Mailbag: Willy Aybar

Open Thread: Baffled
Fan Confidence Poll: November 22nd, 2010
(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Dax asks: I read somewhere (I think it was MLBTR) that the Rays are going to non-tender Willy Aybar. What do you guys think of him as a bench player? I know it’s not the 1st order of business, but I think he’d make a good addition. He can play 3rd, 2nd and 1st.

I’ve been an Aybar fan since he was with the Dodgers and I was actually the one that wrote the non-tender post about him at MLBTR. The Rays declined his $2.2M option earlier this month but since he only has four or so years of service time, he’s arbitration eligible for both 2011 and 2012. They’ll have to non-tender him before the December 2nd deadline for the Yankees to be interested. I don’t see why they’d try to trade for him without at least seeing if he hits the open market first.

Some background: Aybar signed with the Dodgers as an international free agent back in 2000 and was eventually traded to the Braves for … former Yankee Wilson Betemit. Look at that. He battled injuries and substance abuse with Atlanta for a season-and-a-half before being traded to the Rays for no one in particular (Jeff Ridgway) before the 2008 season. They used him as a stopgap third baseman until a) Evan Longoria was called up in April, and b) he hit the disabled list for a hamstring strain. Aybar’s been sort of a utility player/platoon designated hitter since.

Aybar was rock solid during his first year in Tampa, putting up an ever so slightly below league average .321 wOBA in 324 plate appearances while spending time at first, second, and third bases. The switch-hitter mashed lefties, tagging them for a .347 wOBA. That total package was worth 1.6 fWAR, a bargain for a salary that barely cracked $400,000. That performance landed him a two-year contract worth $2.6M, buying out his first two years of arbitration as a Super Two. The deal also included the option that the team just declined.

Aybar was even better offensively in 2009, posting a .328 wOBA overall and .381 wOBA against southpaws. He dropped down to 0.2 fWAR because UZR hated his defense, though he was still a fine utility option for a team on a budget. Unfortunately, Aybar’s slide continued into 2010. He wOBA’d just .293 overall and .304 against lefties, though I’m sure you remember this shot. Tampa had some younger and better defensive infielders on the roster, so Aybar spent almost all of his time at DH. At -0.5 fWAR, he was a total drag on the team’s payroll.

So what’s going on here, why has Aybar’s production slipped? It all starts with getting the bat on the ball, and Aybar’s ability to make contact has gone south since 2008. That year he made contact on 92.1% of the pitches he swung at in the strike zone, but it then dropped to 91.0% in 2009 and then again to 88.8% in 2010. His overall contact rate declined as well, from 87.7% to 84.7% to 83.9%. Aybar made things worse by swinging at more pitches out of the zone, offering at 24.8% of such offerings in 2010, up about 3% from previous years. Pitchers obviously picked up on this and guess what? They stopped throwing him strikes. Just 46.2% of the pitches Aybar saw in 2010 were in the strike zone, down from 48.1% in 2009 and 50.9% in 2008. Unsurprisingly, Aybar’s strikeout rate has climbed steadily over the last three seasons…

And up goes the strikeout rate. (via FanGraphs)

Plate discipline and the ability to get the bat on the ball aren’t easily correctable based on what we’ve seen historically, though it can always happen. Kevin Long did a bang up job helping Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson make harder contact as their time in pinstripes went on, but they still struck out at their previous rates. We can’t just assume that K-Long will fix Aybar’s ever-increasing whiff issues.

Now that’s not to say he’s a lost cause. Aybar still offers solid pop and aside from 2010, his track record against lefties is very strong. He doesn’t turn 28 until March, so it’s not like age-related performance decline is a concern. He can play the corner infield spots and also fill in at second in a pinch, and I’m willing to bet left field would be an option as well if they let him try it. Bill James projects Aybar to return to a .322 wOBA level next year, which is far better than what Ramiro Pena did this season (.247 wOBA). The problem is that you’d still have to carry someone like Pena or Eduardo Nunez to play the middle infield consistently, so in reality you’re looking at Aybar as a Marcus Thames replacement. The designated lefty masher that’s slightly more usable in the field.

None of this matters unless the Rays non-tender Aybar, of course. I suspect they will because they’re cutting payroll next year and they already have superior (and cheaper) utility options like Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez on the roster. Cutting Aybar would result in about $2M in savings, not an insignificant amount for a club expected to have a $60M or so payroll. If/when he gets non-tendered I’d certainly want the Yankees to at least kick the tires and see if there’s a fit. Aybar could command $2M or so on the open market, which is very reasonable if he gets back to crushing southpaws. It’s certainly more preferable to Bill Hall, in my opinion. Like I said before, I’m a fan, so I’d be down with Aybar on the bench in 2011.

Open Thread: Baffled
Fan Confidence Poll: November 22nd, 2010
  • The Ancient Mariner

    Well he’d be better than Ramiro Pena.. I’m typically not a fan of signing bench players, however if there’s people out there who feel that Eduardo Nunez is a future starting shortstop, I feel that the Yankees need to trade him for something of value. He’d be a good option that would allow the Yankees to trade Nunez if there’s a market for him.

    • Bulldozer

      Willie Aybar doesn’t play SS. His brother, however, does.

      • Ted Nelson

        Yeah, but you can carry Pena and Aybar if you want, especially if you think Aybar can fill in as a LF and occasional DH.

        • Bulldozer

          Oh sure, I was just pointing out to the OP that Aybar doesn’t necessarily mean an upgrade “so you don’t have to carry Pena/Nunez” player.

    • Ted Nelson

      Yeah, if you can get trade value for Nunez absolutely. I don’t know that the Yankees can get anything all that valuable for Nunez, though. I’m a big defender of Nunez and he’s certainly capable of starting on a lot of teams given how poorly SS performed offensively last season, but if a team is not real hot for him the Yankees might be better off just using him as their utility guy and using Aybar’s $2 mill on a reliever or Latino prospect or whatever they would have gotten of value for Nunez… If the Yankees are right in their bullish stance on Nunez and he does well in limited at bats (unfortunately a lot of variability with a small sample) then they could more easily bill him as a starting SS in a trade at the deadline or after the season.

      Basically, you can double down with Nunez and Pena. If one’s bat is solid enough to cover all 3 IF spots, it sort of opens up a roster spot compared to Aybar (since you still have to carry a Pena/Nunez with Aybar). That roster spot and $ could potentially go towards a real 4th OFer… Then again, maybe there’s not a 4th OFer out there with Aybar’s bat for Aybar money…

      • Bulldozer

        You know, I was thinking about the FO’s bullish Nunez stance. I think it served a dual purpose. To let Jeter know they feel good about another SS in the system, and after they sign Jeter, as bait to a team. They could always say, “you know we love Nunez, and it’s tough to deal him, but that’s it, he’s the last player you can have.”

        • MikeD

          I agree, although they would still want to hold onto Nunez even after the Jeter contract is completed. Jeter will turn 37 next season, and every year older increases the liklihood of some injury that potentially could take Jeter out of player for a few weeks (manageable) to a few months (much less so). They’s like to have an in-house option.

          In fact, the “internal option” is needed and may be one more reason the Yankees seemed more willing to part with Adams than Nunez over the summer, even though Adams may project better. On the very slight chance the negotiations with Jeter turn south, they’d have that internal option who could hold them over until they identify a longer-term replacement.

          Yet Jeter’s not going anywhere, so…

        • Ted Nelson

          Jeter could factor into it, but I think that at some point they actually do have to be bullish on him to take such a direct stance in a blockbuster trade. If they were legitimately willing to trade Montero + David Adams for Cliff Lee and balked because of how much more valuable they think Nunez is than Adams (who was OPSing .900)… I think it has to be about more than the Jeter negotiations.

          Nunez’s value right now to most teams is probably fringe starting SS prospect… If they have a weakness at SS maybe they’re interested, but I doubt any team would count on Nunez as their long-term starting SS at this point. Thus I doubt any team would give up that kind of value for him. If you feel you have a starting SS and all a team is willing to give you is a decent reliever or 4th OF, for example, you may be better off taking the chance he proves he’s a starting SS in a utility role (playing for dirt cheap in the meantime).
          If the Yankees do feel he can handle major league pitching and is a real starting SS, his value can only rise over the next year or two if they’re right. That’s why I wouldn’t mind seeing him in a utility role for a season, and if he earns it he could see enough PAs to increase his value. Yankees could even hold onto him for 2 seasons and he’d still be cheap and pretty young.

  • mbonzo

    Aybar would be an upgrade over Pena or Nunez right now, but I still think the Yankees should look into Delwyn Young. Aybar is a far better fielder, but Young is a bit more versatile, has more upside (in regards to power), and is cheaper. With that, Young carries more risk.

    Another interesting stat I see with Aybar is that his BABIP from his last 3 years is around .270. In 2005 he had a BABIP of .365 in limited plate appearances and put up a .448 OBP. While that is an outlier, I think you can look at his 2006 as a better assessment of what he’s capable of hitting, .280 with a .364 OBP. I wouldn’t expect him to put up those numbers, but if he has a good season with his next team, he’ll certainly be capable of that.

    • Bulldozer

      Delwyn and Willie don’t play SS. I don’t mean to dismiss both, but in that respect they are different than Pena and Nunez.

    • Ted Nelson

      I’m not sure Young has that much upside entering his 29 yo season… He was a good minor league player, but I’m not taking much of a risk he figures it out and has his first good major league season at 29. This is a guy who couldn’t start for the Pirates. On a minor league deal, sure… but that doesn’t necessarily stop you from exploring other avenues at the same time.

      I also don’t know that I’d call Young more versatile. Yankees need a back-up plan at 3B. Young has 8 ML games there, making 3 errors in 19 chances…

      • mbonzo

        He can barely pass for a 3B but that doesn’t matter when the Yankees will have at least one of Pena or Nunez. Young can take care of 2B and the OF, he’d be an upgrade over Golson hitting-wise. He is a big risk, but I wouldn’t mind taking it.

  • YankeesJunkie

    If Aybar is cheap and willing to sign a one year deal he a good guy to take a risk on since I doubt that he will replicate his .340 SLG and be back closer to .400 SLG which should get his wOBA up to at least close to league average which better than what a Pena and Nunez can offer.

  • China Joe

    Fact: when a guy who has been traded for Wilson Betemit comes to the Yankees, his career instantly turns around and he becomes awesome.

    …just ask Swish

  • Mark L

    Aybar seems like a good fit. His defensive metrics at 3B seem to be all over the board. Leave Nunez in AAA to play SS/3B every day, Pena doesn’t have a future as a regular so he can be the defacto defensive replacement.

  • Greg Davenport

    The yankees negotiate with the resolve of a publicly traded company. If you believe ESPN the yankee income with the YES media company and all other income sources is a bottomless bank of available funds. I believe this is reasonably accurate. The yankees biggest problem is Major League Baseballs edict to appear competitive not over bearing and “unfair” to the middle income teams such as the brewers,pirates and toronto. I love the yankees but their portrayal of keeping a tight reign on salaries is disingenuous.The heart and soul of yankee baseball was the late George Stienbrenner. He played traded and operated to win for himself and all of the yankee fans. He gave the yankees the public image of “WINNERS”. I hope the operations people he left behind will be 50% of what george was to the yankees and their fans.The jeter issue was decided when george was still alive. Remember the new york press, like the city, NEVER SLEEPS.