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Orbiting Cleveland: Can Aguilar help in 2014?

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When you’re a small market Major League Baseball team like the Cleveland Indians, the writing is on the wall.

Small market teams are forced to look at everything differently than your New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of the world. General managers are forced to be creative in order to compete in a system that is basically unfair.

Every dollar, regardless of how miniscule it may be, is counted.

Every free agent, regardless of how minor he may be, is evaluated.

Every move, regardless of how insignificant it may appear, is calculated.

This offseason is especially interesting for the Indians because the team finds itself in a different situation when compared to recent years. The Indians went 92-70 this past offseason and clinched a berth in the American League Wild Card playoffs.

When General Manager Chris Antonetti hired Terry Francona on as manager, the goal was simple: the Indians were to compete and hopefully become perennial playoff contenders.

The Indians did indeed compete this past season, but the team will now be faced with an even tougher task —staying a contender. This is an area where they have faltered in the past under the Mark Shapiro-Antonetti leadership.

In 2005, the Indians went 93-69, yet the team stumbled to a 78-84 record in 2006. Similarly, the Indians went 96-66 in 2007 yet finished 81-81 in 2008. Clearly, this team has struggled with maintaining momentum from year to year in recent memory.

To ensure that the team does remain competitive, Antonetti will surely be looking to upgrade the team through free agency this offseason. The IBI’s Jim Pete provided an excellent piece on Wednesday that looked at how much money the Indians could possibly have.

As the piece notes, Antonetti and company will have to be creative this offseason as the team just does not have a significant amount of resources to work with. This is further complicated by the fact that the Indians will have to do whatever they can to try to resign starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir.

Clearly, work needs to be done. The Indians do have the makings of possible perennial contender, but there are still a handful of missing pieces.

So, with that said, where does a team that’s high on aspirations but low on resources look for help?

That answer is simple — the farm.

We all know how top prospect Francisco Lindor has the ability to be a difference maker, and we’ve also already seen how Jose Ramirez‘s speed can impact the game. But beyond those two, is there any help out there?

Aside from their struggles with developing starting pitchers and outfielders, the one other very obvious area of weakness for the Indians has been power hitters.

In fact, the last homegrown player (signed, drafted and developed) for the Indians to hit 20 or more home runs wasJhonny Peralta, who hit 23 in 2008 while driving in 89 runs. Yes, it’s been that bad as of late.

Much has been made of the Indians’current level of talent (or lack of) in the upper levels, but it’s imperative that the team does receive some sort of upgrade from the farm in the coming season. Internal contributions, regardless of how small they appear, can have a huge effect on a team’s ability to compete.

We saw that firsthand this past season with the promotions of Yan Gomes and Danny Salazar. Last March, most Tribe fans probably thought it was a long shot that either of those players would be key contributors on the Major League level in 2013. But now think about this past season. Would the Indians have had any chance of competing had it not been for Salazar and Gomes?

So who has the ability to be 2014’s Salazar or Gomes?

The most logical candidates are probably Lindor or Ramirez, but there’s one more player that really should not be overlooked. The player being referenced is first baseman Jesus Aguilar.

In many ways, Aguilar has just what the Indians need. The big, right-handed slugger hits for power, seems to come up big in clutch situations and he plays a position where the team has long had difficulties developing talent — first base.

Now this is not to suggest that Aguilar is going to have the same kind of impact in 2014 that Gomes and Salazar had in 2013. However, it should be noted Aguilar could indeed have a positive impact this coming season, and it could be bigger than many expect.

The prospect hype for Aguilar initially developed following his 2011 season with Single-A Lake County and High-A Kinston. In 127 games and 514 plate appearances between the two affiliates, Aguilar combined to hit .284/.359/.506 with 23 home runs and 82 RBI. Finally, it appeared as if the Indians’ prayers for a right-handed power hitter had been answered, right? Well, not exactly.

Over the past two years, Aguilar has had a somewhat up-and-down path that has seen his prospect value fluctuate a bit.

His power numbers have been down and there are numerous questions surrounding his bat speed, defense, plate discipline and just general outlook as a future Major Leaguer.

Prior to the 2013 season, Baseball America had Aguilar ranked as the No. 9 player in the Indians’ organization while the IBI’s Tony Lastoria had him at No. 12.

Currently,’s Jonathan Mayo has Aguilar pegged as the No. 17 prospect in the Indians’ system, so it’s easy to see that Aguilar is not thought to be a major impact talent despite the fact that he possesses some very desirable traits.

Yet perhaps we’re being a bit too harsh on Aguilar.

One of the most frequent criticisms heard in regard to Aguilar is the fact that his power numbers have taken a dip since his 2011 breakout. That is true as Aguilar saw his ISO drop from .252 in 2011 to .177 in 2012. It was also all the way down to .152 this past season.

However, sometimes we need to look on the bright side, and the reality is that Aguilar made some tremendous strides, especially during this past season.

We all know that Aguilar’s 105 RBI this past season broke the Akron Aeros’ single-season record for RBI, but we’ve also been quick to point out that RBI are a flawed statistic when it comes to evaluating talents and projecting their skillsets to the Major Leagues. However, take a look at some of these other numbers from the 2013 season:

  • .227 — The number Aguilar hit when leading off in an inning.
  • .229 — The number Aguilar hit with the bases empty.
  • .317 — The number Aguilar hit with runners on.
  • .341 — The number Aguilar hit with runners on and two outs.
  • .339 — The number Aguilar hit with runners in scoring position.
  • .403 — The number Aguilar hit with runners in scoring position and two outs.
  • .462 — The number Aguilar hit with the bases loaded.

The overall line for Aguilar in 2013 was .275/.349/.427 with 16 home runs and 105 RBI, but it’s clear that he did his best work when it mattered most. Also, it’s important to note that his bat seemed to perform better as the situation became more dire.

The other thing to consider with Aguilar is that he was able to have this type of success this year after he altered his swing and stance slightly. Akron Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez had originally suggested the change to Aguilar in 2012 when they were both still at High-A Carolina, but Aguilar did not make the change until two months into the 2013 season. The results have been encouraging.

In June, Aguilar hit .295 followed by a .274 average in July and a .308 average in August. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the change though is it helped Aguilar made tremendous strides in regard to plate discipline.

Take a look at the table below:

Aguilar has made significant progress in terms of cutting down his strikeouts in the last three seasons. While he is never going to be perfect in this regard, he continues to get better, which is really all you can ask for.

Also, it should be noted how Aguilar was also able to greatly improve his on-base percentage after he followed Rodriguez’s suggestion and adjusted his swing. In April and May, he post OBPs of .327 and .320, respectively, yet he that number rose to .386, .364 and .352 in June, July and August, respectively.

The whole reasoning behind the swing adjustment, which was suggested so Aguilar would better recognize pitches, was that it would ultimately improve Aguilar’s chances of having Major League success. That remains to be seen if that is the case, but it’s hard to not be encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.

This still does not address the power outage that Aguilar has experienced in recent years, but it should also be noted that the majority of his work has been spent trying to improve as a hitter, not necessarily a power hitter. With his frame, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the power will return.

So moving forward, what does the future hold for Aguilar? Is this a player Indians fans can expect to see up in Cleveland sometime in 2014?

By all indications, it does appear as if he is on track to make his Major League debut this coming season. Provided he gets off to a good start at Triple-A Columbus, he could find himself in Cleveland sometime during the early months of the summer.

It’s also good sign that Aguilar has gotten off to a torrid start in the Venezuelan Winter League as he has gone 14-for-27 with two home runs in seven games so far with Leones del Caracas. It’s a very small sample size, but it would be hard to ask for a better start to the winter campaign for the big slugger.

Expectations for Aguilar are mixed moving forward, but remember, even if he becomes a first baseman that hits .250 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI, that’s a hugesuccess story for the Indians.

The reality is that Indians fans have to hold on to that hope because Aguilar is the best legitimate power hitting prospect in the upper levels of the team’s farm system.

Actually, he’s the only one.

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