Rays land utilityman; arbitration time looms

Kazmir digs in, doesn't expect deal as deadline arrives today.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 18, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays found the super-utility player they were looking for Thursday by acquiring talented but troubled Willy Aybar from the Braves. But they may have lost some goodwill with ace Scott Kazmir, who said he expects to end up in arbitration once today's team-imposed deadline for a deal passes.

Talks with Kazmir and team MVP Carlos Pena are expected to continue until the deadline and Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman remained optimistic, but Kazmir said he didn't anticipate a resolution.

"If we go to arbitration, which it kind of looks like right now, so be it," he said. "It's just what we have to do. Sure, it would be nice to have everything settled right now and not have anything to worry about."

These talks on a one-year deal (for likely somewhere between $2-million and $4-million) come after what Kazmir said were unsuccessful discussions -- "It didn't get close" -- on a long-term deal, though he remains open to the possibility and likes the direction.

Aybar, 24, gives the Rays almost exactly what they were looking for -- he can hit left-handed (and right-handed), play third base until prospect Evan Longoria is ready, and fill in at second, first and the outfield. He is young (24), makes a low salary (around $400,000) and didn't cost a lot to get -- just lefty reliever Jeff Ridgway, who wasn't going to make the Rays team anyway. (The Rays also got minor-league infielder Chase Fontaine, a 2006 second-rounder.)

But Aybar comes with a troubled past, having spent three months during the summer in rehab for substance-abuse problems (which his agent initially told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was "drinking and drugs") after going AWOL from the team, and missing the remainder of the season with a right hand injury (hamate bone) that eventually required surgery. He is playing this winter in the Dominican Republic for Licey, hitting .268 in 27 games and .339 in postseason play.

"We did a lot of due diligence into his problems from last year, and while we recognize it's a risk, obviously we felt it's a risk worth taking," Friedman said. "We've seen him play a lot in the Dominican Republic, and we've talked to a lot of people that have been affiliated with him throughout his career and that are around him now, and we feel that the upside is definitely worth it."

Friedman said Aybar has shown "positive momentum" the last five months in overcoming his problems, but acknowledged the situation "certainly needs to be monitored" and that Rays would be "aggressive" to help.

Aybar, traded from the Dodgers to the Braves in July 2006, has a .292 average with five homers and 40 RBIs in 105 big-league games. Most of his experience is at third and second, so he will work in the spring at first and the corner outfield spots.

Friedman maintained the trade was about increasing their depth, but it also provides an obvious alternative at third if the Rays decide -- as indications are mounting -- that Longoria won't start the season in the majors.

The Rays avoided arbitration with outfielder/DH Jonny Gomes by tripling his salary from $407,800 to $1.275-million, plus $25,000 in incentives. They will need to do some serious negotiating to avoid arbitration with Pena and Kazmir, given team policy to halt talks once salary figures are exchanged at noon today.

"It's going to be a busy night," Friedman said. "I would be surprised if we can't reach a resolution, but sometimes when everyone looks at the same information sometimes there are still disagreements. If that happens, the system is there for a reason."

Kazmir, arbitration-eligible for the first time, spent Thursday in California preparing with his agents, going through a mock hearing to get familiarized with the sometimes contentious process. "We won," Kazmir said.