Willy Aybar was suppose to be the Braves' top infield reserve heading into spring training. But substance abuse trouble caused him to go AWOL early in the year and subsequently led him to a treatment facility. Aybar was ready to come back late in the year, but he had to have season-ending surgery on August 14th for a stress fracture in his hand.
Now Aybar is back playing in the Dominican Winter League and has hit .297 in his first eleven games.
Aybar has talent. The Braves were impressed with him late in 2006 after he was acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Wilson Betemit deal. Aybar hit .313 for the Braves after the trade in 115 at bats. In his 329 career at bats in the big leagues, Aybar is hitting .292 with 5 home runs and 40 RBI.
The Braves would love Aybar to return so he could be the main insurance policy to Chipper Jones at third base. Aybar can also play second base in a pinch. He has the versatility and, as a switch-hitter, the offensive skills to be a very valuable player to this team.
If Aybar has cleaned up his act and is sober and off drugs, there is no reason the Braves will not give him a chance. But I imagine he's probably on a last chance policy with this team. If he slips up again, they'll banish him for good and move on to someone else.
Pete Orr struggled in 2007, his third season in the big leagues. Orr hit only .200 with 2 RBI in 65 at bats. He was sent to Richmond for a while midway through the season and came back up at the end of the year. Orr can play second, third, shortstop in a pinch, and even left field if needed. His versatility is valuable and Orr is a favorite of Bobby Cox, but his lack of offensive skills have placed him in jeopardy of losing his spot.
Martin Prado had two stints in Atlanta last season and he hit .288 in 59 at bats. Around that Prado had another solid season in the minor leagues hitting .316 with 4 home runs and 41 RBI in 395 at bats for the Richmond Braves.
Bobby Cox likes Prado a great deal. He's a solid player with good fundamentals and good offensive and defensive skills. Prado is now a career .302 hitter in the minor leagues in 2310 at bats. He really doesn't have much left to prove in the minors, and a return to Richmond might be unlikely.
The Braves might use Prado in a deal this winter to take advantage of his value, and he does have some value. However, Prado's ability to play second and third base does give him value to Atlanta as well. If he could only play shortstop he would probably be guaranteed a spot on the 2008 roster.
Brent Lillibridge can play shortstop. That's his natural position. He can also play second base, and it's unlikely he'd shy away from stepping over to the hot corner if needed. Lillibridge is going to be a very solid candidate to be on the Atlanta roster as a reserve in 2008 due to his versatility.
Lillibridge might be in the mix for center field with a veteran and maybe even Jordan Schafer. But his ability to play the infield could make him very valuable to a team, and a manager, that appreciates versatility.
There may not be much more for Lillibridge to prove in the minor leagues after he hit .282 between Mississippi and Richmond with 13 home runs, 58 RBI, 148 hits in 525 at bats, 42 stolen bases, and a .341 on base percentage. Lillibridge's speed is what sets him apart from the other internal candidates.
The Braves are likely to bring in a veteran infielder through either a trade or free agency this winter. Here are some of the free agent candidates:
* Geoff Blum – The soon-to-be 35-year-old Blum hit .252 last season with the Padres with 5 home runs and 33 RBI. He can play all four infield positions and even left field. Blum is a switch-hitter who made $900,000 this past season.
* Tony Graffanino – The former Brave is now 35 years old. He hit .238 last season witih 9 home runs and 30 RBI with the Brewers. Graffanino also played all four infield positions and left field last season. He will undoubtedly have to take a pay cut from the $3.25 million he made in 2007.
* Mark Loretta – He had a significant role in Houston last season, playing a lot at short when Adam Everett went down. Loretta plays all four infield positions. He's 36 now, and the right-handed hitter put up a .287 average last season with 4 home runs and 41 RBI. If he's ready to become a super-utility player, the Braves may be first in line, but he'll probably ask for around the $2.5 million he made in 2007.
* Cesar Izturis – He's still a young man and might want another crack at a starting job, but Izturis struggled with the Cubs and Pirates last season (.258 with no home runs and only 16 RBI. The switch-hitter plays mostly at short, but he can also play second and third base.
* Jerry Hairston – He's worth mentioning since he played on Frank Wren's 1999 team in Baltimore. Hairston hit only .189 last season with the Rangers, but he's had some success before as a hitter. Hairston can play second, short, third, and all three outfield spots. He might be a cheaper alternative for the Braves to consider.
* Ramon Martinez – A light-hitting infielder (.194 last season) that can play all four infield positions.
* Royce Clayton – He's now in his upper-30s and Clayton is still pretty much limited to shortstop. Clayton made $1.5 million last season and will probably never get close to that again.
* Abraham Nunez – The former Phillie will turn 32 next March. He's mainly a third baseman (51 games started, 113 games played there last season), but he can also play short and second base. Nunez has struggled offensively the last two seasons, but he's a switch-hitter with ability.
* Jeff Cirillo – Here's the veteran of the group. The 38-year-old Cirillo played first, second, and third last season for Arizona and Minnesota. He's only played shortstop five times in his career, so that might be the last position he'll play since he's gotten older.
Expect the Braves to seek at least one reserve infielder from either the trade front of the free agent list this winter. But there are a few internal options that will make the decisions interesting next spring at Disney.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at email@example.com.