Abreu turning heads this spring
Switch-hitting second baseman holding his own at camp
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- In Tony Abreu, infield coach Mariano Duncan sees a similarity to another middle infielder from the Dominican Republic who came up through the Dodgers organization a couple decades ago.
"He reminds me of myself," said Duncan, who made the leap from switch-hitting Double-A shortstop in 1984 to be the Dodgers' Opening Day second baseman in 1985. "He signed as a shortstop, but when he got to our club in the Gulf Coast League in 2003, we had a lot of shortstops and we had nobody at second base so we moved him there and he played like he belonged there."
Abreu's continued to play like he belongs. He has climbed steadily through the farm system and, as the good ones tend to do, elevated his game each time he moved up a rung. He was a Southern League All-Star last year and led Double-A Jacksonville with a .287 average, one year after winning the Florida State League batting title and two years after winning the Gulf Coast League batting title. Baseball America ranks him as the No. 5 prospect in the organization.
Abreu is ticketed for Triple-A this year, but so was Duncan in 1985, when an injury to Steve Sax led to an emergency callup. Like Duncan, Abreu arrived in the organization as a skinny kid and has quickly grown into a powerful man -- adding 40 pounds and the long-ball power that Duncan couldn't match. The switch-hitting power, the average, the glove and a shortstop's arm has become an eye-catching package at Dodgertown this spring.
However, Abreu's strong performance this Spring Training was disrupted by a left shoulder injury suffered in Saturday's game. He was diagnosed with a bone bruise that will keep him out 2-4 weeks, but the injury doesn't figure to be enough to derail his impressive rise up the system very long.
Duncan certainly sees big things ahead for Abreu.
"To me, he's the second baseman of the future for our organization," Duncan said of a position currently occupied by Jeff Kent, who recently turned 39 and is coming off a season of injuries. "He's a very smart kid and he listens."
After going 2-for-5 in Thursday's games, Abreu was hitting .375 this spring and either had or tied for the team lead in home runs, RBIs and total bases, further solidifying his status as the most impressive young player in camp.
While Duncan is Abreu's mentor with the Dodgers, the 22-year-old's baseball father figure is Luis Polonia, who discovered Abreu in the baseball camp he runs on the island and brought him to the Dodgers' academy at Campo Las Palmas, leading to Abreu's signing in 2002.
While Abreu hit only six home runs for Jacksonville last year, he hit three playing winter ball this year for the Aguilas Cibaenas, playing with Polonia, who had a 12-year Major League career that ended in 2000.
"He told me to keep my body back and use my hands," Abreu said of Polonia.
Abreu hit a walk-off blast to beat Detroit this week and took a good, long look as it sped out of Holman Stadium. It couldn't have been anything taught to him by Polonia, who averaged three home runs a year.
"I talked to him about that and told him I want him to play the game with respect," Duncan said. "Sometimes, he enjoys watching. Don't show anybody up. We have to make sure he's not too cocky. He's not really a flashy player. He's just young."
Abreu appears even bigger than he did a year ago and not all of it is muscle.
"I've been working hard," he said, "and eating good."
Duncan has cautioned Abreu not to eat too much.
"I told him to be careful, because a middle infielder can't get too big and lose his flexibility," Duncan said. "I want the kid to be a complete player. He should be stealing more bases, bunting more. He can be a perfect No. 2 hitter, but sometimes he tries to lift the ball and he needs to hit line drives.
"He has a chance to be a very exciting player. He's opened the eyes of a lot of people. My first year here, I said in a meeting that they needed to see what this kid is about. Thank God he didn't let me down."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.