With Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar struggling to produce consistently at first base, the Milwaukee Brewers are facing a difficult roster decision in the weeks to come.
Things are looking up for the Milwaukee Brewers. After taking three out of four games in Pittsburgh over the weekend, the Brewers entered play on Tuesday night first place in the National League Central, one game ahead of the Chicago Cubs.
Milwaukee have acquired one of the National League’s best records thanks to the excellent production they’ve gotten, so far, out of their offense. They entered their series against the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night with the fourth most runs scored in the National League, and the tenth most overall.
One position on the roster, however, that has become a major issue for them as the season’s wore on, is first base. After getting solid production out of the position over each of the past two seasons, it’s become one of their weakest in 2019.
What’s wrong at first base?
The Milwaukee Brewers have gotten inconsistent production, at best, out of their two first-basemen so far this season. That was not something they foresaw as an issue before opening day.
Eric Thames has been, thus far, a productive player overall. According to FanGraphs, Thames entered play on Tuesday night with a 0.6 WAR which is seventh best on the team among position players. His wRC+ stands 24 points above the league average at the moment (124), and his OPS+ is in a comparable position too (122).
The issue with Thames, however, has been his inconsistent production with the bat. Prior to the Pittsburgh series last weekend, Thames slash line on the season had fallen from a solid .276/.368/.562 after Milwaukee’s May 1st game against the Colorado Rockies, to just .239/.365/.407 by May 27th. In the month of May as a whole, he posted a well below average slash line .210/.380/.306.
Thames’s value, like most first basemen, comes almost exclusively from his bat. In particular, his offensive value comes from his ability to walk and hit for power. His walk rate remained high throughout the month of May, but his power was gone. Thames recorded just four extra base hits in the month. His sole home run, came in his final appearance of the month on May 30th.
How about Aguilar?
Jesus Aguilar, however, has been far worse. After posting a WAR of 3.1 in his all-star campaign last year, Aguilar entered play on Tuesday night with the worst WAR (-0.8) of any player, position or pitcher, on the Brewers.
Like Thames, Aguilar’s production comes exclusively from his bat. The bulk of his negative WAR this year has come from his struggles at the plate. His slash line going into Tuesday night’s game stood at .190/.301/.307, well below the .274/.352/.539 line he posted last year. His OPS+ of 60, is just five points higher than Orlando Arcia’s was in his horrid offensive season last year when he was among the worst offensive players in Major League Baseball.
Outside of a brief run at the beginning and middle of May, where he began to rack up some hits, he’s been virtually unplayable.
Under ordinary circumstances, one might look at Jesus Aguilar’s slump and think he should be optioned to Triple A until he finds his hitting stroke again. The problem the Brewers have, however, is this is not an option.
Aguilar is out of minor league options. This means that, in order to send him down, they would have to expose him to waivers first. If he was subjected to this scenario, he’d almost certainly be claimed by someone, likely a rebuilding team, given his solid production in the two preceding years to now.
How can they solve the problem?
The Milwaukee Brewers are left with very few options to address their problem. None of them are likely to end well for the team.
Milwaukee could make one last concerted effort to give Jesus Aguilar a chance to play out of his slump. After all, he will be just 29 in a few weeks, has three more years of team control beyond this year, and is one the most well-liked personalities in the dug out. This makes him more desirable as a long-term option to build around than the older Eric Thames, who will turn 33 later this year and would cost the club considerably more money ($7.5 million club option) to bring back next season.
Any positive signs for these two?
There’s also some stats to suggest a turnaround could be on the cards. His average exit velocity of 89.5 MPH is right at the league average, and is only slightly worse than his previous two seasons (89.9 MPH in 2017 and 89.8 MPH in 2018). His Batting Average On Balls In Play (.232 BABIP) is also well below his previous two seasons (.337 BABIP in 2017 and .309 BABIP in 2018). These stats suggests that he’s had a great deal of bad hitting luck to start the year.
The problem with this choice, however, is that his playing time would come at the expense of others, particularly Thames who’s been playing at a considerably higher level than him so far.
Thames would not have another obvious position to go to if this were to occur. The other positions he can play, specifically either corner outfield spot, are occupied by two superior bats in Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich. Ben Gamel, the fourth outfield option for the club, is also outproducing Thames in WAR so far. Moving him off of first, then, would relegate Thames to a role as a pinch-hitter, or leave him without a roster spot entirely (meaning he would need to be optioned, waived, or traded). That’s something the Milwaukee Brewers can ill afford to gamble on right now given Aguilar’s prolonged slump at the plate.
Aguilar’s offensive drought has also shown few signs of ending. Though some of his underlying stats are encouraging, others are not. He’s hitting ground balls 8% more often in his at-bats than he did last year, and 2.4% more often than 2017 . His hard contact percentage, which was 45.2% and 44% in each of the past two seasons, has plummeted to 35.4% this year too.
Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell has also shown little willingness to play him in recent games as well. He’s started just two games since May 18th. It’s difficult for anyone to hit with infrequent at-bats. That becomes even harder when they’re in the midst of a terrible slump.
Could a roster move solve the issue?
If Milwaukee won’t give him the playing time to turn it around, they’ll be forced to designate him for assignment, subjecting him to waivers where, as already discussed, he’d likely be claimed by a non-contending team. Milwaukee would then need to entertain moving Braun, Mike Moustakas, a similarly scuffling Travis Shaw, or their elite defensive catcher in Yasmani Grandal there more often, or add another first baseman through a trade or free agency. Neither are things they’ve entertained doing so far because they would have additional consequences on the roster moving forward.
The first base situation is going to come to a head in the near future. Milwaukee temporarily put off a decision there when they sent Keston Hiura down to reactivate Shaw off the IL this week. This will not be a viable decision in the long-term, however, if Hiura continues to hit the cover off the ball at Triple-A while Aguilar and Shaw continue to be a train-wreck at the plate.
The day is coming when a difficult roster decision will need to be made at first base. Like Thanos, that day is inevitable. What they do on that day, however, is unlikely to be a win for the club moving forward. Sometimes, that’s the life of a professional sports team.