Finding a lineup spot for Aybar
Utility infielder on Maddon's radar at several positions
SARASOTA, Fla. -- While the Rays will have more of set lineup than at any other time in their history, Rays manager Joe Maddon hopes to get utility man Willy Aybar into the lineup more.
Aybar, 26, hit .253 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 95 games in 2008 after coming to the Rays in a trade with the Braves. The Rays have since locked him up for the next two years by signing him to a contract that will pay him $975,000 in 2009 and $1.35 million in 2010 and hold a $2.2 million option for Aybar's services for the 2011 season with a $275,000 buyout. The contract also includes escalators if he gets significant at-bats.
The Rays took care of Aybar for a simple reason -- they like the way he plays the game. And such is the motivation for Maddon to look for opportunities to get him into the lineup more often this season. The only question is this: How will Maddon accomplish this given the team's set lineup?
Answering the question, Maddon said he can use Aybar at DH when resting Pat Burrell against certain right-handed pitchers as well as spelling Evan Longoria, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena at third, second and first, respectively.
"I like to rest people," Maddon said. "We've talked about this the last couple of years, to keep them fresh for later in the year. When you put Willy in the lineup you don't feel like you're losing anything. So as we get this going, just try to be creative with that and try to pick the right days to give other guys off to get him involved."
Conceivably, Aybar could be used as much as four times a week -- or even more if an injury occurs. Last season, he filled in admirably for Pena and Longoria when both were out with injuries.
"But at the beginning, [Aybar probably won't play four times a week]," Maddon said. "But as he gets going, if he gets a little bit warm he could do those kinds of things. You know something's going to happen. He's going to have to play two or three days.
"But all things being on target, on task, as the season gets longer and you want to give guys days off, I could easily see that happening. I'm very comfortable with doing that."
Ben Zobrist, the Rays' other utility man, is the backup shortstop and will also back up in the outfield, so his duties won't intersect much with Aybar's.
Maddon noted that Aybar's fielding skills were a bonus and a facet of Aybar's game that surprised him.
"He didn't make a whole lot of mistakes at any of those positions last year," Maddon said. "He played a very good first, third and second base. You could make an argument about him maybe not having the best range up the middle, but he did a nice job of positioning and caught all the balls hit to him. And he did a nice job turning the double play. So, he showed us that. So, overall, I have no qualms about putting him in the infield at any time."
In addition, Maddon believes Aybar has one of the top baseball intellects on the team.
"Willy really understands the game," Maddon said. "He pays attention. I'm sure growing up, coming from the Dominican as he has, he really gets involved and watches. ... He took a couple of chances trying to steal third last year at the right time. He'll take a chance going to second base, only at the right time. He won't run you out of innings out there. He will take an extra base.
"Defensively, he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it. He just knows what to do. I think it's kind of instinctive with him. It has to be because he's probably played since he was 4 or 5. He just does a nice job intuitively."
Aybar returned to the team this week after the Dominican Republic bowed out of the World Baseball Classic. Saturday, he found himself in the Rays' lineup for the first time this spring against the Reds and he homered in his second at-bat.
Aybar said of his Classic experience that he felt great sadness about being eliminated by the Netherlands.
"We lost to a team that no one imagined they would be there," Aybar said. "Now I will work hard to get ready for the regular season."
Aybar said he hasn't caught too much smack from his teammates about the Dominican team losing.
"They said they missed me and they're glad I'm back," Aybar said. "But I did want to win. I didn't want to be back so soon."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.