Meet and Greet: Luis Ignacio Ayala

Today the Twins ended their off-season futility by signing Luis Ayala, formerly of the Mets and Nationals to an one year, $1.3 million contract with up to $575 thousand in additional incentives. Last year Ayala made 1.7 million dollars and, depending on his performance, he would have a chance to exceed it in 2009. Luis was born on January 12, 1978

The road that brought Louis to the states from his native Mexico and to the majors has been an interesting one. His professional baseball career started as a successful starting pitcher at the Saraperos de Saltillo (Saltillo Sarape Makers). In his first 2 years in the States, American Baseball was like a summer job for him, singing contracts in 2001 and 2002 with the Rockies and the Expos. In 2001 he pitched 13 games in relief with Salem Avalanche of the Carolina (A+) league collecting 7 saves and in 2002 he was a set up man for the Ottawa Lynx of the International (AAA) League where he appeared in 6 games. His next "summer job" contract for the 2003 season was deemed to be with the Arizona Diamondbacks; however the Expos either saw something they liked in his 6-game stint with Ottawa or, most likely, were impressed with his real job performance as a starter, that selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Diamondbacks. Other than rehab assignments, Ayala played only 19 games in the minors and pitched 21 innings. He did not disappoint the Expos in his first year, assuming the set-up role, playing in 65 games and pitching 71 innings collecting 3 saves while producing a 2.92 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 5.83 K/9 and 3.54 K/BB. He has a very deceptive delivery (see picture below) that has been very hard for right handers, but extremely easy for lefties. In his inaugural season RHB hit .188/.221/.267 and LHB .337/.398/.564 off Ayala.

2004 was his best season in the majors so far (hopefully this will change next year). Pitching 90.3 innings in 81 games as a set up man, Ayala accumulated a 2.69 ERA, 6.28 K/9, 4.20 K/BB and 1.18 WHIP. The move of the Nationals was not kind to him. He regressed slightly in 2005, but was still a very good pitcher (68 games, 71 IP, 2.66 ERA, 5.07 K/9, 2.86 K/BB, 1.25 WHIP). However, in 2006 Ayala became the poster boy of the detractors of the WBC: He blew his elbow in a WBC game and sat the 2006 out with Tommy John surgery. Ayala himself in an interview by the Washing Post said that he regretted playing to the WBC. In 2007 he started slowly, partly because he suffered a neck injury while trying to rehabilitate his surgically repaired elbow in extended spring training. By April his fastball velocity was only 85 mph and needed improvement. After a couple of rehab assignments he was activated and joined the Nationals in late June. He appeared in 44 games for the Nationals, pitching 42.1 innings producing respectable numbers: 3.19 ERA, 5.95 K/9, 2.33 K/BB, 1.30 WHIP. His rehab and return from Tommy John surgery is very similar to that of Fransisco Liriano (other than the part where the Nationals kept Ayala in extended spring training while the Twins rushed Liriano).

2008 was even less kind for Ayala. In a hunting trip in the off-season in Mexico (January 4th), he was shot by mistake by one of his buddies on his left (non-throwing) bicep (There still is one pellet in there; no word about airport metal detector issues). The Nationals doctors diagnosed "a bruised nerve" (btw, nerves don't "bruise") and gave him a clean bill of health. In addition to the "bruised nerve", in 2008, Ayala suffered a bruised ego when he his wife filed for and was awarded a divorce. In all respects, 2008 was a regrettable season for Ayala (who was traded to the Mets in a waiver trade August 17th for Anderson Hernandez, a AAA utility infielder, after he requested to be traded): 81 games, 71.7 IP, 5.71 ERA, 5.95 K/9, 2.08 K/BB, 1.45 WHIP. On an "exit interview" in Fredericksburg Free Lance Star, Ayala suggested that he lost his focus because of his off-field problems; however, an unnamed source told MLB.com back then that Ayala's problems came about by the fact that he was bypassed as the closer replacement for Chad Cordero.

Ayala has 3 pitches that he mixes regularly with good command (esp. before his surgery): a 91 mph sinker, an 85 mph hard slider and a 84 mph change up, which he throws anywhere in the count and spots locations. His out pitch had been his 2-seamer, but the last couple of years he has been relying on the slider as an out pitch more and more (with not much success). This singing makes the crowded Twins bullpen even more crowded, but Ayala (with his deceptive delivery) has the ability to replace Neshek (and his deceptive delivery). Whether or not his apparently fragile ego will clash with the brash personality of Gardy, remains to be seen.

Here is a video of Luis Ayala in his native Saltillo:

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