Willy Aybar versus the Rays………..Arbitration 2009
It is only a matter of time before Dioner Navarro is again celebrating. But this time it will be for a arbitration hearing settlement against his team, the Tampa Bay Rays. But he might not be alone that night celebrating as utility player Willy Aybar is also scheduled to go to arbitration with the Rays in 2009. Since Andrew Friedman took over the player contract reigns 3 seasons ago, he has only been to two hearing for the team. What is surprising is the fact that both of those hearing were for former Rays catcher Josh Paul, and the Rays won both hearings. So for the next 2 days, lets dig into the background and the career numbers for the Rays still arbitration eligible players. Both Navarro and Aybar are seeking substantial raises in 2009, and will go before an arbitrator for the first time to secure their 2009 contracts with the Rays.
But this year will be different for the Rays. Navarro, who is also a catcher posted personal bests in several offensive and defensive categories, and when compared to recent catchers in the MLB, is considered a bargain even at 2 plus million dollars a year. Navarro also went to his first All-Star game in 2008, and that just might be a nice piece of hardware to push him over that $ 2 million dollar plateau with ease.. The Rays started the off season with 6 members eligible for arbitration, but 2 were eliminated by trades, and 2 signed a contract with the team before the team’s 12 p.m. deadline on January 20, 2009.
Former Rays starter Edwin Jackson was traded to the Detroit Tigers for Matt Joyce and finally agreed to a $ 2.2 million dollar contract wit the Tigers, with a chance to earn an additional $200,000 dollars through innings pitched incentives. The Rays were not as kind to emotional and energetic cheerleader Jonny Gomes as the team cut ties with the fan favorite and he eventually decided on a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds for $ 600,000, with production incentives of $ 200,000 possible in the deal. Gomes also will have a chance during spring training to secure a left field spot in the Red’s outfield.
Rays 2008 Team MVP Jason Bartlett signed a contract with the Rays at 10:50 a.m. on January 20th, to just get under the wire of the Rays set deadline to discuss contracts with arbitration eligible players. Bartlett signed for $ 1,981,250 dollars on a 1-year deal, but the Rays control him until 2011. Rays platoon right fielder Gabe Gross avoided arbitration by signing a 1.255 million dollar contract on January 14, 2008 for a1 year deal. Gross will compete with Joyce and Rays new comer Gabe Kapler for playing time in 2009.
So that leaves the Rays with 2 very important members of their 2008 American League Pennant winning squad still on the outside without a contract. Both Navarro and Aybar can take a huge amount of credit for the surge of the Rays in 2008 based on their newly set career bests. Aybar can also put on a tag of “always ready” on his resume by coming in and taking charge several times in 2008 due to injuries of star players Bartlett, and Evan Longoria. So let’s begin with the Rays utility man, who played above and beyond his expectations in 2008.
Willy Aybar came to the Rays in a trade with the Atlanta Braves prior to the 2008 season. He had been a handful for the braves in both injuries and personal situations that almost got him a bad label in the league. Aybar had been obtained in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and went straight into the Braves minor league system. When the Rays considered Aybar for a trade prior to the beginning of the 2008 spring training season, they had a lot of information and problems to sift through before finally completing the deal.
After consulting with their scouts and members of their new Dominican Republic complex staff, Tampa Bay began to really talk with the Atlanta Braves about a trade involving 24-year-old infielder. Aybar’s off-the-field issues, most notably a stint in a substance-abuse rehabilitation program that wiped out most of his 2007 season, could be an impediment.
The Braves had suspended Aybar indefinitely in April 2007 after he left the team without permission. He was supposed to report for treatment on a sore wrist that had him on the disabled list to open the season but instead drove from Atlanta to Boston to see his older brother for help dealing with drinking and drug issues. Aybar finally completed his rehab program in August 2007, but a broken hamate bone in his right hand kept him from making it back to the majors.
He underwent season-ending surgery and didn’t take the field again until October, when he began the winter-ball season playing for Licey in the Dominican Republic. He has had a strong season in his home country,hitting .339 and posting a .415 on-base percentage in 15 games during Licey’s run to first place in the league’s January semifinal series. So the Rays decided that Triple-A pitcher Jeff Ridgeway would be good enough bait to obtain the troubled infielder. But the Rays could not have anticipated the trouble in the off season prior to reporting for the Rays.
Aybar was arrested in February 2008 for suspicion of Domestic Abuse in the Dominican Republic and was initially held without bond. Even though Aybar’s lawyers have told a local magistrate that Aybar’s wife is dropping all of the charges, the infielder was still incarcerated in the Dominican for several days. After finally getting the situation solved Aybar went about getting ready to report to the Rays Spring Training complex in St. Petersburg, Florida for the 2008 season.
Then on February 20th it is learned that Aybar, Joel Guzman and Juan Salas are still being detained in the Dominican Republic on visa issues. The Rays consulted MLB about providing help to get their three players out of the country in time for Spring Training. Aybar and Guzman were both finally granted their visas and reported to camp in late February. But that was not the end of the frustration for the young infielder. During Spring Training he suffered a pulled or strained hamstring and it put him under suspicion that he might not be ready for the regular season.
When camp finally broke in April, Aybar had been given a spot on the 25-man roster and a starting gig at third base as the Rays sent their budding superstar, Evan Longoria down for more seasoning in the minors. With a regular spot in the lineup it looked like it would be Aybar’s year to shine in the major leagues. But 10 games into the season, Aybar was put on the disabled list because of the same hamstring injury and lost his starting shot at third base for the Rays as they finally brought up Longoria to stay for the season.
During 2008, Aybar started 79 games for the Rays. 40 of those were at third base during the early season and Longoria’s stint on the disabled list after the Seattle series. On September 17, 2008, against Boston’s Tim Wakefield, Aybar and Fernando Perez set a record by both switch hitters hitting a home run off Wakefield from the right side of the plate. That was the first time since 1969 that two switch hitters hit a homer against the same pitcher in a division play.
But it was during his stint at third base after Longoria injured his wrist in Seattle that he showed his versatility and power to the Rays. Starting all 30 games while Longoria was out, Aybar hit .308, with 5 homers and 18 RBI’s. During that span he hit 14 extra base hits and also walked 11 times for the team. But it was as a third baseman that Aybar made his number for 2008. Playing those 40 games at third, he hit .297 , with 6 homers and 20 RBI’s for the year. Elsewhere in the field or at Designated Hitter, he only batted .206, with 4 homers and 12 RBI’s. He had made a statement that third base was home for him.
But Aybar also played shortstop on occasion during one of Jason Bartlett’s disabled list ventures and performed a great job in the middle for the Rays. But he did go through a streaky pattern at the plate in 2008, hitting .309 on June 9th, before going 22-188, or a .186 average from June 10th to August 6th. He dropped his average all the way to .222 before taking over for Longoria after his injury. In his first game at third after the Longoria injury, he hit a career best 2 homers in a game against the Mariners’ and had a career high 4 RBI’s on the day. His 10 homers in 2008 are 5 more than he has ever gotten in his career.
But on the dark side, he did miss a total of 45 games due to his hamstring injury, but later in the season did go without incident or injury for the rest of the year. So his 2008 average of .288 against left-handers was one of the best averages on the Rays against southpaws during the season. Buy Aybar did save his best for last in 2008 as he went 3 -4 against the Red Sox at home on September 17, 2008 to help the Rays defeat the Red Sox.
The unfortunate side of Aybar in 2008, is that 8 of his 10 homers were solo shots and did not help get extra runs for the Rays during the season. But Aybar was the middle hitter in the June 9th game against the Los Angeles Angels at Anahiem where Longoria, Aybar and Navarro all homer in sequence for the Rays. Aybar did have 13 game-tying or go-ahead runs in the year, and also had 3 infield hits for the Rays. He also put down 3 bunt singles for the team, and was picked 6 times for “Web Gems” by the Rays PR staff during the year for his defensive plays.
On defense, Aybar had a total of 118 total chances on defense in 2008, with 29 putouts and 84 chances. He however committed 5 errors on the season to put his fielding percentage at .958. that is pretty average for a guy trying to fight to get playing time every day. I do not have a total breakdown of if must of these errors came from other positions besides third base in 2008. That total would put him in the middle of the pack with respect to utility men in the league, most of which make over $ 1 million a year.
So is this enough for Aybar to get rewarded with an arbitration figure higher that the Rays suggested contract of $ 900,000 dollars for 2009. Aybar did counter with an offer of $ 1,050,000 for the season, a difference of only $ 150,000 dollars. The proof might actually be in Aybars’ post season numbers as he went 9 for 23 during the playoffs, posting a .417 average, with 2 home runs and 6 RBI’s in 10 games. the fact that he hit for 16 total bases and only struck out 4 times in the playoffs might be enough to get him that extra $ 150,000 dollars in arbitration money.
Aybar has been one of the American Leagues hidden gems in 2008. He can hit, play defense and is a great clutch player for the Rays. I was actually surprised not to hear his name mentioned throughout the off season as trade bait for a big time hitter or reliever. Who knows if Aybar will even make it past the trade deadline in 2009 with the team. His stock has been going up all throughout 2008, and 2009 might be the year he can finally break through that utility player mold and become a starter with someone else during the stretch run.
Time will tell, but I am thankful that we have Aybar as a reliable and constructive member of the Rays bench. With a new contract in hand, and a chance to retain his psot on the Rays 25-man roster for 2009, Aybar might just be the happiest guy to report to the new training complex in Port Charlotte. But then again, maybe Navarro will spring for dinner that first night.