Defending the NL Central in 2019: Jesus Aguilar

The Milwaukee Brewers enter 2019 as tentative favorites in a vastly-improved NL Central. They’ll need their lineup top-down to perform all season. Here’s a look at some players who could play key roles in 2019. Today, we consider Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar.

It’s hard to not love Jesus Aguilar.

The Brewers’ incumbent everyday first baseman was originally a Cleveland Indians signee out of Venezuela in 2007, languished in their farm system, got a few cracks at the parent club from ’14-’16 and was placed on waivers, where David Stearns found him and signed him to the 40-man roster.

Where most of the league seemingly viewed Aguilar as a 4-A type player–having slashed a sub-pedestrian .172/.234/.190 line in cups of coffee with Cleveland while terrorizing minor and winter league pitching, Stearns saw a compliment to then-newly signed Eric Thames. And it never hurts to have a big power bat somewhere in the system.

Two years later, Thames, despite being a likable and popular figure in Milwaukee, is on the periphery after an injury-plagued and unproductive couple seasons, while Aguilar created more bWAR last season than Thames has in his career. For his breakout first-half, Aguilar was named to his first All-Star team after a viral ‘We Believe in Jesus’ campaign vaulted him into the game as the winner of the NL’s Final Vote.

Moreover, Aguilar isn’t happy to be here–he’s just happy: an affable presence who clearly appreciates the fact he gets to play a kid’s game year in and year out. It’s that kind of disposition that makes legends in a historically blue-collar city like Milwaukee.

The mammoth Aguilar isn’t just a one-trick pony either: the 6’4″, (charitably) 250 lb. 29-year-old is light on his feet, a surprisingly good defender with good instincts in the field and isn’t just a thumping bat, but a patient, professional hitter, BB/K ratio notwithstanding. The only thing keeping Aguilar from becoming a superstar is his age; he’s already in his prime and broke out too late to become the household name he probably should be.

But anyone who doesn’t believe in a Home Run Derby regression/curse should pay heed to Aguilar’s first/second half splits:

To be fair, it is 66 fewer PAs and the BABIP suggests some regression from a very-high .331 to a more reasonable .283, but Aguilar clearly never returned to his first-half form and tailed considerably down the stretch. It should be noted that he was completely lost in the NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. Aguilar also began biting on breaking pitches off the plate and was at times too patient for his own good.

The theme throughout the players we’ve profiled so far is that the Brewers cannot afford to make easy outs in 2019 and expect to defend their divisional crown, saying nothing of making another pennant run. The ability to hit for consistent contact to all fields is clearly there: Aguilar is effective against shifts and, as noted in our Shaw piece, is a hitter with power rather than a pure power hitter.

Again, perhaps Aguilar might have been miscast in the three and four slots, but I’m convinced that his participation in the Home Run Derby affected his plate discipline and mentality. This was a guy who went from a lights out first half to the Final Vote winner and Home Run Derby participant within about 36 hours. He went from relative obscurity as a cult icon to center stage, and I believe that was to his detriment (in the most Greek tragedy-kind of way). After we believed in Jesus, his batting averages and OBP all trended downward. To run further with the wordplay, there was no resurrection.

It could be that Aguilar got overexposed; that the elevated notoriety of a successful Brewers club and an appearance in Baseball’s midsummer classic and exhibitions portended weakness exploited thereafter. It could be that Aguilar wore down under his bulky frame and may be most effective if he plays about 130-140 games in a season. The former can be isolated and addressed in film study and further major league-level training and development. The latter? The latter is the stuff of flashes in the pan, in which case Stearns is stuck with a club-controlled liability and his platoon-mate who has never shown the ability to stay healthy and effective for an entire season.

First base also is a rare position of system weakness with Jacob Gatewood rehabbing an ACL tear and Chad McClanahan in Single-A Wisconsin (Editor’s Note: Appleton Foxes for life), years from the chance to break through to the bigs, as the only two 1B in the Brewers’ Top 30, according to MLB Pipeline. Shaw could be pressed into duty at first, as could Ryan Braun, who spelled Thames and Aguilar there in 2018. The reality of the matter appears to be that first basemen are not a priority for Stearns, which jibes with Stearns’ emphasis on versatility.

That said, Thames’ tenure as a Brewer is almost certainly drawing to a close after 2019, and a continued regression from Aguilar leaves the organization with few options. They’d have to get lucky and find another Aguilar-type on the waiver wire, overpay a free agent or make a trade and sacrifice some the system Stearns and farm and scouting directors Tom Flanagan and Tod Johnson have worked so hard to replenish and fortify.

Everyone stands to benefit from another dynamic season: the Brewers need Aguilar to re-establish himself in the heart of the order, while Aguilar is about to get lined up for a raise. If anything, this is Stearns gambling that Aguilar can produce in this last club-controlled season before arbitration.

It’s hard not to love Jesus Aguilar. But Brewers fans need him to give them a reason to believe once again.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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