05/27/09 11:00 AM ET
Draft prospect Ackley a two-position talent
Outfield or first base the possibilities for Tar Heels star
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
First baseman Dustin Ackley? Or outfielder Dustin Ackley?
Talk about the positional dilemma. Ackley, the 2009 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, has been the Tar Heels' starting first baseman for most of his three-year career, with just a handful of games played in the outfield in that span.
Yet most if not all scouts believe that Ackley's future lies in center field, despite the fact that he's had minimal practical experience in that spot due to a lingering right elbow injury for which he finally underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery last summer.
"I think that might bother a few purists, but most people who can figure things out will find a spot for him regardless," said one NL scout. "You have to get back to basics and remember he's a [very] good hitter and then go from there. So it depends on those first 10 picks who it bothers and who it doesn't, but I think he's going to go pretty darn high."
His stats would certainly back up that assessment.
Heading into this weekend's opening round of NCAA tournament play, Ackley was hitting .399 with 20 homers and 61 RBIs to go with 12 steals, a conference-high 91 hits, and a .759 slugging percentage.
Combined with his .402 average as a freshman and .417 mark as a sophomore, his composite .406 average is the best in North Carolina history.
Ackley was the sixth North Carolina player to earn ACC's top honors, but the first since current Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who won it in 1998. He also became just the fifth player in league history to earn both ACC Freshman of the Year and, eventually, Player of the Year, joining Roberts, Mark Teixeira, Jason Varitek and Jamie D'Antona on that short list.
Ackley, 21, had been dogged by a sore elbow since his high school days at North Forsyth (N.C.) which finally prompted him to undergo the surgery last July, followed by several months of rehab where he couldn't even pick up a bat.
Had he planned on remaining at first base for the rest of his playing career, Ackley probably could have passed on the surgery but that wasn't his goal.
"After my freshman year, it wasn't fully torn to the point where they needed to operate," Ackley explained. "If I'd been a pitcher they might have, but they wanted me to rehab to see if I could get back to 100 percent without surgery."
He rested the elbow that fall and winter but found that when he returned as a sophomore, the improvement was minimal.
"I tried playing a few games in the outfield in summer ball, but I knew I couldn't put up with throwing with all that pain all the time," Ackley said. "So I went back as fast as I could to Alabama to get it checked out. I wanted my arm to be at the point where I could play any position, not just for my college team but also down the road professionally."
As a result, he has spent most of his time defensively at first base for the Tar Heels, though he's filled in for injured outfield teammates on occasion.
The good news, though, is that Ackley thinks his elbow is close to being outfield ready, 10 months after his surgery.
"It's really good, probably the best it's ever been," Ackley said. "I think I could probably play in the outfield every day now if I wanted to, but my team needs me at first base."
And most scouts believe that whatever the true degree of his recovery arc is at present, it will have little effect on Ackley's Draft status.
While he hasn't gotten to "strut his outfield stuff" in a game situation for the scads of scouts who have flocked to Tar Heels games to watch him, at least he's gotten in some time there during batting practice.
"I take as many balls out there as I can during batting practice since that's the only time I get to take them," Ackley said. "I think I've taken enough balls at first base that I don't really need to repeat anything over there."
The scouts will get to continue that schedule this weekend when top-seeded North Carolina (42-16) hosts one of the 16 regional tournaments, along with Coastal Carolina, Kansas and Dartmouth.
Ackley's bat, however, garners much less debate and speculation.
The left-handed hitter ranks as perhaps the best pure hitter in the college ranks this season -- boasting bat control, bat speed and the ability to stay in the zone. Whether Ackley's power portends a potential move to a corner spot engenders a little more discussion among the scouting ranks.
"He'll hit a lot of doubles," said one NL scout. "I'll say I don't think he's got the power some people think he does, but I could see 40-50 doubles a year. And if he adds 15 homers and 10 triples, that's a [very] good year."
Yet another NL scout differed a bit.
"I think he's going to hit more home runs than people think," said the scout. "He's a very polished college hitter who will hit for high average and is easily one of the better college hitters to come out in a good while."
For now, though, Ackley is focusing on more immediate issues, such as his Tar Heels' upcoming quest for a College World Series berth.
Born and raised in Walnut Cove, N.C., a suburb of Winston-Salem/Greensboro, not far from Chapel Hill, his last days wearing the Carolina blue will no doubt be bittersweet.
"In high school all my family were Carolina fans but we followed basketball more than baseball," he said. "But Carolina turned out to be the perfect fit for me and it was definitely an awesome time. I never knew I'd enjoy college this much. It's when you learn to be a man, live on your own and take things into your own hands which was a great experience for me."
Some think that after the obvious No. 1 Draft pick, San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg, goes to Washington, Ackley could go with any of the remaining picks, including the No. 2 pick which belongs to Seattle.
Ironically, the Mariners will be in their first Draft under new general manager Jack Zduriencik. Zduriencik took over Seattle's helm last October after serving as scouting director of the Milwaukee Brewers for many years. During that reign, the Brew Crew drafted Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta with the seventh overall pick in 2007.
LaPorta, like Ackley, was a slugging first baseman for the Gators, but the Brewers drafted him with the plan to move him to the outfield despite his not having played there in college.
In fact, on Draft Day, then-assistant GM Gord Ash made sure to write down "left fielder Matt LaPorta" on the Draft card he passed up to be read for the team's selection. LaPorta was still announced as "first baseman Matt LaPorta."
MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft on June 9-11, on MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on June 9, noon on June 10 and 11:30 a.m. on June 11.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.