For everything Albert Pujols brings to the Angels, the acquisition hasn’t been particularly convenient. With his arrival, much has been made of the Angels’ logjams at first base, DH and OF. Depth is always a good thing to have and no Angels fan is going to complain when Pujols chisels away at the rock pile this summer, but having Pujols locked up at 1B/DH for the next 10 years has forced the Angels to become creative, most notably with The Mark Trumbo Experiment at third base.
However, these logjams are merely short-term problems. Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu both come off the books after the season, and the Angels aren’t financially hamstrung to Trumbo and Kendrys Morales if those two should fail this season. But with Opening Day looming, shortstop could be a more complex problem for Angels brass.
As Mark Saxon has periodically reported throughout the Spring, Jerry Dipoto has attempted to sign Erick Aybar to a contract extension. Word is Aybar is looking for a 5-year extension, presumably in the dollar range of Howie Kendrick’s $33.5 million extension this offseason. In that Saxon post, he notes Dipoto doesn’t believe the Angels will sign Aybar to an extension before the season opens, an often vital deadline to ink a player. Obviously players and teams can negotiate during the season (Jered Weaver being a glorious example last year), but if front offices can’t get contracts before the season, the greater chance it is the player leaves via free agency because they can command more money on the open market. Albert Pujols declared he didn’t want to negotiate after Opening Day 2011, and look how that turned out for St. Louis. The Giants, undoubtedly feeling the pressure that Matt Cain would walk once he entered free agency, just awarded Cain the largest contract ever for a right-handed pitcher.
If Aybar’s agents are wise, they’ll tell him to test the free agent waters after the season, knowing a 28 year-old Gold Glove winning SS will command top dollar. If Aybar and his agents set an Opening Day deadline (there’s no word on if they have, I’m just conjecturing), 2012 will very likely be Aybar’s last season in Anaheim. The Angels won’t outspend the Yankees in most situations anyway, but especially not if their 2nd best prospect (according to Baseball America) is SS Jean Segura.
With Segura available in 2013 if Aybar leaves, should the Angels even sign Aybar to an extension? Due to the aforementioned Kendrick extension, an Aybar deal likely means Segura isn’t in the Angels’ future plans, barring injury obviously. That could be a tough pill to swallow for the Angels, as shortstops with pop like Segura don’t come around often.*
* In 2010, Segura’s ISO was .151, which would have ranked 6th in MLB last season. In an injury-shortened 2011 campaign, Segura’s ISO was .140, nothing extraordinary but still well above average for a big league SS . For the record, Aybar’s ISO in 2011 was .142. However, this was far and away a career high, as his previous high was .111 in 2009. ZiPS expects a regression back to .117 this year.
Other parts of Segura’s and Aybar’s offensive games appear to be a wash. Neither walk with any regularity (Aybar 5.1% career walk rate; Segura 7.7% in 2010) and both steals bases at a pretty successful clip. The perceived advantage in Aybar’s game is on defense. Segura is inexperienced at SS and Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet suspects he is more suited for second base. With Kendrick’s newly minted deal, second base is no longer an option for Segura.
Meanwhile, Aybar won his first Gold Glove in 2011, but as we all know the Gold Glove is a relatively useless award. In 2011, Aybar proved to be a an average defensive SS. Defensive metrics are always a fickle thing, but nevertheless Aybar was rather ordinary with whatever metric you prefer: -2 defensive runs saved and a 1.2 UZR. Both numbers put Aybar as a middle of the pack shortstop and are consistent with the rest of his career. He’s not Yuniesky Betancourt, but he’s also not Brendan Ryan.
Still though, having a guy play average defense at SS is better than a guy that should probably move back to second. Another advantage for Aybar is that with the CJ Wilson signing and Garret Richards’ continued development, by 2013 the Angels’ rotation could look like a groundball staff. Ace Jered Weaver obviously doesn’t fit into this category, as he is one of the more flyball dependent pitchers in baseball. But Wilson’s career groundball rate is 50.7%. Dan Haren’s is 43.6% (about average). Garret Richards posted a 49.1% rate as a starter in Arkansas last year. Even Ervin Santana posted a career best 43.5% groundball rate in 2011, although his career rate is 38.2%, so that could regress a bit in 2012 and beyond.
If Segura is a disaster on the defensive end, it would to an extent mitigate whatever advantage he has over Aybar in the batter’s box.
The Angels don’t have to look too far back to see the risks of letting veteran players walk in favor of prospect replacements. Since letting Troy Glaus leave in order to bring up Dallas McPherson, the Angels have scrambled to cover third base; McPherson didn’t work out and the Angels were lucky Chone Figgins ably filled in at third. One time super prospect Brandon Wood also tanked at third, which is why The Mark Trumbo Experiment is happening in the first place. The Angels also let fan favorite Bengie Molina walk after the 2005 season in favor of a hyped catcher prospect. Although fans probably overrated Molina’s contributions, it couldn’t have been worse than Jeff Mathis, who had a clear path to the Angels once Molina was gone.
It’s no secret prospects bust out. Casey Kotchman is near replacement level in Cleveland, his 2011 numbers inflated by a .335 BABIP. Even Kendrick, though a very solid ballplayer, hasn’t lived up to his much ballyhooed promise yet. In 2 of the past 3 seasons, Aybar’s rWAR has exceeded 4.0, a terrific figure for a team that doesn’t need him to be Troy Tulowitzki. All Aybar has to do is play league average defense, get on base about 32% of the time, and add value with his speed. His offensive weaknesses wouldn’t be so glaring if he were batting lower in the order. With Mike Trout on the way sooner rather than later and hopefully batting lead off, Aybar could be moved down in the order, where his low career OBP wouldn’t be as much of an issue.
Signing Aybar to an extension that carries into his early 30s and nudges Segura aside comes with risks. But letting him walk away from a team that is a World Series contender and move to a rival team with significant SS weaknesses (Yankees, Red Sox) in favor of a prospect that might not be able to play the position is the even riskier move.
A good shortstop is extremely hard to find. When you have one, it is best to lock him up and get as much value out of his career as possible. Sometimes, maintaining a logjam is worth it. Let’s hope Aybar doesn’t have an Opening Day deadline.
Andrew Karcher can be followed on Twitter @andrewkarcher