First base was pretty disappointing last year. Only three first basemen finished with more than 90 runs, only four hit over 35 home runs and only 5 had over 90 RBI. Owners with quick triggers probably finished high in their fantasy leagues if they grabbed Jesus Aguilar. So what am I looking for in “This Year’s Jesus Aguilar?” I’m talking about a first baseman who had a solid minor league resume before an unexpected breakout in the big leagues yet still wasn’t on a lot of fantasy teams to start the season.
So can you spare a minute to talk about my friend Jesus? In 2016 in AAA, Aguilar hit 30 HRs and 92 RBI in 515 ABs yet was designated for assignment by the Indians in January after the season, but was quickly swiped up by the Brewers. He went largely undrafted in CBS/Yahoo/ESPN leagues in 2018 due to the presence of Eric Thames and kinda-sorta-maybe Ryan Braun in the Brewers’ first base spot before the season started. Aguilar still made the opening day roster as a bench bat, but didn’t start getting consistent at-bats until the end of April when Thames went down with a torn thumb ligament. Aguilar made 36 starts in Thames’s absence and started his breakout season in that time with 23 runs, 10 HRs, 32 RBI in 137 ABs and yada, yada, yada ended the season ranked 4th among first basemen on our fantasy baseball player rater.
Here are a few first basemen who I think could be this year’s Jesús Aguilar.
- Tyler Austin, MIN: Austin cannot catch a break. He’s suffered through injuries seemingly every year of his career, including testicular cancer all the way back in high school. Austin emerged on the prospect scene way back in 2012 when he had a 92/17/80/23/.322 line in 413 minor league at bats across four different levels with the Yankees. That speed hasn’t really shown its face since that year, but his hit tool has remained fairly consistent throughout his 637 minor league games: .285 AVG/.837 OPS. In 2018, Austin saw his power output increase as he hit 26 HRs through AAA and the majors for the Twins and Yankees. Unfortunately, that came with a .239 batting average. With the power development, the next step Austin needs to make to take his game to the next level is increasing his contact rate on pitches in the zone. Last year, he was aggressive at swinging on pitches in the zone (74.1%) which is actually higher than the league average for 2018 (65.7%.) However, he was only making contact on 74.9% of pitches in the zone while the league average was 87.3%. Hopefully someone in Austin’s camp has been studying his stats because if they looked closely they would see that he needs to especially work on hitting changeups. Among batters with at least 250 plate appearances Austin was dead last in the league at creating runs against that pitch. With Joe Mauer’s retirement, Austin is being handed the reigns of the Twins first base gig and if he can improve on his slight deficiencies — he could be a great first base value in 2019. UPDATE: Since I started writing this the Twins claimed C.J. Cron off waivers putting Austin’s hold on 1B in jeopardy. However, I’m still a believer that Austin will get ABs at 1B, OF and DH in 2019 and has great potential.
- Luke Voit, NYY: I’m fully expecting this prediction to change in a month or so. If anyone sees Bryce Harper checking out first baseman’s mitts at Dick’s Sporting Goods please leave a comment so I can make edits to this article. But let’s talk about Voit. If Harper does not become a Yankee, then Voit’s value probably won’t fall as low as Aguilar’s due to the dreaded pinstripe hype, but he’ll still slip a little based on his potential perception as a flukey one-hit wonder. Voit didn’t have as huge a AAA season as Aguilar, but that doesn’t mean he was a slouch either. In 610 AAA plate appearances, Voit had a 72/23/89/.314/.930 OPS line in the Cardinals and Yankees minor league system. Then Voit had his smoking hot two months with the Yankees filling in for the disappointing Greg Bird. In those 148 Yankee plate appearances Voit hit 14 HRs with 36 RBI with a .333 AVG. Unfortunately, his .380 BABIP in those plate appearances would rank first in 2018 if extrapolated over a full season — ahead of J.D. Martinez’s .375 in first and the two MVPs, Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts in second and third. Obviously, Voit’s ratios will come down, but if he can keep up his contact numbers the fall might not be that dramatic. Voit had only a 7.5% soft contact rate meaning that 92.5% of his contact went for medium or hard contact last year. While Voit’s 26.7% K/rate would be among the 15 worst in the league in 2018, his 10.1% walk rate does help soften that blow a bit.
Voit might be a long shot to be 2019’s Aguilar and obviously his numbers should dip a little from his small sample size breakout at the end of the season, but there are some signs that the drop off might not be that catastrophic. Steamer currently has him Voit projected for 63/21/66/.262 in only 436 ABs. Another 100 or so ABs could put Voit close to that 30 HR benchmark and hitting behind the new Murderer’s Row the Yankees have could push his RBIs closer to 80. Then we’re talking about a 75/30/80 line — which isn’t bad from where he will probably be drafted. And we can never forget the Yankee Stadium park factor — their stadium has been in the top 10 for HRs every year since the stadium opened in 2009.
- Rowdy Tellez, TOR: Tellez could be the guy on this list who is most likely to follow the Aguilar path: from bench bat to productive starter. The Blue Jays have exercised Justin Smoak’s club option for 2019 and Kendrys Morales is still under contract for next year so Tellez’s best hope is to be a back-up 1B/DH for the Blue Jays. The good news for Tellez is that Smoak took a step backwards from his post-post-post-post hype breakout in 2017. He failed to reach 30 HRs in 2018 after flirting with 40 in 2017 and the .270 AVG we saw in 2017 fell back to .242 which falls closer in line with his.223 career AVG we saw before 2017.
Here’s another thing working in Tellez’s favor — Smoak turns 32 on December 5th and might be running out of time to prove he should be a part of the Blue Jays unreal future infield of Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Tellez on the other hand will only be turning 24 this spring training and seemed well on his way to a huge breakout after his impressive 2016 — only to tumble in 2017. However, looking at Tellez’s numbers before and after 2017 it is clear to see that it is the outlier. Here are Tellez’s batting averages in seasons he’s made over 400 plate appearances: 2015: .289; 2016: .297; 2017: .222; 2018: .270. One of these things is not like the other. The 23 HRs he hit in 2016 is a solid baseline for future power potential. I know it’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion in the ocean, but Tellez is a big boy who, if he starts putting that beefy frame into his solid contact skills, could have even further power growth.
- Peter Alonso, NYM: Alonso isn’t likely to go as unnoticed as Aguilar after the year he had in 2018. In 478 ABs between AA and AAA Alonso hit 36 HRs, 119 RBI with a .285 AVG. Yet despite Adrian Gonzalez getting released in June by the Amazins and using Wilmer Flores as their 1B for the majority of the second-half of the season — Alonso remained in the minors. Heading into 2019 the Mets currently have Dominic Smith lined up as their starting first basemen. Smith isn’t necessarily a bad player, but he doesn’t exactly have the power potential to be elite like Alonso could. If the Mets do what they should and start trading off anything that isn’t nailed down to rebuild for their future — Alonso could be up sooner than you think. There’s no one blocking him and he has nothing left to prove in the minors. Honestly, the best thing that could happen for Alonso’s value is if the Mets start him in the minors in 2019. Let Smith play himself out of a position and then Alonso can come up and (hopefully) start crushing while you draft him super late (if he gets drafted at all.) In dynasty and deep keeper leagues, Alonso is probably long gone, but add him to your watch list and keep an eye on the production the Mets are getting from first base.