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Abernathy does everything well

Rookie fighting for Rays' second base job said he'll do whatever is needed to win.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Abernathy has a down-to-earth attitude: "I'm the type of guy, if you come watch me play for one day, my abilities are not going to stand out."
ST. PETERSBURG -- He came highly recommended, but the scouting report seemed rather vague. Sort of like the sales pitch for a blind date.

Runs pretty well. Not a bad little hitter. Decent range in the field.

They might as well have said Brent Abernathy had a good personality.

Meet your new Rays second baseman. He may not make an immediate impression, but give him room to grow on you. He is earnest, he is dedicated, he is the kind of second baseman you bring home to meet the manager.

"He is an All-American kid with wonderful parents," said Blue Jays scouting director Tim Wilken. "He has been blessed with certain abilities to play the game and he understands what they are. He has the ability to play a winning type of baseball and he stays within those parameters. If you talk to the managers he's played for, I'm sure they'll all tell you the same thing. I can't say enough about the way he approaches the game."

Which explains why the Rays were willing to give up a proven starting pitcher such as Steve Trachsel to pry Abernathy away from the Toronto farm system last summer. And it explains why Abernathy, 23, is the favorite to win the job at second base this spring despite never having played in the majors.

Scouts talk about prospects in terms of tools. Speed, power, arm strength. Those are tools. Abernathy's tools are mostly modest. He does not excel in any one area, but he does perform well across the board.

In 1998, he was named to the Florida State League All-Star team and was the Dunedin Blue Jays Most Valuable Player. In 1999, he was named to the Double-A All-Star team by Baseball America. In 2000, he was named to the Olympic team and led the gold medal-winning U.S. team in hits.

"I'm the type of guy, if you come watch me play for one day, my abilities are not going to stand out," Abernathy said. "I'm not the fastest guy, I'm not the strongest guy, I don't have the best arm. But if you watch me for an entire season, you'll see I'm going to do the little things it takes to win a ballgame. I feel like that's what I get paid to do -- help a team win.

"I'll go out day in and day out and dive after balls, hustle, whatever it takes to win. That's what I bring to a team. I'm not going to bring 30 home runs to the table, I'm not going to bring 100 RBI to the table, I'm going to bring whatever it takes to win."

This is precisely what the Rays were looking for in a second baseman. Miguel Cairo held the job the past three years and compiled decent statistics. He hit .275 and is the franchise's all-time leader with 69 stolen bases.

But Cairo struggled with the intangibles. He did not take enough pitches, he was not adept at moving runners over, he had defensive lapses. When it was clear he would become arbitration-eligible and earn a huge raise based on his solid statistics, the Rays chose to waive him. He was not claimed, and has signed a minor-league contract with Oakland.

"There are certain positions in our lineup where we need guys that you get a different style of production out of," manager Larry Rothschild said. "Somebody who is able to work pitchers, get deep in counts, wear down pitchers, get a bunt down if necessary, get on base."

In other words, Greg Vaughn, Fred McGriff and Vinny Castilla are being paid big bucks to hit home runs. Rothschild is looking for a second baseman who can do the less-than-glamorous work elsewhere in the lineup and on the field.

And that is where Abernathy comes in. He may have been a star player at the Lovett School in Atlanta, but even in high school he recognized he was going to have to excel at the little things to succeed.

His parents tell the story of 2-year-old Brent sitting transfixed in front of a television while a baseball game was being broadcast. His whole life, he said, he has understood the mental challenges of the game.

Drafted in the second round by the Blue Jays in 1996, Abernathy said he was expecting to be traded after Toronto signed second baseman Homer Bush to a three-year deal before the 2000 season. Wilken said Abernathy was mistaken.

The only reason the Blue Jays were willing to part with him hours before the trade deadline in July was because they believed they had a chance to reach the post-season with another starting pitcher. Otherwise, Toronto had every intention of keeping Abernathy around.

"We hated to lose him," Wilken said. "If we had Brent this spring, I think he might have given Homer a push at second base."

Instead, Abernathy is competing with Bobby Smith and Russ Johnson. Smith and Johnson have more experience. Smith's tools are more readily apparent and Johnson is more versatile.

But don't count out the guy with the great personality.

"I don't do a lot of special things out there. I'd be lying if I said I did," Abernathy said. "I just claim to be a guy who gets the job done 162 games a year. That's all I'm concerned with."

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