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Angels counting on return to form for Aybar

Angels counting on return to form for Aybar

ANAHEIM -- The Angels are hoping the real Erick Aybar -- not the guy who wore his uniform in 2010 -- shows up in 2011.

In 2009, Aybar was so breathtakingly good, offensively and defensively, that the Angels made him close to untouchable in trade talks. We'll never know for sure if Roy Halladay would have been Anaheim-bound that July if the Angels had relented and made Aybar part of a package the Blue Jays wanted, but that was the rumor. Aybar was the deal-breaker. Sometimes rumors are accurate, sometimes not.

In any case, Aybar was about as good as anybody who played shortstop in the Majors in his first full season at the job. He batted a club-high .312, best ever by an Angels shortstop. He had a .353 on-base percentage and slugged .423. He ran the bases with passion.

And with the glove, he was simply scintillating. He caught everything, making impossible plays possible, gunning down runners from the hole, ranging deep to run down pop flies. He was the whole package.

Somehow, the package unraveled one year later.

"It just wasn't a good year, for the whole team," Aybar said as the season was winding down, his frustration culminating in a mid-September left leg strain. "We have to do better next year. We have to work hard and be a winning team again.

"We have to try to go back to where we were [in 2009]. Everybody was hitting .300, having fun. This season it was just hard. It seems like everybody was down a little bit. We have to pick it up again."

Aybar was mired in a slump at the time, batting .136 in September. It had been a long, draining season. He felt the loss of Kendry Morales to a fractured left leg on May 29 was a mortal blow.

"He'll be even better next year," Aybar said. "That will make a big, big difference. We're OK. We just have to stay together, play hard."

Asked to replace departed Chone Figgins at the top of the order when Figgins left for Seattle, Aybar did not deliver as anticipated.

His numbers fell across the board, his slash line crashing to .253/.306/.330. It had to be mental, since physically he was fine, until the late leg ailment.

"A number of things happened to Erick last year," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We might have put too much on him by putting him up in the top of the lineup, where I think he was obviously trying to do some things that maybe he wasn't quite ready to do."

A relative free swinger by nature, Aybar had worked to develop better plate discipline, and it showed in '09 with a .353 on-base percentage. Leading off, however, he often found difficulty striking a balance between being selective and aggressive.

Often, he found himself buried in counts, taking one or two strikes. This left him vulnerable to pitchers' pitches, out of the strike zone.

"I think when he was settled in the bottom of the order in '09, he really blossomed," Scioscia said. "He has much more offense that he can bring than he showed last year. I think that he -- especially on the defensive side -- can play at a high level. I expect a bounce-back year for Erick, for sure."

Scioscia is leaving it open as to where Aybar will hit in the lineup in 2011. He could hit in the top third or the bottom third, depending on how others respond.

"Well, depending on where our lineup is," Scioscia said, "hopefully he's grown from his experience last year and can maybe hit to set the table a little better up top.

"If he can't, he'll be hitting in the bottom of the lineup -- six, seven, eight, nine. Somewhere in there."

Aybar also needs to elevate his play defensively, recover the consistent excellence that marked his work in 2009. He had lapses in 2010 that were uncharacteristic.

"I know I'm better than this," he said. "I can do a lot better -- and I will."

His fielding percentage fell 20 points, to .963, as his errors rose from 11 in 2009 to 21 while playing almost an identical number of games -- 136 in 2009, 135 in 2010.

After putting together a superb 4.68 range factor in 2009, Aybar watched it fall to a pedestrian 4.14.

He was not the same player at 26 he'd been at 25.

If Aybar raises the bar and recycles his 2009 performance, the Angels will be a more dynamic, successful club.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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