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Center-field position up for grabs

Center-field job up for grabs

JUPITER, Fla. -- The decision on the starting center fielder likely will go down to the start of the regular season. But the way Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez sees it, the wide-open race has several intriguing candidates.

"I'm optimistic the guy is here," Gonzalez said, "I'm not worried about it."

As of now, there are three primary candidates with no clear front-runner. Reggie Abercrombie, Eric Reed and non-roster invitee Alex Sanchez are getting the strongest looks early in Spring Training.

If none of them seizes the spot, the fallback plans are to give Cody Ross and Joe Borchard a chance. Ross and Borchard are strong candidates to make the team, but their specific roles may fluctuate depending on how the battle progresses.

Gonzalez points out that he knows what those two can do, so the club is further evaluating Abercrombie, Reed and Sanchez.

Another option may eventually turn out to be Alfredo Amezaga, who has not yet worked with the outfielders.

A natural middle infielder, Amezaga is getting the bulk of his work right now backing up shortstop Hanley Ramirez and second baseman Dan Uggla.

About 10 days before the season begins, Amezaga is expected to get some time in center field.

The sleeper candidate in camp is Alejandro De Aza, an athletic 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic who bats and throws left-handed. Selected in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft from the Dodgers in 2004, De Aza batted .278 in 69 games for Double-A Carolina a year ago.

"It seems like good things happen when he gets in the game," Gonzalez said.

De Aza's RBI double in the ninth inning on Tuesday against the Red Sox sent the game into extra innings.

Still, odds are De Aza will open the season in either Carolina or Triple-A Albuquerque. But even if he doesn't open with the Marlins, De Aza promises to be a candidate to be called up quickly if he is producing and center field remains in question.

Exploring trade options is also a possibility, but a blockbuster move isn't expected since the Marlins' pitching depth is being tested now that starter Josh Johnson will miss about the first two months of the season because of arm troubles.

This is a big spring for Abercrombie and Reed. Both have options, meaning they could be sent to Triple-A and brought up as many times as the club wants during the season.

Both are 26 years old and are at pivotal points in their development to step up to the Major League ranks.

Abercrombie was in the Minor Leagues from 2000-05 before spending the entire '06 season with the Marlins. While the Columbus, Ga., native struggled with a .212 batting average with five homers and 24 RBIs, he wasn't sent down to Triple-A. By keeping Abercrombie on the active roster the entire season, the Marlins saved his final option.

Now, he is working on remaining in the big leagues.

"I'm just trying to stay confident and don't get caught up worrying about stuff like the center-field job," said Abercrombie, an athletic 6-foot-3, 215-pounder. "Whatever happens, happens. I can't go out there and worry about it. I've got to go out there and play. The only thing you can do is play."

In evaluating Abercrombie, what stands out is his physical stature. He is a former football player who has great speed and a strong arm, and his 493-foot home run at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati demonstrated his raw power.

Abercrombie's main problem is that he has a lack of patience at the plate and sometimes spotty baseball instincts. He is notorious for swinging at the first pitch, and in the field, his routes on flagging down fly balls aren't always the most direct. Abercrombie's also been known to throw to the wrong base.

Because so many of the Marlins' rookies last year performed higher than expected, many wondered why Abercrombie's progression lagged behind.

"Everybody wants to be in the big leagues at 22," Gonzalez said. "Some guys it takes a little longer. You've got to give them an opportunity."

Abercrombie started 66 games in center, but he never really found a rhythm. When Abercrombie was slumping early, he was getting a lot of advice from everybody and he spent much of the year tinkering with his swing.

"I took in a lot of things, and now I've got to be confident," Abercrombie said.

Abercrombie has worked extensively with Andre Dawson, a special assistant to team president David Samson.

"Hawk [Dawson] told me to believe in myself," Abercrombie said. "I believe in myself. I know what I can do. That's it. I've got to go out there and play baseball.

"I've learned the mental part of it is so important. You can't just rely on your ability. Sometimes you're going to have pitchers who throw you certain pitches in situations. Just learning the game. That's about it."

A trap Abercrombie fell into was not being selective, especially when batting eighth in the lineup. With the pitcher's spot behind him, he struggled with being overly aggressive and swinging at pitches out of the zone.

Reed may be the fastest and best defensive player of the group. Offensively, he has to show he can produce enough to win the job. In 42 games with the Marlins a year ago, Reed batted .098 (4-for-41). In Triple-A, however, he batted .303 in 95 games.

Sanchez is trying to reignite his career as a non-roster invitee.

A lefty thrower and batter, the 30-year-old last played in the big leagues with the Giants in 2005.

"I feel very good," Sanchez said. "I feel ready to go. I keep working hard."

The other day, Sanchez personally thanked Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria for the chance.

"I thanked him for this opportunity, and he said he was very happy with me," Sanchez said. "I think everybody has to do their own part. I can only control what I can do and that's doing the best I can. All I can do is work hard and play hard."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }