The answer is not in a major league or minor league camp.
Two years ago, Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron had some nice things to say about Willy Aybar. In early 2009, Cameron called him the best reserve player in baseball and said he was deserving of an everyday job in the Major Leagues. Back then, there was a lot to like about Aybar.
He was in his early-20s, had a slightly above average bat, could play three defensive positions and was pre-arbitration eligibility. Racking up slightly below 800 at-bats over three seasons, the backup infielder was worth nearly 4 wins above replacement level at that point his career. As Aybar became eligible for arbitration, the Rays signed him to a two-year deal worth $2.6 million extension with a club option for 2011.
Although Cameron hoped Aybar would get a chance to play every day, that did not happen; however, a role player can still get a lot of playing time under Joe Maddon. Despite never being a primary starter at any position, Aybar played in 205 games and plated 645 appearances since 2009. There were opportunities for him to grab an even larger piece of the at-bat pie, but a .242/.321/.382 slash line and a .311 wOBA did not give Maddon any reason to give him an expanded role.
After the 2010 season, the Rays declined the $2.2 million dollar option on Aybar and non-tendered him with two seasons of arbitration eligibility left. Some thought the Rays would bring back Aybar at a reduced salary. At the very least, most expected another team would take a flier on the 28-year-old with a .341 career OBP and experience along the corner infield. And yet here we sit two weeks from opening day and the former best reserve player in baseball is out of baseball altogether. So what happened?
Back when Dave penned his Aybar manifesto, he noted that Aybar’s 2008 BABIP of .266 seemed signify some bad luck involved. His BABIP appeared low considering his line drive rate of 20.5% and his xBABIP of around .315. Since that season, Aybar’s BABIP has hovered around .270 in just under 650 PA despite a pretty healthy LD% suggesting that maybe 2008 might been closer to reality than unlucky. As a slow runner, his groundball percentage above 42% since 2009 certainly hasn’t helped. On the plate disciple side, his strikeout rate has increased – culminating in a career-worst 22.7% strikeout percentage in 2010.
In addition to the decline in offense, Aybar’s defensive reputation has taken a hit. Once a versatile member of Maddon’s infield rotation, he logged just 56 total innings in the field last season despite playing in 100 games. His sample size on defense is too small to put much faith in UZR or things of that nature, however, watching Aybar in the field it is clear that his days as a potential everyday second baseman are pretty much over.
Even with all the negatives, Aybar still has value; particularly when you consider the minimal salary he would demand. For all his flaws of the past two years, he still walks at an above-average rate, is one year removed from a double-digit home run season (under 300 at-bats), and can stand with a glove at first or third base.
Perhaps there is something I’m missing on Aybar. As much as I have watched him for three seasons, maybe he is a really a human garbage monster and I never noticed. After all, the team that declined his option decided to give a minor league contract Casey Kotchman, who has hit .254/.316/.378 since 2008 while playing just one position; albeit pretty well defensively. Short of something terrible, it is strange that no team has taken a flyer on the 29-year-old, especially in the same offseason that saw Mark Kotsay get a major league deal.
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