On December 15, 2006, the Rays purchased Akinori Iwamura's contract from the Yakult Swallows. On my birthday, January 17, 2008, the Rays traded Jeff Ridgeway to the Braves for Chase Fontaine and Willy Aybar. Two men -- two third basemen -- and yet two vastly different impacts on the Rays and on me.
The Rays brought in Willy Aybar to provide a warm body at third base while then-young prospect Evan Longoria fine-tuned his game in the minors. It turned out Longo's game needed little tuning, so Aybar found the pine quickly. But, when Longoria got injured in early August that year, Aybar stepped in and did his best Longo impression. From August 8th to September 10th, Willy hit 5 homers and OPS'd ~.900. In many ways, Aybar's late season heroics propelled the Rays into their improbable playoff run.
Because of his surprising 2008 performance, Aybar endeared himself to many Rays fans -- especially here in this community. And, despite his overall poor performance in 2008, and near-replacement level performance over the next two years, Aybar continued to receive -- in my opinion -- more credit than do him.
On the other hand, Akinori Iwamura came to the Rays with the underlying purpose of bringing quality defense and decent on-base skills to the second base position. I fell in love with Aki immediately. From his boisterous if not bizarre personality to his choppy and slick footwork, I could not resist rooting for Aki. Even though he only produced about 6-7 WAR in his 3 years with the Rays, he felt like the constant All-Star to me.
In his first Spring Training with the Rays, Aki seemed more lost than a AA prospect. He couldn't hit, he couldn't walk, and in the post-game interviews he seemed content with his work. He would stress the process over the results, and frankly it confused me. After the season started and Aki's cold spring became his hot start, I saw for the first time a player willingly allow his hitting streak to expire for the sake of taking a walk.
In a lot of ways, Aki taught me sabermetrics, and for that I owe him lifetime fandom. But I realize my feelings are subject to context and reliant on perspective. So I want to hear from other fans:
- What did you like about Willy?
- What did you loathe about Aki?
- What makes us root for some players rather than others? Is it personality? Is it consistent performance? Or is it based on singular, spectacular performances?
- Recently we talked about our favorite Rays; but who is your least favorite Ray? Who did you hate to see playing in 2010? Who don't you want to see in 2011?