Super-subs rising to occasion for playoff contenders
The idea is to have some insurance. Every good team has to have insurance. Because when it gets to this time of the season, if somebody important on the roster is hurt and you don't have insurance? Well, you end up like the Padres last year, coughing and sputtering toward the finish line with key players injured and no capable replacements to fill in. And you don't want to end up like the '07 Padres.
Willy Aybar is insurance for the Tampa Bay Rays. If it weren't for Aybar ... can you imagine that anyone even thinks that way? Can you imagine that hundreds, maybe even thousands of Rays fans -- and by now, you have to figure Rays fans have to be in the thousands -- are actually thanking the baseball gods for Aybar right now?
That's right. Willy Aybar. Late-season savior. Depth chart diamond in the rough.
"We couldn't ask for much more than what he's done for us," Tampa Bay's general manager, Andrew Friedman, told me the other day.
When stud rookie third baseman Evan Longoria broke his wrist on August 7 after being hit by a pitch from Seattle closer J.J. Putz, many of those thousands of fans who had clambered onto the Rays' party boat swung a leg back over to jump off. At the time, Longoria, an All-Star, was the most consistent threat in a very balanced, but hardly threatening, Tampa Bay lineup. Without him, the woe-mongers figured, the Rays were done.
But off the bench came Aybar, a 25-year-old switch-hitter with a spotty past, and instead of falling apart, the Rays have come together. From the time he stepped into Longoria's starting spot at third, on Aug. 8, the Rays actually have increased their lead in the American League East by two games and are now 4 1/2 in front of the Red Sox going into the weekend.
Aybar, who has settled into the fifth spot in the Rays' batting order, has hit .333 over the 12 games he's started for Longoria, with a .396 on-base percentage. What's more, he's shown power that no one figured he had, smacking three homers among his seven extra-base hits and driving in nine runs. The Rays are 9-3 over those dozen games.
"He's someone we liked for some time," says Friedman. "He's got positional flexibility, which we like, but he has a lot of characteristics at the plate that we look for."
Aybar's relative patience at the plate has been critical to his success and the Rays'. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is in the Top 20 in the AL (minimum 200 at-bats) and is the best on the team. That, along with his defense -- he's made several stellar plays in the past couple of weeks, especially coming in on bunts or squibbers down the line -- and his ability to play every infield position are attributes that the Rays figured they needed when a lack of depth and versatility off their bench weakened them last season.
"When he goes out there, you will see, he -- more than anybody on this team, with a runner at second base and nobody out -- gets him over consistently," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told Tampa area reporters last week. "He knows what to do and how to do it."
The Rays targeted Aybar in the offseason despite issues that kept him off just about everybody else's to-do lists. He went from the Dodgers to the Braves in a July '06 trade, but he missed all of the '07 season dealing with substance abuse problems. That soured the Braves on him, but the Rays were willing to give him a second chance. They traded for him in January, giving up lefty relief specialist Jeff Ridgway.
Things didn't go very smoothly once Aybar came on with the Rays, either. He was jailed in the Dominican Republic in the offseason after a domestic disturbance, though his wife later dropped the charges. Since then, he has been trouble-free.
Aybar, the older brother of Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, began the season at third when Longoria was initially sent down to the minors, but that barely lasted a week. He's also filled in at first for Carlos Pena, at second for Akinori Iwamura and has started two games at shortstop. He'll be at third now for another week or more as Longoria's wrist heals. Longoria is expected to return around Sept. 1, though it probably will take him some time to work his way back fully.
"When we get him back, Willy will continue to be valuable in a super utility role," Friedman says. "Willy will still be an important part of our team."
Right now, they don't come much more important.