After the Cleveland Indians added free agent first baseman Mike Napoli last offseason, the path to a regular opportunity at the Major League level became significantly more crowded and difficult for ninth-year pro Jesus Aguilar.
Aguilar, in turn, put together the biggest power display of his minor league career despite a drop off in batting average and on-base percentage, numbers now in steady decline in his third season at the Triple-A level.
The big slugger now waits again for his chance with the Indians, who have a potential hole to fill in the lineup as Napoli is a free agent again after his one-year deal and seems to be gaining attention from numerous teams around the league after his career-best performance in several key offensive categories. In the meantime, the Indians will return Carlos Santana at the position after picking up his $12 million team option for one final season in Cleveland.
While the numbers have been there at Triple-A for Aguilar over the last three seasons, his production at the MLB level in limited game action has been minimal and it would seem to be the case that the 26-year-old might not garner much of a look after not being given many opportunities over the last three seasons.
This season, he saw the field for Cleveland just nine times and stepped to the plate only six, appearing five separate times as a late inning defensive replacement and three other times as a pinch-hitter. He got just one start, making half of his plate appearances for the season, and was 0-for-6 for the year with a strikeout.
Aguilar took the field seven times in 2015 for the Indians, going 6-for-19 (.316) with his first career extra base hit and two RBI. In 19 games in his debut season in 2014, he was 4-for-33 (.121) with four singles, four walks, and three runs batted in.
In Columbus in those three seasons, his average and on-base percentage have fallen each year, from .304/.395 in 2014 to .267/.332 in 2015 to .247/.319 this season.
What Aguilar has done well is provide right-handed pop for the Clippers, which is interesting when considering the Indians have long had a void in power from the right side of the plate, which was one contributing factor to bringing in Napoli’s bat last winter. Aguilar hit 19 homers in his first two seasons at Triple-A before mashing a professional career-high and International League-leading 30 in 2016. In each of the last two seasons, he has topped 90 RBI at the plate.
First base depth in the Indians farm system seems to have some question marks around it. Aguilar has had three fairly short and quick looks for the Tribe and would appear to be one of the first names on the chopping block from the 40-man roster if room was needed, but the mixed production behind him at first in the minors could make him valuable still to the organization.
At Double-A Akron is Nellie Rodriguez, another large bodied right-handed power bat. Aguilar may be better with the glove work and overall more consistent with the bat across his minor league career. The 22-year-old Rodriguez is about a year ahead of Aguilar’s progression through the farm system, but while he may draw walks at a better pace than his position mate, he also struck out in 32% of his plate appearances for the season, compared to Aguilar’s 19%.
Former third round pick from three drafts ago, Bobby Bradley, has flashed similar power numbers and run production, with an improving eye but a strikeout rate of nearly 30%. He is a left-handed bat, but he just completed a season at the High-A level and is only 20 years old.
With the two first base prospects potentially lined up to move up a level at the beginning of the coming minor league season or in the months that follow, Aguilar could be in a position of dwindling playing time if he does not find a way to crack the Cleveland roster or find a home somewhere else around the league.
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