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Meet: Luis Ayala

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Twins add veteran right-hander to bullpen.

An efficient control pitcher, Luis Ayala was signed by the Colorado Rockies as an undrafted free agent in 1999.  At age 23 he finally pitched in the States for the Rockies, throwing 13.1 innings for Salem in early 2001 before his old Mexican team purchased him back.  At the end of the '02 season, the Montreal Expos brought him back to Major League Baseball, and Ayala threw 7.2 innings of relief for their triple-A affiliate before being granted free agency at the end of the season.  Picked up for less than two months by the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was back with the Expos after being selected in the Rule 5 draft in December of '02.

That season he made his major league debut, at age 25.  He pitched in 65 games for Montreal, winning 10 games in relief.  He didn't strike many men out (5.83 K/9), but he was a control master who stranded a lot of baserunners when they actually managed to reach base.  His next season, 2004, continued to show growth and set him as one of the young, attractive pieces that Montreal boasted in spite of a horrendous record and lack of fanbase.  Ayala struck more men out, walked fewer men, drastically slashed his already acceptable home run rate, stranded more baserunners and appeared in every other game.  He posted his second sub-3.00 ERA in as many seasons.  In 2005, he did it again.

In 2006 Ayala took part in the World Baseball Classic as a member of Mexico's squad.  On the last pitch of a game he injured his elbow, and ended up missing all of '06 due to Tommy John surgery.

When he returned in June of '07, his fastball lost a bit of velocity but he managed to retain an integral piece of the puzzle that had made him effective in his first three years in the league:  stranding baserunners.  He appeared in 44 games and managed a 3.14 ERA, although his FIP was over a run higher at 4.37.  The control slacked off a bit, and his walks per nine jumped almost a whole number; the home run rates were closer to his first year in the league, at HR 1.06/9.  Still, for a player working back from Tommy John surgery, it was a promising and effective season.

That brings us up to 2008, a season in which we're aware he had issues.  His velocity was back up, but the control didn't come back with it.  His ball-to-strike ratio remained on the bad side of 60%, and that was reflected in his walk rates.  Still, as '08 kicked off things looked bright:  acceptable ERA, consistent success in high-leverage relief appearances, 13 strikeouts in 19.1 innings through early May.

That's when it wall went wrong.

May through September saw ERA's of 6.19, 7.94, 5.87, 5.65 and 6.55.  Occasional home runs did damange, but in general it was the sheer quantity of hits that destroyed him.  He wasn't blowing the bank on line drives, but they were a little on the high side, and his batting average on balls in play spiked as a result.  With more baserunners, the attribute that had served him so well in the past (stranding baserunners) suddenly failed him.  Ayala stranded just over 60% of baserunners in 2008, which was only slightly better than the pace set by Boof Bonser.  But, just like Bonser, Ayala pitched better than his ERA.  His FIP was 4.47, which isn't good, but is significantly better than the 5.71 traditional run average.  In spite of his August trade from the Washington Nationals to the New York Mets, and in spite of a nagging groin injury, Ayala still managed 81 appearances and 75.2 innings.

Year

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

WHIP

BABIP

LOB%

FIP

2003

70.0

5.83

1.65

1.01

1.10

.270

78.0

3.96

2004

90.1

6.28

1.49

0.60

1.18

.310

79.2

3.18

2005

71.0

5.07

1.77

0.89

1.25

.298

84.5

4.02

2007

42.1

5.95

2.55

1.06

1.30

.294

81.6

4.37

2008

75.2

5.95

2.85

1.07

1.45

.320

60.2

4.47

With Minnesota inking the 31-year old Ayala for 2009, naturally there's some hope for a return to form.  As a three-pitch reliever with a low-90's fastball, the tools are certainly there for Luis to be effective.  Perhaps the Twins believe they can help him cut down the walks again, feel like the additional ground balls he induced last summer can help him get a few more easy outs, or maybe they think he can finally get back to 100% after recovering from Tommy John and the groin injury.

Terms of the one-year deal are fairly straight forward:  $1.3 million for the season, with another $575,000 available through incentives.  That's about right.  If Ayala gets back to being who he was for the first three years of his career, and who he looked like he was about to be after his '07 stint, then even if he hits all of his incentives this could be a good deal.  Paying less than $2 million for a veteran bullpen arm who can pitch every other game, and be effective, is a bargain.  Even in a worst-case scenario, where Ayala shows his career is finished, this isn't a number the Twins can't overcome.  If they decide they want to sign Joe Crede, or sign a current player to a multi-year contract, $1.3 million isn't enough to keep them from doing it.

The ultimate question is whether Luis Ayala can be more effective than any of the younger options currently available on the roster.  If the answer isn't yes, this is still a frivilous use of payroll dollars no matter how fair of a deal it is.  I believe he can be, but more than likely he'll turn out to be nothing better, and nothing worse, than an average bullpen arm.  Chone and Marcel see 2008 as the norm going forward, as opposed to the exception to the rule; Bill James predicts a slight bounce back, with a 4.08 FIP and a 2.72 K/BB ratio.  It's very likely that the truth will lie somewhere in between, and at the very least, the Twins have one more option available to them.