For a player with virtually no big league experience prior to last season, Jesus Aguilar made quite the impression with the Brewers. In parts of three seasons prior to 2017, Aguilar accumulated 64 plate appearances. Last year, though, he put up a .284 TAv in 311 plate appearances in his age-27 season. He got virtually all of his playing time at first base, but his bat was still productive enough to power him to a 1.4 WARP season.
That type of season is valuable, even if 1.4 wins over what is essentially a full season for Aguilar seems uninspiring. He was a good pinch hitting option, as his OPS while pinch hitting was .768. Aguilar provided a solid backup or platoon option for when Eric Thames was hurt or unavailable. Additionally, he was valuable from a roster-building perspective because he was earning the major league minimum salary. In fact, despite debuting in 2014, Aguilar lost his rookie eligibility just last year.
On the surface, then, he seems like the kind of player who a club would love to have. He is a productive and cost-controlled bat, and he makes Craig Counsell’s job easier because there are no questions about who the best pinch hitting option is. The question is more complicated, though, because Aguilar’s limited versatility raises questions about his viability on this roster.
In a perfect world (for him), Aguilar’s role on the 2018 Brewers looks a lot like last season. He plays first base two or three times per week, and he fills in on a full-time basis when Thames inevitably misses some time with an injury. He is the bench bat who the Brewers look to in their highest-leverage situations, and he provides similar value. This is not a far-fetched scenario, as Aguilar has already proven he can do it.
But the 2018 Brewers are not the 2017 Brewers. The additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich have given the club more offensive talent in the outfield, and Ryan Braun has begun to get some playing time at first base this spring. As Ron Washington taught all of us, first base is not as easy as it seems; but if the Braun-to-first-base experiment proves successful, then presumably Braun would be Thames’ platoon partner so that Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton can each get into the lineup against lefties. And with Braun at first base in those games, Aguilar is left without a path to the starting lineup.
Aguilar’s defensive limitations come into play here as well. In his 102 big league games, he has played just three innings at a defensive position other than first base (2.0 innings at third in 2014 and 1.0 inning at third last season). In the minor leagues, he played nearly 7,000 innings at first base and just 173 elsewhere. He is a first baseman/designated hitter in a league that doesn’t have a designated hitter, so his lineup utility is limited. He can either start at first base or he can pinch hit; he cannot really be used any other way.
In eras past, this would not matter as much as it does today. Olmedo Saenz made a career out of pinch hitting, as he had more games as a pinch hitter than at any other single position. But bullpens have expanded since Saenz last appeared in the big leagues in 2007, and teams are less likely to carry purely offensive options. This puts a premium on defensive versatility, as teams are looking for players that can play multiple positions so that one player can spell three or four instead of having dedicated backups at each position. The Brewers themselves acknowledged the value of versatility with their signing of Eric Sogard and continued employment of Hernan Perez. Neither player is particularly inspiring, but they can both hit just enough and can fill in suitably at several positions. Perez allows Counsell to use the same person as a backup at second base, third base, shortstop, and each outfield spot. This allows the Brewers the flexibility to carry the additional reliever they have said they plan on rostering this season.
An eight-man bullpen means there are four bench spots open (thirteen pitchers plus the eight offensive starters), and one of those will go to a backup catcher. Another will go to a backup shortstop (presumably whichever of Hernan Perez or Jonathan Villar does not get the bulk of the second base playing time), and another will go to either Domingo Santana or Keon Broxton (depending on trades). This leaves just one bench spot open for Aguilar to fight over with another infielder, such as Sogard or Mauricio Dubon, or with another outfielder, such as Brett Phillips or Broxton/Santana if neither is traded. There could be one additional spot available if the Brewers don’t keep a fifth starter on the 25-man roster at all times, but any long stretch of games without an off-day will require that fifth starter to be on the roster consistently.
Much of this roster crunch was present last year, but Aguilar remained on the roster. Braun’s experiment at first base changes the calculus, though. If Braun can be the short side of a first base platoon, then Aguilar is redundant on this roster because he cannot play any other position. And because Aguilar is out of options (he spent three years in the minors with Cleveland), the Brewers cannot stash him in the minor leagues and wait to see if/when Thames or Braun gets hurt. Instead, the Brewers would have to keep him on the big league roster all season.
Aguilar had a fantastic season with the Brewers last year, and he was certainly a key part of their surprising success. But the club has continued to improve its roster, and there simply doesn’t seem to be a place for Aguilar anymore. And because there simply isn’t a trade market for journeyman first base platoon options, he is a candidate to be cut at the end of spring training. While we may have fond memories of his contributions last season, the additions of more talented players have made him expendable on the current roster.
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