Since returning to the United States, Eric Thames has become the king of April. He set the league on fire during his first month in uniform with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, batting an inconceivable .345/.466/.810 with 11 home runs on his way to a 31-homer, 125 wRC+ campaign. His bat was scorching hot out of the gates once again in 2018. He began the year by hitting .250/.351/.625 with seven dingers through his first 22 games. Then, in a game against the Royals on April 24th, Thames sustained an injury to his thumb while attempting a to make a play in the field. He required surgery, and suddenly found himself on the shelf for the next six weeks.
Jesus Aguilar had put together a nice campaign for the Brewers as a part-time player in 2017, but the signings of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, and the subsequent decision to experiment with Ryan Braun at first base, begat months of speculation that his days in Milwaukee were numbered. The front office found a way to keep him on the roster as the regular season began, and after tallying only 39 plate appearances before Thames went down, Aguilar was finally afforded the opportunity that he had waited 11 years as a professional ballplayer for: everyday MLB-level playing time.
The rest, as they say, is history. An adjustment to his approach helped Aguilar increase his launch angle become a much better fastball hitter, leading to a slashed strikeout rate, improved walk totals, and plenty of dingers. 24 of them in the season’s first half, in fact, accompanied by a .298/.373/.621 slash line for a 160 wRC+. That was enough to net Aguilar a spot among the final vote candidates for the All-Star Game, and an active campaign ran by the Brewers helped convince the voters and earn the first baseman a spot in the midsummer classic.
Jesus wasn’t quite as productive after the break (.760 OPS, 101 wRC+) though he was still making hard contact nearly as often as he did in the first half (45% versus 42%). An increase in grounders and infield fly balls led to a lower BABIP and fewer homers while dragging his slash down, but he still ended the year at a .274/.352/.539 batting line (135 wRC+) and was among league leaders with 36 home runs and 105 RBI. That helped him earn some votes for the Senior Circuit’s Most Valuable Player award; Aguilar finished 16th in the balloting while teammate Christian Yelich took home the honors. Jesus wasn’t much of a factor in Milwaukee’s three-game sweep of the Rockies in the NLDS, but he batted .269/.321/.500 with a homer and three doubles in the NLCS before the Brewers were dispatched by the Dodgers in seven games.
Thames, on the other hand, struggled to adapt to a part-time role upon his return from thumb surgery. He was back in action by mid-June but found most of his playing time on the outfield grass rather than at first base. Though the metrics (+1 DRS, +1.0 UZR) suggest that Thames’ work in the outfield corners as competent, the eye-test didn’t exactly agree and manager Craig Counsell has since admitted that playing Eric on the grass is a less-than-ideal situation. The Brewers were able to deal with the defensive hit while Thames remained productive with the bat (.244/.316/.496 with 7 homers across June and July), but his production cratered once the trade deadline passed on July 31st. He accrued only 60 at-bats during August and September and was largely a non-factor during the pennant race after the return of Domingo Santana and the acquisition of Curtis Granderson. Thames was left off the playoff roster and finished the year with a .219/.306/.478 slash with 16 long balls in 278 plate appearances.
So the team’s two first basemen have seen their roles get swapped from where they were one year ago today. Aguilar is now the unquestioned starter at first base, while Thames is the ugly roster fit who cannot be sent to the minors without his consent and doesn’t have a clear path to playing time in the early going of the season. If it weren’t for the $7 mil in guaranteed money that the org still owes Eric ($6 mil base salary in 2019 plus $1 mil buyout of 2020 option), there would probably be a much louder conversation regarding Thames being on the roster bubble. He looked like a logical trade candidate all winter but his market never developed with a plethora of other players available, and now all indications from the manager and front office point to Thames beginning the year by coming off the bench in Milwaukee.
Though his strikeout rate soared by some five points in 2018, Thames still displayed a penchant for earning free passes and the sort of light-tower power that can change a game at any moment. He boosted his hard contact rate by nearly five points from 2017, coming in at an even higher rate than Aggy (46%). His presence provides a strong insurance policy in case Aguilar’s offensive abilities falter in an unforeseeable way this coming season (which I don’t personally see as likely), and working his bat into the lineup a few times per week can provide the sort of regular work that should assist in keeping Thames’ bat productive, while also allowing regular rest for Jesus and the corner outfield bats throughout the season, so that everyone can be as fresh and as strong as possible for the dog days of August and September as the Milwaukee Nine hopefully chase another playoff berth.
In the Minors
Milwaukee’s top first base prospect is Jacob Gatewood, who finally began to tap into his immense raw power with regularity while playing at Double-A Biloxi last season. Unfortunately a torn ACL cut his season short and will delay his Triple-A debut by a few months in 2019, but he appears ticketed for playing time at the highest level of the minors once he’s healthy. Jacob Nottingham and Tyler Saladino have also seen some action at first base this spring and could man the position for San Antonio in Gatewood’s stead. Weston Wilson should see regular action at the cold corner for the Shuckers after a breakout in 2018 at Class A-Advanced Carolina (13 HR, 117 wRC+) led to a late-season promotion and a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League. Further on down in the minors, we’ll find players like Chad McClanahan, Ernesto Martinez, and David Fry getting reps at first base.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs