Things played out almost perfectly for Cleveland Indians first base prospect Jesus Aguilar at the beginning of last season, despite starting the year in Triple-A.
Carlos Santana was slated to be the Indians’ third baseman, after primarily splitting time between catcher, first base, and designated hitter in years past. Nick Swisher was the lone legitimate first base option remaining on the roster. Designated hitter Jason Giambi was battling injuries. This left the team with a need as a fill-in for Swisher at first or as a right-handed DH option off of the bench.
Aguilar fit the mold for one of the Indians’ biggest needs since the days of Manny Ramirez – a big bat from the right side of the plate with power potential. The path to the Majors was almost clear for Aguilar and his opportunity knocked in mid-May. Unfortunately for him, he did not respond well to the call, and as he enters the 2015 season, his road back to the show is a bit more cluttered with obstacles than just one year ago.
It is tough to know just what Aguilar might be. He has hit for power and for a solid batting average in the minor leagues, but a small sample in the Majors could scare some into nightmares of former right-handed Triple-A prospects with pop for Cleveland in the last half dozen seasons (think Matt LaPorta, Russ Canzler, Jared Goedert, or Andy Marte) who were unable to reach the MLB or, more accurately, fit the billing of a Quad-A player.
After a tough Major League portion of his 2014 campaign, Aguilar has put in the work after playing winter ball in Venezuela in the offseason. He hit .303 with four home runs and 18 RBI with Caracas, but cut his season short due to the birth of a child. He reported to the Indians’ Spring Training complex in Goodyear, Arizona, early to get a head start on the coming season.
Aguilar headed in to last season as one of the top right-handed power-hitting bats in the Indians farm system, so there was an element of fanfare and hope surrounding the then 23-year-old and what his presence could provide the Cleveland lineup when he got the call last May. He did not, however, showcase the pop in his bat at the MLB level while he floundered a bit in limited opportunities in the field.
He had started strong in Columbus to begin the season. In a month and a half, he was hitting .298 with a .395 on-base percentage with seven home runs and 19 RBI for the Clippers when the Indians promoted him to the Majors. At the time, he was replacing Nyjer Morgan on the roster, who had suffered a right knee sprain, but he provided the Indians with another bat off of the bench to replace Giambi, who ten days prior landed on the 15-day disabled list for the second time in five weeks.
The Venezuelan-born Aguilar made his first appearance at DH on May 15th in Toronto and was hitless with a walk and a strikeout in three plate appearances. When initially brought up to the Indians’ 25-man roster, he made seven starts and appeared in eight total games, but had just one hit, a single, in seven at bats. He walked two times and drove in two runs. With Giambi’s return to duty on May 20th, he was optioned out of Cleveland after hitting .143.
Aguilar would not last a full week with the Clippers before Swisher was placed on the disabled list with a left knee hyperextension and Santana was put on the seven-day concussion DL. In Aguilar’s return, he had two more singles and a walk in ten trips to the plate, but Santana’s recall from the DL on June 6th sent Aguilar back to the minors.
In Columbus, he picked up where he left off at the start of the season. He added a dozen more homers and 58 RBI to his season tally while hitting .314 with a .399 on-base percentage over 76 games.
He returned to Cleveland when the rosters expanded at the beginning of September, but in four starts and eleven games in total, he managed just one more hit, another single, and a walk with seven strikeouts. He scored one run and drove in one run while hitting .059 with a .111 on-base percentage.
In the end, Aguilar posted a bizarre and potentially unsettling stat line. In 118 games in Triple-A, he hit .304 with a .395 on-base percentage, had 19 home runs, 31 doubles, and drove in 77 runs. He struck out 96 times while walking 64. However, in Cleveland, he hit .121 with a .211 on-base percentage in 19 games, with just four singles, four walks, three runs batted in, and 13 strikeouts.
The strikeouts plagued him in the Majors, as nearly a third of his plate appearances, regardless of the pitcher’s arm of choice, resulted in a K. He hit .067 against right-handed pitchers with one single, one RBI, and five strikeouts in 15 plate appearances. He hit .167 versus lefties with his other three hits, two RBI, all four of his walks, and eight strikeouts in 23 plate appearances.
What Aguilar did not get much of was sample size at the plate. In just nine of his 19 games played did he enter the batter’s box three times or more. In six games, he had just one plate appearance, and in three others he entered the game solely as a defensive replacement. A dozen of his games for Cleveland were at first base (six times in May and six times in September) while he made two other starts at DH, four times entered as a pinch hitter, and even played in two innings defensively at third base.
Aguilar spent the previous season at Double-A Akron. He hit .275 with a .349 OBP in 130 games while driving in 105 RBI in his first trip over the century mark. Extra base hits were no issue, as he had 28 doubles to go with his 16 homers.
Aguilar was originally signed by the Indians in 2007 as an amateur free agent. After a pair of seasons in the Dominican Summer League, he saw time at Mahoning Valley and in the Arizona League in 2010. His power blossomed in 2011, when he hit 19 homers with Lake County and another four with Kinston of Class-A. He split the 2012 season between Carolina and Akron, hitting .280 with 15 homers and 71 RBI.
Questions may swirl around Aguilar after a missed chance last season to claim a spot on the 25-man roster. Can he cut it at the Major League level? Will his power translate there? Can he cut back on the strikeouts against even better pitching? Will he be able to produce at such a high level that he can crack through a jam packed roster before September’s call-ups, with numerous road blocks preventing playing time at either first base or DH.
Aguilar, still just 24 years of age, has plenty of time to develop and to prove that he can play at the MLB level. The problem for him will be fighting for those opportunities, which may be fewer and farther between this season. He will likely find himself a resident of Columbus for the months ahead, getting the much needed and consistent playing time he needs there as opposed to being buried as one of the final options on the Indians bench.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer