A few big leaguers, most notably the Mets’ David Wright, tried the new helmets during the 2009 season.
AFL players were still getting used to the new helmets after the first four days of preseason workouts, but generally believe it will be a positive change.
“The padding’s a little too thick,” Diamondbacks first baseman Brandon Allen said. “It kind of gets your head claustrophobic a little bit, but it’s a great thing they’re trying to do . . . trying to protect us a little more. I think it will be good.”
“We’ve only used them a couple days so far,” added Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. “They’re a little bigger and a little heavier, but I’m sure the protection is much better.”
Scottsdale Scorpion players around the batting cage joked about the appearance of the new helmets.
“How do they look?” said Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, repeating the question asked to him. “Not great.”
Allen confirmed Brown’s assessment of the new helmets by saying, “They look a little big on some guys.”