They were, by acclimation, can’t-miss prospects.
Individually, they were on a path to inevitable stardom. Collectively, they were to be the three-headed core of a Mariner revival, cornerstones of a revamped, power-packed lineup.
And yet, as another Mariners season gets off to a lackluster start, marred yet again by a stumbling offense, a troubling question is being asked with increasing frequency: When will Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero reach their expected heights?
In fact, the question is starting to be not-so-subtly revised: Will they ever? If the answer turns out to be negative, well, the ramifications for Jack Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan, now in its fifth season, are severe.
As ESPN analyst Keith Law, a former front-office employee of the Toronto Blue Jays, puts it, “If you go 0 for 3, it tends to bring down a whole front office. You can’t whiff on that many guys.”
The Mariners counter that it is far too early to bail on any of the trio. They see positive offensive signs recently from Ackley, who after changing his stance in spring training and then revising it again on the last homestand, is hitting .340 (16 for 47) over his past 12 games (through Friday). That has raised his average from .091 to .238.
“I think I’m in the right spot now,” Ackley said Thursday.
They also believe Smoak is ready to build off his explosive finish to an otherwise difficult 2012 season (.341 average, with five homers, over his final 27 games). Smoak put up a .851 OPS (on-base plus slugging) on their recent trip, including his first homer of the season. Manager Eric Wedge is convinced that despite a career batting average of .223 that is the lowest in history for a first baseman or designated hitter with at least 1,500 plate appearances, the positive signs he saw from Smoak during a monster spring will eventually manifest themselves in his statistics.
Montero, meanwhile, has lost his regular catching status to Kelly Shoppach. But the Mariners contend that at a mere 23, with just one full season in the majors, Montero can still become an offensive force, even if he’s eventually pushed out of the catching equation by touted prospect Mike Zunino.
Wedge said Thursday all the focus on Ackley, Smoak and Montero irks him. He said he believes it is unfair to single them out when many others are struggling.
But the reality is that all three were expected to be further down the road toward stardom by this point in their career.
In each case, Zduriencik used a major chip in their acquisition — the No. 2 overall choice in the 2009 draft for Ackley; the much-coveted Cliff Lee at the 2010 trade deadline for Smoak; and All-Star fireballer Michael Pineda in the 2011 offseason in a deal with the Yankees for Montero.
“Not everybody jumps into it like a Mike Trout and it clicks for him,” Zduriencik said. “If we were a veteran club, or had a club that was more experienced and only focusing on one guy, and if he had struggles and you sent him back, it doesn’t look as bad. But because there’s so many of them, it puts an accent on it.”
Zduriencik on Friday told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports that all three players “have things to prove. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Boy, oh boy, these guys are going to be superstars.’ “
A veteran scout told me this week: “I thought all three would be plus players (plus being the scouting term for an All-Star caliber talent). Right now, (the Mariners) are getting below, to well below, impact and would settle for average impact. I’m losing faith they will ever be plus.”
But the hopes for all three were vast — and it wasn’t just wishful thinking from a desperate organization. The industrywide consensus was each one would be an impact player, the kind who can elevate an organization.
Ackley, for instance, was favorably compared to every left-handed hitter of repute, from Wade Boggs to George Brett. When the Mariners signed Ackley to a five-year, $7.5 million contract, Zduriencik said, “We think he’s a player that will bat in the middle of our lineup for years to come.”
And he wasn’t alone in that thinking. No one felt it was a stretch when the Mariners took Ackley right after mega-prospect Stephen Strasburg (though no one yet knew the supersonic path that Trout, taken 24 picks later by the Angels, had in his future).
“Most teams would have taken him No. 2 behind Strasburg,” said Jim Callis, an editor at Baseball America, which closely monitors prospects. “Scouts were telling me he was the best college hitter they had seen since Robin Ventura. ... I wrote many times, I felt the guy was a batting champion waiting to happen.”
Instead, the only .300 mark Ackley has posted was .303 in 66 games with Tacoma in 2011, right before his major-league call-up. After a highly promising debut in 90 games, he has mostly struggled.
“My first comment is, nobody is immune to failures in baseball,” said North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox, who still calls Ackley the best hitter ever to go through the program, currently ranked No. 1 in the country.
“The game just gets everybody at some point. The question is, why and how long?”
Those are questions with which Ackley is grappling, and he hopes that all the tinkering with his mechanics has solved the problem.
“You know there’s always going to be struggles at this level,” Ackley said. “I feel like the struggles I’ve had, they’re for the best. I think I’m going to learn a lot about myself.”
Ackley’s agent, Scott Boras, said that learning an entirely new position after turning pro, and enduring an ankle injury last season that messed with Ackley’s balance and weight transfer, are factors that shouldn’t be minimized. Boras said that last year will turn out to be the outlier in Ackley’s career.
“Remember, 2012 was a first for Ack — the first time he never hit to expectations,” Boras said. “He’s been that good a hitter. I believe that how people view him as a player by the end of 2013 will be far different than what they may think now.”
Ackley, 25, remains confident he’ll thrive at the major-league level.
“Absolutely,” he said. “There’s not a player in the game that’s good that hasn’t thought that. I’ve always thought that my whole career.”
Smoak’s comparisons coming out of South Carolina as the No. 11 overall selection by the Texas Rangers in 2008 were to switch-hitting first basemen like Mark Teixeira and Lance Berkman — and it didn’t seem like a stretch.
“I didn’t think there was any doubt Smoak would hit,” Law said.
But since cracking the majors with the Rangers in 2010, Smoak has yet to conquer major-league pitching. His agent, Hunter Bledsoe, points to positive signs from early this season — Smoak’s ability to “turn around” 1-2 or 0-2 counts, a preponderance of outs of more than 350 feet (more than Prince Fielder) as signs of progress, and an impending breakthrough.
“One of the frustrating things with this game,” said Bledsoe, a former minor-league player, “is you don’t always get to see what a player is doing. Sometimes, progress is hard to quantify.”
Smoak said he believes he’s light years ahead of the past few years, when, in his words, “I was just swinging out of my bee-hind, really. I couldn’t do what I wanted to. Now I feel like I’m in a better place.”
But some scouts believe his bat speed has declined, and many doubt he’ll ever be the combination of power and average predicted out of college. Dave Cameron of USS Mariner and FanGraphs crunched the numbers and concluded, “Justin Smoak has always been Casey Kotchman without the defense or contact skills; it’s just taken us awhile to realize it.”
Bledsoe, however, gives an impassioned counterpoint.
“I have never met someone in life who has ability and has work ethic that at some point they don’t meet,” he said. “As long as Justin keeps working, as long as he doesn’t quit, he will figure it out, because he has ability and he puts in the time.”
Smoak, 26, who shuns computers and the Internet, doesn’t concern himself with detractors.
“People are going to say what they want,” he said Friday, before a game in which he struck out twice with the bases loaded.
Montero was regarded as perhaps the top power-hitting prospect in the minor leagues when the Mariners acquired him from the Yankees.
On the day of the trade, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman declared that Montero is “going to be a middle-of-the-order player. He’s going to have a heck of a career.”
And it might yet happen — the scout to whom I spoke said he still believes Montero has 30-homer potential, though few in baseball expect him to remain at catcher once Zunino arrives.
Zduriencik said that working so hard to hone his receiving skills might have detracted from Montero’s progress at the plate.
Asked if it was therefore counterproductive to leave him at the position with Zunino on the rise, Zduriencik replied, “It’s something we discuss frequently.”
As Montero languishes on the bench — Shoppach has started nine of the past 15 games — he said, “Sometimes, things are hard. It’s not easy to hit a baseball.”
That statement would provide nods of agreement around the majors. But it resonates profoundly with these three as they continue their quest to convert potential into performance.