Abercrombie optioned to Triple-A

Marlins' center-field race down to two

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The race to be the starter in center field is coming more into focus in Marlins camp.

On Wednesday morning, Reggie Abercrombie was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque. Barring some further developments -- like a trade, which is certainly possible -- the battle for the starting spot has come down to Eric Reed and non-roster invitee Alex Sanchez.

Reed and Sanchez are similar players, both being speedy left-handed hitters who rely heavily on playing "small ball." Neither has much power and both are singles-type hitters who count on bunting to help get on base.

"I think the two other guys are a little bit ahead of him," manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Abercrombie's situation. "We felt it was time for those guys to play a little bit more."

Asked if it is a two-player race, Gonzalez said: "You could say that. We also have that secret weapon. He hasn't played it, but he can play out there."

The "secret weapon" is versatile switch-hitter Alfredo Amezaga, who has worked exclusively as a backup middle infielder this spring. He made 64 starts in center a year ago.

Joe Borchard is another candidate, although the switch-hitter is viewed more as a corner outfielder. In spacious Dolphin Stadium, the team covets a true speedster for center to cover so much ground.

Abercrombie is so intriguing because of his obvious natural ability. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he has tremendous raw power and great speed. However, his baseball instincts still need refining. The 26-year-old has one more option, and the team decided now to get him work in the Minor Leagues in hopes that he eventually blossoms.

"He needs to go down and play and come up back here," Gonzalez said. "We haven't closed the chapter about Reggie by any means. There have been guys who have come up and gone back down, and guys who have come back up and stayed for a lot of years. They've made great careers out of it, and that's what we're hoping will happen."

In six Grapefruit League games, Abercrombie batted .167 (3-for-18) with no extra-base hits or RBIs.

"He's got all the tools," Gonzalez said. "He can run, hit, we've seen him hit for power -- throw. He's got it all there. Now it's a matter of him putting it together consistently. When he does, this guy can be a force. I want to make a point clear: We're not forgetting about him. It's not [on] a back burner. We feel very strongly that he can play at the Major League level."

As a rookie in 2006, Abercrombie made 66 starts in center field and appeared in 111 games. He batted .212 with five home runs and 24 RBIs. He struck out 78 times in 255 at-bats.

A dark horse to make the club is Alejandro De Aza, an intriguing 22-year-old prospect from the Dominican Republic. Another lefty batter, De Aza can play all three outfield spots, and he is batting .333 (6-for-18) in Spring Training.

Most likely the team is continuing to look at De Aza with the intentions of sending him to Double-A. If that happens, De Aza could be an interesting prospect who gets called up during the season.

The Marlins made two other roster moves on Wednesday, reassigning pitcher Gaby Hernandez and catcher Brett Hayes to Minor League camp. Hernandez will open the season in Double-A, and he could be called up in a couple of months. Hayes is projected to be Class A Jupiter's catcher.

"You need to see the other guys play, and you need to get at-bats for the other guys," Gonzalez said of the center-field battle. "[Abercrombie] needs to get some at-bats for his development, too."

Reed is having a nice spring. He is batting .364 (8-for-22), while Sanchez is batting .182 (4-for-22).

Spring Training statistics can be misleading, especially based on roughly 20 at-bats. An edge Sanchez may have is big-league experience. The 30-year-old is a career .296 hitter, although he last played in the Major Leagues in 2005 with the Giants.

Reed, meanwhile, appeared in 42 games and had 41 at-bats for the Marlins a year ago, hitting .098 (4-for-41). Reed also has one more option, so if he doesn't make the club out of camp, he too could get more tuning up in Triple-A.

"Reed is playing his game," Gonzalez said. "He has been playing the game we all want him to play. Playing the small ball, bunt, hit the ball on the ground. We know how good his defense is."

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