Willie Aybar - Hitting While He Waits

Jose Valentin is down, Nori Nakamura is out and Oscar Robles is the latest to come in as part of the continuing saga of "Who's on third " for the Dodgers. And there's a couple of more waiting their chances as well.

Robles did such an impressive job of hitting in spring training that the Dodgers made a handshake deal with the president of the Mexico City Red Devils to purchase his contract if they felt the need. The current situation dictated the move, especially since Robles, who hit .382 for the Mexican team last season, is doing just as well this time around.

As Robles moves up, Antonio Perez, rehabiliating his strained left hamstring, is sharpening up his third basing skills at Las Vegas and should be back with the parent Dodgers soon. In fact, Vegas† Manager Jerry Royster made a rather startling observation the other day when he declared that third might be Perez's best position in the field.

That's rather surprising because heretofore second was considered to be his more natural slot, even though he played shortstop for Vegas last season. That notion was reinforced whenever Perez tried third in spring training for he looked woefully out of place at the time. But Royster is a former 11-year man in major league infields and served as the Dodger organizational instructor in that department for the past few years, so he speaks with authority.

Thus, Perez seems certain to get his moments at that slot. In the meantime, there's another serving at Las Vegas who's starting to attract attention. That would be Willie Aybar and it serves as something of a time of redemption for him for he's been relegated to the role of an afterthought for the past few seasons.

When he signed for over a $ million in March, 1963, Willie was compared to Adrian Beltré. Appropriate in the sense that both are Dominicans with considerable natural skills. But, unlike Adrian, who was rushed rapidly through the system, Aybar moved at a more deliberate pace even taking two years to move up from high Class A.

He never had a breakout season although he seemed to steadily mature. When he underwent a position switch last year, he no longer was mentioned as the heir apparent at any spot, particularly so because another Dominican wonder boy, Joel Guzman was gathering all the attention.

Aybar had a satisfactory second year at Vero Beach in 2003, hitting .274 with 11 home runs. That latter total disturbed some for it was felt that he might not develop the power needed to play third. He certainly has always demonstrated the fielding skills for the post, with the required quickness and an excellent arm.

But he was moved to second at Jacksonville in 2004, where he displayed good enough glove work though with† some lack of fluidity, particularly making the double play. However, he kept improving at the plate, particularly as a run producer with a personal best 16 home runs and 77 RBI.

This spring he looked sharp in the big league camp, playing both second and third, enough so that his cause was revived. And the way he's hit the ball at Vegas has created a great deal of interest for he's currently leading the team with a .337 mark. While he's hit only two homers, he's ripped 14 doubles, an organizational best.

General Manager Paul DePodesta says Aybar is very much in the Dodger thinking but they'd like him playing every day wherever he his. So, for now, the others will be tried at third while Willie waits his turn. Ironically, at the moment, he's not playing either third or second, for Perez, as noted, is being honed at the former position while Joe Thurston's bat has hearted up as he plays the latter. So, Aybar is the designated hitter because they very much want him in there as well.

Willie's 22 now, a solid 6-2, 180-pounder. His immediate future, of course, depends on how the third base scenario plays out in L.A. But, if he keeps hitting at his current pace, he'll be increasingly in focus. And, in that, he does resemble the young Adrian Beltré.