De Aza in hunt for center-field job

De Aza in hunt for center-field job

JUPITER, Fla. -- With three home runs, Alejandro De Aza paces the Marlins in going deep in Grapefruit League action.

More than showcasing the long ball, the Marlins are more interested in seeing what De Aza pulled off in the third inning on Monday afternoon. The left-handed hitter, who led off against the Twins, dropped a bunt single. Then in the fifth inning, he worked out a walk, although he was picked off. In the seventh inning, he drove in a run with a single and hit another single in the ninth.

If De Aza makes the Opening Day roster, it will be because he's showing the capability of getting on base regularly rather than driving the ball over the wall.

"No. I'm not looking for home runs," said De Aza, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from the Dominican Republic. "I'm looking to hit the ball as hard as I can. I'm trying to put the ball in play."

De Aza was the surprise of Spring Training a year ago, when he came out of nowhere and won the starting center-field job on Opening Day. In the spring of '07, he hit .354 (17-for-48), while he didn't connect on a home run.

Even though De Aza was in the lineup in the first game, he went down with a stress fracture to his right ankle during the Marlins' first road trip. His season never was the same afterwards, as he appeared in just 45 games with the Marlins, and hit .229. He also appeared in 11 Minor League games.

"For me, his game is to put the ball on the ground, bunt, run," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He can turn on that ball inside."

Whatever power De Aza shows is a bonus because the team isn't expecting him to drive the ball over the fence. In fact, in 2007, his only two homers came during his stint at Double-A.

De Aza added 33 games of Winter League ball in the offseason, where his manager was Marlins bench coach Carlos Tosca.

De Aza's approach this spring is much the same as a year ago.

"I'm taking it the same as last year," De Aza said. "I'm going to work hard and I'm getting an opportunity. My priority is to stay healthy. The injury was the worst thing that happened to me last year."

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The Marlins are weighing how they want to handle center field. If prospect Cameron Maybin doesn't make the initial roster, then Cody Ross is expected to be a platoon option in center field.

The center-field candidates are De Aza, Maybin, Ross and Brett Carroll, who ideally is more of a backup corner-field option rather than a serious center-field contender. While Carroll is posting strong offensive numbers this Spring Training, his speed doesn't match up with some of the other choices. In spacious Dolphin Stadium, the ability to cover ground is essential. Not that Carroll can't play center field, the thought is he isn't suited to be there on a regular basis.

De Aza conceivably could platoon with Ross. Another option is switch-hitting middle infielder Alfredo Amezaga, who has spent a great deal of time in center field the past two seasons.

Gonzalez said on Monday that ideally, he would prefer Amezaga remaining an infielder. Still, Amezaga promises to get some center-field action before Opening Day.

"It depends on what we want to do with the bench," Gonzalez said. "[De Aza] is competing for that [center-field] job. Right now, he's right there in that mix with Cody, Maybin and Carroll."

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