Should L.A. move Abercrombie to mound?

Rob from Fairfax, Virginia, asks: I'm wondering if Reggie Abercrombie's strong arm and utter lack of plate discipline suggest that his best position may in fact be the pitcher's mound, rather than in the outfield. He has recently been demoted back to Class A after hitting .170 at Double-A. Do you think this is something the Dodgers' brass is likely to consider?

Abercrombie is a tremendous athlete, with some of the best physical tools in the minor leagues. But he can't control the strike zone. In 41 games in Double-A this year, he hit .173/.193/.327, drawing four walks while striking out 66 times in 41 games. He was completely unable to deal with Double-A pitching. Sent back to Vero Beach three weeks ago, he's at .296/.326/.494, showing good power and also stealing 12 bases in 21 games. But even there his strike zone judgment is weak: three walks, 18 strikeouts in 81 at-bats.

It is no surprise that Abercrombie was overmatched in Double-A. In 2003, he drew just 16 walks while fanning 164 times in 116 games. The fact that he survived at all, even in A-ball, is testament to his impressive bat speed and athleticism. But Double-A proved that his current approach wouldn't work. He can't recognize breaking pitches, and constantly lunges at pitches outside the zone.

The Dodgers are aware of this problem, and have tried to teach him the strike zone, to no avail thus far. Some players are able to improve their plate discipline, but for others it never falls into place. Given Abercrombie's statistical extremes, I think he falls into the latter category. I don't think he's ever going to hit well against good pitching.

As you point out, he does have a very strong arm. Will the Dodgers consider moving him to the mound? I haven't heard anything about that yet, but I think it is something they should think about doing. It makes logical sense on paper at least. His athleticism and arm strength should play well on the mound, if he can find some measure of command. It is theoretical at this point, but if I were the Dodgers I would definitely consider it, if Abercrombie is willing to give it a shot. In situations like this, the player has to buy into the switch mentally and emotionally.

Dan S. writes: What can you tell me about Josh Willingham of the Marlins? I know that at 25, he's old for Double-A, but at last check he was leading the Southern League in walks, slugging percentage, and OPS, and is second in homers and OBP. I know he is somewhat new to the position, but with all the problems the Marlins are having behind the plate, I'm wondering why he hasn't been called up.

Willingham was promoted to the Show a few days after Dan submitted his question. Let's take a look at his profile.

The Marlins drafted him in the 17th round in 2000, out of the University of North Alabama. He hit .263 in short-season ball after signing, then hit .259 with seven homers and 24 steals in 2001 in the Midwest League. At this point he was a pretty marginal prospect. But he started to show power in '02, hitting .274 with 17 homers in the Florida State League. Injuries marred his 2003 season, but is healthy again this year. Before moving up to Florida, Willingham hit .282 with a .428 OBP and a .581 SLG for Double-A Carolina -- the best statistics of his career.

At the plate, Willingham is not a guy who will hit for a high batting average, but he controls the strike zone well, draws lots of walks, and has good power. He also doesn't strike out much for a guy with a power bat. In the Show, he looks like a .250-.260 hitter, albeit with some good power production and plenty of walks. His defense behind the plate can be shaky at times. He entered pro ball as a corner infielder, but was blocked positionally at first and third, so the Marlins moved him behind the plate. He works well with pitchers, and shows good leadership skills. But his release to second base is rather slow, and he isn't adept at throwing out runners. Still, given his potent bat, his defense is acceptable.

His main weakness as a prospect is his age. He may not get much better than he already is. But that's pretty good, and he should have a solid career.

Mark asks: This past winter I asked you about Jorge Cantu in the Devil Rays' system. You said you didn't think he was much of a prospect. Are you still of the opinion Cantu is no longer a prospect, or has he come back onto the radar? He is playing great in Triple-A and it sounds like he's going to get a promotion.

Cantu, who was promoted to the Show on Saturday, batted .310 with 21 homers in 83 games for Triple-A Durham. He hit .309 on the road and .311 at home, and had 12 homers at home and nine on the road. He's also a good defensive middle infielder. So why was I down on him going into the season? Basically because he had never done anything like this before.

Cantu hit .215 last year in Double-A. The year before he hit .242 in Double-A. The year before that it was .256. His career high in home runs entering 2004 was seven. He doesn't draw walks, and his OBPs have always been unimpressive. To me, he looked like your typical good-field/no-hit guy, a possible utility player, but nothing to get excited about. Yet in 2004 he's suddenly hitting like Nomar Garciaparra. What happened?

Good question. His walk rate remains low, but he makes contact and doesn't strike out much. Looking deeper into his statistical file, I note that although he hadn't shown much home run power in previous seasons, he was hitting lots of doubles: 26 last year, 31 the year before. That is often a sign of more power to come. The other factor is age. He's just 22 now, and was playing in Double-A as a teenager. My guess is that his improvement is for real, and that he will continue to hit well, although he will have to show his plate discipline will hold up at higher levels.

I think something has clicked for him. The presence of B.J. Upton means that Cantu won't be a regular shortstop for Tampa Bay. But he can play second base, and if his power continues on like this he could fit in at third. His development this year has been spectacular, and I think there is a good chance it is legitimate.

Kent T. from Indianapolis writes: How is Mike Aubrey doing in the Indians' system? I really liked what he did in college for Tulane. Is he adjusting well to pro ball?

Aubrey started the year at Kinston in the Carolina League, hitting .339/.438/.550 through 60 games. He knocked 10 homers, while drawing 27 walks with just 26 strikeouts in 218 at-bats. All-around solid numbers. Promoted to Double-A two weeks ago, he's hitting .259 through 16 games with just a .345 SLG. However, he's maintained good plate discipline, with eight walks vs. seven strikeouts in 58 at-bats. His batting average and power production should increase as long as he maintains his control of the strike zone.

Aubrey was one of my favorite players in the 2003 draft class. He's a classic line-drive hitter. While he may not develop 30-homer power, he should be good for 20 homers a season, with a high batting average and sound OBP. He should be ready some time next year.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, "Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation," is also out, and can be ordered through online book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, Jeri; son, Nicholas; and feline friends Toonces and Spot.