I have tremondously fond memories of Willy Aybar filling in at third base so admirably in Evan Longoria's absence down the stretch of the magical 2008 season. In 40 starts at the hot corner, Aybar put up a slash line of .297/.364/.497 while providing what appeared to be above average defense, albiet in a small sample size (9.7 UZR/150 in 358 innings). Aybar, with his catchy walk-up song lyric "Apple Bottom Jeans, Boots With Da Fur" became a crowd favorite at the Trop. Coming into the 2009 season Aybar was heralded as one of the most valuable reserves in all of baseball. He was supposed to be Ben Zobrist before Zobrist developed the super-utlity role. Aybar offered a league average (wRC+ of 96) bat as a switch-hitter who could play all four infield positions.
But then 2009 arrived and things did not go as smoothly for Big Willy Stylez. While his swing plane owned Zack Greinke, and his bat remained average (wRC+ of 100), his versatile defense seemingly went into decline. When Akinori Iwamura went down to a knee injury it was Aybar who got the first shot at the second base job. Aybar, appearing stockier, managed to accumulate a -5.2 UZR in just 139 innings. He also flashed below average defense at the corners in small samples. It was easy to dismiss a diminishing of Aybar's skills based on the sample size, but word from Joe Maddon in Spring Training of 2010 indicated Aybar would no longer be considered at second base.
Maddon's apparent distaste for Aybar's defense became more glaring when it was Zobrist who appeared at first base on Carlos Pena's days off. It was even more surprising when Hank Blalock was the one to give Longoria a rest at third base. Aybar has made only one start in the field this year, at first base, and in total has 21 innings in the field over eight games. It seems safe to label Willy Aybar a switch-hitting designated hitter at this point and little more, with the exception of emergency fielding.
Expectations at the plate become greater when a player fails to offer defensive value. How has Aybar's season been so far? He's posted a wRC+ of just 77. His walk rate in his 111 plate appearances has fallen to a Navarro-like 3.6% (career 9.7%) while his O-Swing% (percentage of pitchers swung at outside the zone) has risen to 28.4% (career 22%). Aybar's BABIP of .265 seems low at first glance, but his career number is just .287. While he has a career wOBA versus left-handed pitching of .347, it's just .281 this season in more of a full-time role.
It seems that Matt Joyce will be called up sooner rather than later, with Dioner Navarro likely taking his spot in Durham. That leaves Gabe Kapler, Hank Blalock, and Willy Aybar fighting for two roster spots. Kapler offers a right-handed bat with a track record of success against left-handed pitching despite struggling thus far in 2010, and average to above-average corner outfield defense. In contrast, Blalock offers a track record of success against right-handed pitching, despite struggling thus far in 2010, and backup defense at both corners. Finally, Aybar offers switch-hitting capibility with a league average bat, and seemingly no positional value at the moment. Could Willy Aybar ultimately end up as the odd man out on the Rays?