Aybar healthy, ready to ignite Angels' offense
Shortstop recovered from 2010 injuries to knee, groin
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Among pivotal Angels position players in 2011, none -- including slugger Kendry Morales on the comeback trail -- figures more prominently than shortstop Erick Aybar, with his electric, athletic talent.
One of the game's most productive shortstops in a breakout 2009, Aybar slipped offensively and defensively as his team plunged from first to third in the American League West in a fitful 2010.
Offseason surgery to repair his left knee and a month spent resting a groin pull have Aybar smiling again in confident anticipation of a return to prime-time form.
"I'm back to normal -- perfect," Aybar said on Monday morning before the Angels took the field for their first workout of the spring at Tempe Diablo Stadium. "Ready to rumble."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia knows what a healthy, productive Aybar means to his club, at the second most important position on the field, after catcher.
"It's very important," Scioscia said when asked about Aybar recapturing his 2009 level of play. "He had a problem with his groin and a knee, which were cleaned up and were a bit of an issue.
"The bottom line is players are nicked up. He was nicked up in '09, too. He's a tough kid, fearless. And I think he's going to be a big part of what we need him to do, both on offense and defense."
Aybar's early struggles offensively last year had more to do with the burden of replacing Chone Figgins at the top of the order than anything of a physical nature. He was pressing, he admitted, and when, in mid-June, he finally started to settle into a fine groove at the plate, along came big Casey McGehee.
Breaking up a double play at second base at Angel Stadium on June 14, the Brewers third baseman rolled into Aybar, whose left knee sustained the force of the blow.
Entering that game, Aybar was in the midst of a 12-for-24 streak, his batting average had reached .275 and his on-base mark was at .339. He was climbing back toward his 2009 numbers -- .312 average, .353 OBP -- when it all fell apart.
The knee injury kept Aybar out for 10 days. He came back and maintained his offensive production, reaching a high of .289 with a .345 OBP on July 24, before a gradual erosion surfaced.
The knee pain was compounded by the groin ailment in mid-September, and Aybar finished the season with a .253 batting average and a .306 on-base percentage.
He remained in Southern California for a month after the season, having the knee cleaned out with an arthroscopic procedure in October.
Returning home to Bani in the Dominican Republic for further rehab, Abyar regained strength in his knee and groin and soon was working out with Miguel Tejada -- the Giants' new shortstop -- and running along the beach.
"I'm able to go full speed again," Aybar said. "I feel great. I was running a lot on the beach, and worked with Tejada for a month and a half. He's a good guy to be around, with all of his experience."
Scioscia made it clear that the Angels' ideal leadoff man, if he can stay healthy and get the bulk of the playing time at third base, is Maicer Izturis. He'd be followed by designated hitter Bobby Abreu and then the big boppers -- Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells and Morales.
Aybar figures in the leadoff equation as a backup option, but his primary slot likely will be in the bottom third of the order.
"If Erick Aybar has the same approach as '09 and brings it to the leadoff role, you have a heck of a player," Scioscia said. "Maicer is a guy who a couple of years ago played  games."
But last season, injuries limited Izturis to 212 at-bats. If he can once again approach 400, the offense will benefit immensely.
"We're really counting on Izturis," Scioscia said. "When he's in the lineup, he's going to lead off. If you put Izturis and Abreu 1-2, you're going to have as good a 1-2 as you're going to see."
Aybar said he doesn't care where he hits.
"I just want to play my game and be healthy," he said. "If I do that, everything will work out."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.