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Spring Training Dish: Marlins Camp
by Chris Kline
Editor's note: Assistant editor Chris Kline begins three weeks of spring training coverage in Florida's Grapefruit League. First stop: Marlins camp. Coming Thursday: Mets camp in St. Lucie.
JUPITER, Fla.--Don't blame Dan Uggla if he sounds a little excited. At this very moment, he's penciled in as the 2006 starting second baseman for the Marlins, since Pokey Reese unexpectedly flew the coop.
"It's been going good, man," Uggla said. "I'm real excited to be here, basically. I guess for the way it's started off, I really can't ask for anything more. I know there are no guarantees. The only thing I can do and have control over is how hard I play out there and the effort I put out to get all my other work in.
"You never know what's going to happen in this game, I'm telling you."
Needless to say, it's a long way from last season, when he spent the summer at Double-A Tennessee.
Through Tuesday, Uggla was batting .303/.333/.455 with a homer in 33 at-bats in big league camp. Obtained in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft last December from the Diamondbacks, Uggla is not only poised to stick with Florida, but appears to be the frontrunner as the Opening Day second baseman when camp breaks in April.
"He's a baseball player," vice president of player development and scouting Jim Fleming said. "He's a hard-nosed kid who wants to play and is playing himself onto this team. He's got a determination about him that you really like."
An 11th-round pick out of Memphis in 2001, Uggla was always known for his solid bat and defensive versatility in the Diamondbacks' system. But he was viewed as more of a utility player than anything else. Until 2005, that is, when he followed a career season with a breakout Arizona Fall League performance.
"I'll tell you what, he's made remarkable strides on defense," a scout with a National League club said. "The bat always seemed to speak enough for him to continue to move up through the minors, but the defense was always a question mark. Not anymore, especially since it looks like he'll have a definitive position. And you've got to love the gamer in him."
But don't say anything to Uggla about having a set position. Sure, he feels more comfortable at second base than anywhere else, but he'll play wherever he can to work himself in the order.
"I can play them all," Uggla said. "I mean, I'm not an everyday shortstop, but I can play third probably everyday . . . but for me, second is where it's at. Maybe that's just me, but that's where I feel at home."
Uggla hit .297/.378/.502 with 21 homers and 87 RBIs at Tennessee last season, and built on that success in the AFL, hitting .304 with seven home runs in 102 at-bats for the Peoria Javelinas.
He was the only Diamondback on the Peoria team as a late addition to the league. The remainder of the Arizona prospects all played for AFL champion Phoenix.
"I guess that maybe should have told me something from the beginning," Uggla said. "I had a pretty good follow-up to a good season. And that's all the Fall League is anyway--it's just a showcase. But it can be one of the most important showcases in your life and it was for me. Just playing in front of scouts and owners and GMs . . . everybody's there.
"It's kind of weird that the Diamondbacks want you out there and you have a good Fall League and they don't protect you. I thought I'd be going out there regardless and then they added me at the last minute. That whole situation, it just really didn't make a lot of sense to me, so I just went out there and tried to have fun."
After all the fun, the Marlins stepped in, grabbing Uggla in the Rule 5, and now he finds himself in the middle of an opportunity of a lifetime.
"I stood up and did a cartwheel out of bed that morning," Uggla said of finding out he was switching organizations. "I realized right then it was a new start and a great opportunity. I was about as excited as you could be."
His defense, however, still needs work if he's going to make the jump from Double-A to the big leagues and stay a Marlin for the foreseeable future. Uggla is taking advantage of one Marlins resource, renowned infield coach Perry Hill.
"Dan's worked very hard with Perry Hill and there's no doubt in my mind that he's going to continue to improve defensively," Fleming said. "That's something he needed to do and wanted to do. There's obviously a wide open hole at second, and you can see he's already improved on his defense at second base.
"Perry's an asset for us. As good as Luis (Castillo) and (Alex) Gonzalez were, he made them that much better. Dan's one of those guys that's taken the information, applied it to himself and is making himself a much better all-around player."
• The BA Matchup of the Day from Marlins camp yesterday was a no-brainer, as Florida lefthander Scott Olsen squared off against Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond twice. Desmond didn't waste any time getting a look at Olsen's fastball or his wipeout slider, however. He fell into an 0-2 hole after two 94 mph fastballs painted both corners before rolling over to second base in his first at-bat. The second time around, Desmond got the better of Olsen with the count 2-1, slapping a bleeder through the left side of the infield past a diving Robert Andino for a base hit.
In all, Olsen allowed three earned runs on four hits, striking out four in 4 1/3 innings of work. The 2002 sixth-round pick threw 58 pitches--39 for strikes--and his fastball and breaking ball looked sharp, though he started to wear in the fourth and fifth.
"The fastball had good life early and he was really putting it where he wanted to," an NL scout said. "I like the whole package a lot. If there's one area where he needs work, it's obviously holding runners. He can tend to get a little long on the backside out of the stretch, and you'll see guys exploiting that where he's trying to go."
• Righthander Anibal Sanchez is just getting back on a mound throwing bullpens after being shut down for seven days with minor shoulder tendinitis. Sanchez, who came over from the Red Sox as part of the Josh Beckett deal, has yet to make an appearance in big league camp and is probably another week away.
• The biggest surprise in Marlins camp so far has been outfielder Reggie Abercrombie. A 23rd-round pick of the Dodgers out of Lake City (Fla.) Community College in 1999, Abercrombie always has enticed scouts with his tools, but has never been able to put it all together. In six minor league seasons, Abercrombie has nearly an 8-1 strikeout-walk ratio (793-to-121) in 2,582 at-bats and has never played above Double-A.
But the 25-year-old outfielder has figured some things out through a stint in the AFL and now in big league camp, working both times with roving hitting instructor John Mallee. "As much of a surprise as it might seem, Reggie has been working his tail off," Mallee said. "He's getting consistent extension through the zone, working to his strength and not giving pitchers that out pitch--not chasing a lot like he'd done previously. He's having a breakthrough spring and everyone should be taking notice."
Through 26 at-bats in big league camp, Abercrombie is hitting .500/.519/.885 with a pair of homers. But perhaps more importantly, he's being much more selective. Though he has yet to draw a walk, Abercrombie has whiffed just three times.
• Continuing a move from last fall, 2004 first-round pick Taylor Tankersley has been pitching out of the bullpen. After spending nearly two years as a starter, the Marlins started using Tankersley in relief after a promotion to high Class A Jupiter last season--after he went 2-7, 5.18 in 66 innings in a starting role at low Class A Greensboro. Tankersley thrived in a relief role at Alabama in college and seems destined for the role if he reaches the majors.
"There's always some question when you take a guy who's a first-round pick and you move him to the bullpen like there's something wrong," Fleming said. "There wasn't anything wrong. We spent the last two years really trying to find lefthanded bullpen guys, so we felt like we should grow a couple of our own. He's the perfect guy for it. He's firmed up his breaking ball. He had two breaking balls, but we dumped the slow one. Now he's throwing the harder one, which is important. He just needs innings right now because he gets a little overamped at times. He's an emotional guy who takes that emotion to the mound. He just has to learn to channel that and control it, because we're not going to take it away from him."