The Mariners need a utility infielder that can play both second and third base, and at a minimal price. Dustin Ackley will likely make his debut in mid-June in order to avoid becoming a Super Two player, and until then, somebody will have to hold his place at second base.

Earlier in the week, we looked at Felipe Lopez. Lopez has been an average hitter for his career, playing second and third base to combine with his average defense. As a bonus, he’s a career league average hitter who can play shortstop, even if not very well.

Willy Aybar is a bit different. While Lopez has no real elite offensive skill or potential, Aybar’s career has been littered with rumors of potential. Potential that has unfulfilled.

The biggest problem facing the Mariners’ chances of acquiring Aybar? He’s not scheduled for free agency for two more seasons. Also, Aybar plays for the Tampa Bay Rays, who aren’t known for trading their pre-free agency players very often.

So how could the Mariners get their hands on Aybar?

MLB Trade Rumors recently profiled Aybar as a non-tender candidate. The reason isn’t solely based on Aybar’s performance, or a decreased glimmer on his potential star, but rather that in what seems like a perpetual state, the Rays are looking to cut costs going into the 2011 season.

If the Rays decline the $2.2 million option that Aybar has going into next season, coming off of a two-year contract Aybar signed going into the 2009 season as to avoid arbitration, they stand to save $1.925 million when combined with a $275,000 bonus.

The Rays also have several players: Ben Zobrist, Reid Brignac, Jason Bartlett, and Sean Rodriguez, who can play multiple positions in the infield who are either on guaranteed contracts or still in their pre-arbitration years and may be able to produce both in the field and at the plate at a higher level than Aybar.

So while Tampa Bay retaining Aybar would likely make this article moot, there’s a reasonable chance that the Mariners will have a shot at Aybar at a low price tag, and one that includes no exchanging prospects.

But what does Aybar offer the Mariners?

A lot like Felipe Lopez, Aybar’s career has produced league-average production at the plate. He is a switch hitter, who like Lopez, has performed better from the right-handed batter’s box than the left.

Perhaps the only downside of Aybar’s prospects in Seattle compared to Lopez is that Aybar has played most of his career at third base. While he’s played upwards of 300 plus innings at both second and first base, those are hardly large enough sample sizes to make a judgement on his defense.

However, if the team opts to keep Chone Figgins at second base, at least until Ackley is called up, Aybar offers an interestingly high upside bat at third base, while his -1.6 UZR/150 at third isn’t a huge deviation from the solid defense that Jose Lopez has played this year.

So why would Tampa Bay cut loose a guy with the potential to contribute in 2011?

Like all non-tender candidates, Aybar has some issues. After entering the majors as a guy who made a lot of contact and didn’t swing at a ton of pitches outside the strike zone, Aybar has begun to regress.

With three straight years of increased strikeout rates, including a career high 23.4 percent so far in 2010, Aybar has seen his wRC+ at 96, 100, and 85 in the past three respective seasons. While an 85 wRC+ falls well ahead of Jose Lopez 65 wRC+ for 2010, it also ranks ahead of Lopez career wRC+ (84).

So at Aybar’s absolute worst, he equals Jose Lopez’s career average.

But Lopez has—however misguidedly—received over 3,500 plate appearances in the majors. By contrast, Aybar will have less than 1,500 when the 2010 season ends.

It’s basically impossible to quantify a player’s “rhythm” in a given season. When players are or aren’t receiving consistent playing time, the sample sets are so small typically on one side that it is hard to make an accurate comparison to the other.

However, here’s a breakdown of how Aybar performs when facing starting pitchers multiple times in one game.

No. 1—.628 OPS

No. 2—.736 OPS

No. 3—.894 OPS

And in his first appearance against relief pitchers, he’s posted a .754 OPS.

How that translates into a full season’s work, since Aybar has never seen one, is hard to project. However, the chances are the price will be right if Aybar is made available to the Mariners.

Following the 2008 season, the Houston Astros non-tendered Ty Wigginton. Wigginton signed a two-year, $6 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. That would be a really ugly contract for the Mariners to sign Aybar to, but Wigginton was a much better free agent.

He’d posted a 129 wRC+ in the year before being non-tendered, and that was the fourth straight season he’d posted a wRC+ over 100, while playing first base, second base, third base, and both corner outfield positions.

Kelly Johnson was non-tendered after posting an 86 wRC+ and playing a league-average second base. Johnson signed a one year, $2.35 million deal with the Diamondbacks. But Johnson had been worth 5.9 wins in the two seasons prior to his ugly 2009.

A wrist injury had appeared to sap his power, but he’d produced well in about 1,900 plate appearances in the bigs.

Perhaps the best example that parallels Aybar’s scenario is his one-time teammate Jonny Gomes. Gomes was once the owner of a shiny 2.5 WAR season in 407 plate appearances with the 2005 Rays.

He’d struggled to return to that mark, and after a season where he posted an 83 wRC+ in 2008, he was non-tendered by the club after less than 1,500 plate appearances. He’d go on to sign a minor league contract with the Cincinnati Reds.

That season, 2009, he’d post a 126 wRC+ and 10.2 RAR in only 314 plate appearances. His advanced stats were good, but his 20 home runs and .274 ISO in such a short time should have been attractive to many ballclubs.

Instead, Gomes would sign a contract work $800,000 with a favorable $1.75 million club option for 2011.

It’s impossible to tell how Aybar would react to his first season with over 400 plate appearances. However, if the price is right and Aybar is successful, he could be Jack Zduriencik’s 2011 version of Russell Branyan.

Other Fixing the 2011 Seattle Mariners profiles

Ted Lilly

Ramon Hernandez

Michael Saunders

Colby Rasmus

Adam Dunn

Chone Figgins

Dustin Ackley

Felipe Lopez

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