Since 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers have had a different regular at first base each season. After Prince Fielder left, the carousel spun around to Corey Hart, then there was Juan Francisco and a slew of former shortstops in 2013, the Mark Reynolds/Lyle Overbay platoon of 2014, Adam Lind in 2015, and Chris Carter in 2016. Last year, the position was manned mostly by Eric Thames, who enjoyed an altogether successful, albeit up-and-down 2017 campaign.
The Brewers surprisingly signed Thames to a multiyear deal during the 2016-17 offseason after his outstanding three-year run in Korea. The 31 year old set the league on fire during the first month of the season, clubbing seven home runs in his first 12 games on his way to a 1.276 OPS and 11 dingers through the end of April. But the shine started to wear off in May, as Thames began dealing with some leg issues and the league had a chance to make adjustments. His 218 wRC+ in April was followed up by a 107 mark in May, and then bottomed out at a 68 wRC+ in June. He bounced back with a productive 124 wRC+ in July but then sunk back to 75 in August. Thames was one of the team’s best hitters during the stretch run, though, posting a 159 wRC+ and 1.004 OPS in September as the team fought for a spot in the postseason.
On the whole, Thames batted .247/.359/.518 with 31 home runs across 551 plate appearances in 2017, good for a 124 wRC+ in his first season back in the big leagues since 2012. He was tied for 10th in the majors with a 41.5% rate of hard contact and t-12th with a 13.6% walk rate. Thames and Travis Shaw tied for the team lead in dingers, although only eight of Eric’s long balls came after the All-Star break. As with most of the 2017 Brewers’ lineup, Thames had a tendency for whiffing - he struck out in 29.6% of his plate appearances and his swinging strike rate was an unseemly 12.6%. He also struggled against same-handed pitchers, with lefties holding him to a .182/.270/.394 slash last season.
That’s where Jesus Aguilar came in. The 27 year old was a waiver claim at the very beginning of Spring Training and rode a hot bat to a spot on the Opening Day roster. He received sporadic playing time in the early going, which was understandable as Thames was tearing the cover off the ball. Aguilar wasn’t doing himself any favors at the time, either, including a three-week stretch where he went without a hit in 21 plate appearances. But as Thames slowed down and started needing some time out of the lineup, Aguilar began rounding into form. He worked his way into a true platoon at the cold corner and wound up appearing in 133 games and taking 311 trips to the plate during his first full season in the big leagues. The lumbering slugger ended up finishing with a .265/.311/.505 slash with 16 home runs, including an .889 OPS and five taters when holding the platoon advantage.
Altogether, though, Aguilar’s 112 wRC+ on the season actually checked in a tick below the league-average of 113 for a first baseman. He struck out at an even higher rate than Thames (30.2%) while drawing fewer walks. Aguilar’s 45.2% rate of hard contact ranked him fifth among all players with at least 300 plate appearances, but even then he would be hard pressed to repeat his .337 BABIP. He also struggled in the season’s second half, hitting .220/.289/.431 (81 wRC+) in 52 appearances after the All-Star game.
Even with the warts that both players demonstrated during 2017, the timeshare was quite successful overall and when the offseason began, most expected Thames and Aguilar to reprise their roles on the 2018 squad. That was until January 25th, when Milwaukee added Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to their already crowded outfield mix. As manager Craig Counsell tries to figure out how to find at-bats for all of his talented hitters, a new player has entered the fray at first base this spring after years of fan speculation - Ryan Braun.
Braun came up playing third base in 2007 but shifted to the outfield the year after and has remained on the grass in the decade since, mostly in left field. But with Cain set to play center field regularly and Yelich pegged as the primary left fielder, the Brewers have asked Braun to pick up a first baseman’s mitt and see how he can handle playing on the dirt again this spring. Braun has never before played first base, but his athleticism and prior experience as an infielder has management hopeful that he’ll be able to pick the position up passably during camp. If he does prove to be an adequate defender at first, then he could see action there during the regular season and spell Thames against left-handed pitching.
Ryan Braun is getting his 1st reps of the spring today. #CactusCrew pic.twitter.com/GdxhbBioHU— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) February 20, 2018
If that is indeed how everything plays out during the spring, then it would appear that Aguilar’s roster spot is very likely in jeopardy. The Brewers love versatility but Aguilar is pigeonholed at first base, and it would be difficult fitting a right-handed pinch hitter/backup first baseman on the 25 man roster as currently constructed. He’s out of minor league options, and would therefore have to be placed on waivers in order to be sent to the minors. There’s still plenty of time before the regular starts, of course, giving David Stearns an abundance of opportunity to find a way to lessen his outfield logjam via trade and keep Braun as a regular on the grass. But for the time being, the Brewers have three talented hitters jockeying for time at one position - and that’s never a bad thing.
In the Minors
Ji-Man Choi is in camp as a non-roster invitee, although it seems like a long-shot for him to make the team. With Garrett Cooper no longer in the org, Choi could fill the void of AAA first baseman in 2018. Dustin DeMuth manned first for most of the season in AA Biloxi last year, and was joined by Jake Gatewood - who is technically the top rated prospect at the position within the org - later in the summer. Further on down the minor league ladder are the likes of Weston Wilson, Ronnie Gideon, Gabriel Garcia, and Ernesto Martinez.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
Over/Under of 40 starts at first base for Ryan Braun?
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