Willie Aybar Playing For Time

VERO BEACH, Fla.- Willie Aybar is emphatic when it comes to the position he'd prefer to play. "Third base," is the reply. Which isn't what some coaches will say when they opine. They think he's better at second. When it comes down to it, though, he'll probably wind up playing some of both plus even a little shortstop thrown in for Willie's currently fighting for a job as a utility infielder on the Los Angeles roster.

It's one of the more interesting contests in spring training and one that got a bit more intense when Oscar Robles told Mexican officials that he won't be playing for their team in the World Baseball Classic after first avowing that he gave them his word he would be on their team and would honor that commitment.

But Oscar knows that such a decision could well cost him his chance in this battle so he'll stay here and compete. As it is both he and Aybar may well be behind Ramon Martinez, a veteran in such doings who signed as a free agent over the winter. (And who, incidentally, is having his own war with a stomach virus which is making the rounds of the camp and has him on the sidelines at the present. )

Robles made his case last spring when he came here still the property of the Mexico City Red Devils but who displayed such prowess with the bat that, though, he was returned to that team, it was with an arrangement that he could be purchased if needed. And, of course, it turned out he was and he came up to play in 110 games with the Dodgers. In fact, he wound up with more time at third than anybody else.

Here, though, the regular jobs are locked in with Jeff Kent at second, Rafael Furcal at short (as soon as he gets healthy) and Bill Mueller at third . Hence this contest to see who'll be the backup. And hence the need for versatility and there Martinez also has the edge for he has first base on his resume, something the other two lack.

Aybar had been a third baseman ever since signing for a then-Dominican record $1.6 million bonus in 2000. He'd been a shortstop as an amateur and still plays that when called upon but that's about it for that spot. He was shifted to second in 2004 not because the Dodgers were unhappy with his fielding but rather they felt he'd never produce the power desired of a third baseman.

He proceeded with a career best 14 homers that season but last year managed only five at Las Vegas where your Aunt Agatha ought to be able to drive a couple out so hitter-friendly is the place. He did have a solid year, though, got a September call-up and proceeded to hit .326 in the bigs so it's no wonder that he feels that he can play up there.

However, there's those other two guys, both of whom can help themselves with a bat as well so right now Willie probably is running third in the derby. Thus, he utters the proper mantra for the occasion, "I just play hard every day and see what happens."

He has options left so it might be Las Vegas again though he has no guarantee of playing third there, either. Not with Andy LaRoche about to arrive on that scene. That could mean he'll be more of a second baseman for the 51's as well. For the record, he played 78 games at third and 28 at second for them in 2005.

Willie has talent and, though he sometimes has been accused of not applying himself enough, can be a battler. Jerry Royster, a guy who knows more than a little about being a utility type in the bigs, returns as the manager for the 51's and he's an Aybar booster. "He's helped me a lot," Willie asserts.

It may well be that he'll never have a fulltime job in The Show but those supporting roles can be important, too. So he's here having fun and making sure they don't forget him when the casting call comes. Royster hung around for a 16-year major league career doing just that.

It's a role model Willie would like the emulate.