Mailbag: Willy Aybar

(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

Pastadiving... (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

You probably heard by now, but Derek Jeter‘s agent Casey Close is “baffled” by how the Yankees are negotiating with his client. “Derek’s significance to the team is much more than just stats,” said Close, who is certainly right. There’s undeniably a marketing and off-the-field aspect of Derek Jeter that the team has to consider when offering him a contract, and you know what? They did when they proposed three years and $45M. If Close wants to go out and shop that offer around the league, the Yanks should tell him good luck. Jeter has basically no leverage here, no other team will come close to that kind of money so all he has going for him is the team’s fear of bad PR, which I suspect isn’t nearly as great as we think. I understand that Close’s job is to get as much money for his client as possible, but come on man. Baffled?

Anyway, there’s my mini-rant for the night. The late NFL game has the Giants at the Eagles. If Eli can’t do what Vick did last week, they should trade him for Brett Far-vra. Talk about whatever, enjoy.

Pena debuts in winter ball

The Arizona Fall League regular season came to end on Thursday, and Bryce Harper’s Scottsdale Scorpions topped the Peoria Javelinas to win the league title yesterday. The Phoenix Desert Dogs finished the season at 11-17, the second worst record in the circuit. For shame.

AzFL Phoenix (5-5 tie with Mesa on Monday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 1 for 5, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K – the homer left the stadium
Jose Pirela, 2B: 0 for 3, 1 BB, 2 K

AzFL Phoenix (2-1 win over Scottsdale in seven innings on Tuesday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 0 for 3 – threw a runner out at the plate
Austin Romine, C: 0 for 2
Manny Banuelos: 5 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 9-3 GB/FB – 44 of his 75 pitches were strikes (58.7%) … allowed just three runs in his final three starts (12 IP)
George Kontos: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1-2 GB/FB – just six of his 14 pitches were strikes (42.9%)
Ryan Pope: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 0-1 GB/FB – nine of 14 pitches were strikes (64.3%)

AzFL Phoenix (10-4 win over Peoria on Wednesday)
Brandon Laird, LF: 3 for 5, 2 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI

AzFL Phoenix (3-3 tie with Surprise in seven innings on Thursday) what a crappy way to end the season
Brandon Laird, LF: 1 for 3, 1 RBI, 1 K – finished at just .236/.282/.436 with 26 strikeouts and six walks in 116 plate appearances
Austin Romine, C: 1 for 3, 1 K – .279/.313/.328 with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 64 plate appearances
Jose Pirela, 2B: 0 for 3, 1 K – just .180/.237/.247 with 20 strikeouts and six walks in 95 plate appearances

ESPN’s Jason Grey blurbed about Banuelos being on the top pitching prospects in the AzFL (Insider req’d), saying that he was “touching up to 95 mph in shorter stints, and sitting at 91-93 mph in his starts” with a “plus changeup that was a true strikeout pitch.” Just some more praise for a kid that’s been getting plenty of it this year.

So that’s it for the AzFL, but we still have the various winter leagues around the globe to check up on…

Australian Baseball League
Nathan Aron: 4 G, 4 for 12, 1 R, 1 2B, 3 RBI, 4 K, 1 HBP (.333/.357/.417)
Kyle Perkins: 2 G, 0 for 2, 2 K – made a mistake last week, he’s not 0-for-6 with six strikeouts

Dominican Winter League
Francisco Santana: 6 G, 2 for 8, 2 R, 2 K (.250/.250/.250)
Wilkins Arias: 9 G, 6.2 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K (2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP)

Mexican Pacific League
Walt Ibarra: 29 G, 27 for 91, 20 R, 4 2B, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 6 BB, 21 K, 3 SB, 1 CS, 1 HBP (.297/.343/.374)
Ramiro Pena: 3 G, 3 for 10, 3 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 3 BB, 1 K (.300/.462/.400) – watch out, Derek!
Jorge Vazquez: 14 G, 17 for 51, 8 R, 4 2B, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 6 BB, 15 K, 1 CS (.333/.404/.588)
Francisco Gil: 4 G, 6 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 1 WP (10.50 ERA, 2.17 WHIP) – didn’t pitch this week
Eric Wordekemper: 16 G, 15.2 IP, 18 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 5 BB, 15 K, 1 WP (5.17 ERA, 1.47 WHIP)

Venezuelan Winter League
Luis Nunez: 8 G, 3 for 13, 1 R, 1 BB, 1 HBP (.231/.286/.231)
Romulo Sanchez: 5 IP, 4.1 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 5 BB, 2 K (8.31 ERA, 2.31 WHIP)
Josh Schmidt: 7 G, 6 GS, 33.2 IP, 18 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 14 BB, 36 K (1.60 ERA, 0.95 WHIP)

Yankees willing to offer Cliff Lee five years, $120M

Via Nick Cafardo, “word is” that the Yankees are prepared to offer Cliff Lee a five-year contract worth $115-120M, which would be $23-24M annually. Cafardo adds that the Rangers are prepared to “determined to match whatever it gets up to,” but Nolan Ryan has said otherwise. The Nationals are said to be pursuing the lefty as well, but I’m not sure anyone considers them a real threat.

The Yanks have already done the meet-and-greet thing with Lee and his family, as has Texas, so we’re getting to the point where everyone will have to walk the walk after talking the talk. Five years and $120M is basically market value for Lee and I think we’d all be happy if he signs for that price. In the end, I suspect we’ll see a sixth year added, possibly in the form of an option with a hefty buyout.

Better or Worse: Pitching Edition

Yesterday I made some predictions on whether Yankee batters would do better or worse in 2011 than in 2010, today I’ll go through the pitchers.

CC Sabathia

2010:  21-7, 3.18 ERA, 3.54 FIP

2011: At this point Sabathia is who he is, I would expect a very similar season in 2011.  He’s going to throw a ton of good to great innings and win a ton of games.  Expect more of the same next year, which of course is a great thing.  CC is an ace in every sense of the word.

Andy Pettitte

2010:  11-3, 3.28 ERA, 3.85 FIP

2011: Assuming he comes back, I don’t expect Pettitte to pitch as well in 2011 as he did in 2010, though if healthy he could certainly bring more to the team.  The 129 innings he pitched were the lowest of his Yankee career.  I don’t think he’ll pitch to a 3.28 ERA again, but if he can make 30 starts and put up a season similar to his 2009 he’ll be better for the Yankees in the long run.

Phil Hughes

2010: 18-8, 4.19 ERA, 4.25 FIP

2011:  Unlike CC and Andy, there is reason to believe he could improve greatly in 2010.  As positive as his 2010 was, there is plenty of room for improvement.  He may not win 18 games again, but he’ll likely be better.  He went through some growing pains that all young pitchers go through and hopefully he learns from them.  I also think that Hughes’ mindset may be a little different in 2011 knowing that there is no innings limit on the season, nor will he be on as strict pitch counts (20 of 29 starts were less than 105) within games.  Removing these chains could certainly help him grow.  And please Phil, hit a batter next year.

A.J. Burnett

2010: 10-15, 5.26 ERA, 4.83 FIP

2011:  Burnett has to get better in 2011, right?  I expect he will.  While the hiring of Larry Rothschild as pitching coach is a positive, Burnett’s success will depend primarily on himself.  There was no major injury to explain his poor season, and as inconsistent as he has been throughout his career, at the end of every season his line looked ok. Clearly this wasn’t the case in 2010.  One area of slight concern is that his fastball velocity did drop 1 MPH to 93.2 from 2009 to 2010, his 3rd straight year of decline and well off his career norms.  Since he’s essentially a two pitch pitcher, any further drop in velocity could be deadly.

David Robertson

2010: 3.82 ERA, 3.58 FIP

2011: Robertson finished the year strong (playoffs aside) and we were all confident when he came in, but it’s easy to forget he got off to a horrible start.  I think 2011 he puts it together and has a strong year start to finish as the primary setup man (assuming Joba is traded).  If Joba is still here I think Robertson sticks to the fireman role which he has been so great at the past few years (OPS is 107 points lower with runners on, which is good because he walks so many guys).

Mariano Rivera

2010: 1.80 ERA, 2.81 FIP

2011:  Every year there are a ton of prognosticators who predict this is the year Rivera will age.  Every year they are all wrong.  Of course they all keep saying it, so one time they might be right.  I certainly won’t be making that prediction.  In his last 8 years Rivera has had an ERA over 2 just once.  Why would I predict otherwise?  In 2011 it’ll be another year of dominance for the ageless Mo.

Cliff Lee*

2010: 12-9, 3.18 ERA, 2.58 FIP

2011:  Of course this is dependant on Lee signing with the Yankees, but I would expect a little worse season out of Lee in 2011.  Many players struggle their first year in pinstripes, though it was promising that the last big free agent class certainly bucked the trend.  Lee seems to have the composure and attitude required for pitching in the Bronx without being affected, but we won’t really know until he gets here.  I’m sure his record will be better, but pitching a full year in Yankee Stadium and the AL East could hurt his other (important) stats.  He’ll be great, but maybe not quite as great as he was this year.

As this will be my last post at RAB, I want to thank Ben, Mike, and Joe for the opportunity to write here for the past 6 months as I truly have had a blast doing it.  I also want to thank the readers for reading and commenting on my posts, both those who agreed and disagreed with me as I took a lot from both sides.  The community of Yankee fans on this site is second to none and I am glad to be a part of it.

Open Thread: Football in the Bronx

Army and Notre Dame play in the first non-baseball team sporting event in the New Yankees Stadium tonight, unless you count some charity event. The game starts at 7pm ET and can be seen on NBC, though I’m not much of a college football guy so I’ll probably pass. If anything, I’ll tune in or a few minutes just to see what the Stadium looks like. Other than that, all of the hockey and basketball locals are playing at some point, so talk about whatever you want in this here open thread. You know what to do, so have it.

Photo from the Yankees.

Larry Rothschild’s effect on pitchers

When the Yankees hired Larry Rothschild away from the Cubs to be their new pitching coach yesterday, Ben noted that his staffs tend to boast high strikeout rates. Earlier this summer a poster on the FanGraphs Community blog looked at exactly that, and found out that pitchers did in fact improve their strikeout rates with Rothschild, close to 2.5% as a group. But what about walks? Another Cubs Blog tackled that a few days later and found that yep, pitchers improved their unintentional walk rate with Rothschild as well. More strikeouts and fewer walks is a great recipe for success.

The Yanks as a group struck out 0.62 fewer batters and walked 0.19 more (per nine innings pitched) in 2010 than in 2009, with CC Sabathia‘s rates taking a hit in particular. With any luck, Rothschild will help get the staff back into strikeout mode, which would be a tremendous help.