WASHINGTON – David Ortiz had just turned 27 when the Minnesota Twins released him in December 2002, thinking the first baseman/DH was starting to get expensive and wouldn’t amount to much.
By the time he retired in 2016, Big Papi had become a legendary figure as he went on to hit 483 of his 541 career home runs with the Boston Red Sox and helped them win three World Series.
Ortiz sees quite a few parallels between his trajectory and the journey taken by Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, which has culminated with his first All-Star Game invite. Aguilar was also let go in his mid-20s, though he was the one who asked the Cleveland Indians to release him in the winter of 2016, when he was 26.
The move paid off as the Venezuelan slugger has parlayed an extended chance to play into a breakout season. Aguilar entered the break as the National League leader in home runs (24), slugging (.621) and OPS (.995). He’s batting .298 with 70 RBI for a club challenging for a playoff spot.
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“I get excited watching him because he’s like a carbon copy of my career,’’ Ortiz said in Spanish. “Because early in my career I didn’t get many opportunities, but when I got them, I took advantage. And watching what he’s doing makes me proud.’’
Aguilar had shown signs of his potential in winter ball back home and through his minor-league career, leading the Class AAA International League with 30 home runs and 92 RBI in 2016. But his chances with the Indians were sporadic, partly because veteran Carlos Santana was ensconced at first base.
When Cleveland did call him up, Aguilar failed to shine, batting .172 with no home runs in 64 plate appearances in parts of three seasons. He showed a vulnerability to breaking pitches, and at 6-3 and 250 pounds he was not very mobile around first base.
By 2015, Aguilar had grown tired of waiting to get a legitimate shot with Cleveland, which signed him out of his native city of Maracay as a 17-year-old. He had become a father in 2014 and wanted to pursue better-paying opportunities in Japan, but was tethered to the Indians.
Aguilar was thrilled when the club, who signed DH Edwin Encarnacion as a free agent in early January 2016, put him on waivers at the end of that month after nine years in the organization. The Brewers claimed him a few days later.
“I said, ‘I’m out of here,’’’ Aguilar said of his reaction to parting ways with Cleveland. “I would talk to the front office and say, ‘I know you’re trying to put together your best team and I understand I might not be part of it, but let me go. I have a family.’ I felt like they wanted to keep me. It’s one of those business things. When I left, I was very happy, thinking about Japan, Korea, a lot of things.’’
He didn’t know stardom awaited him in Milwaukee, but others saw it coming. Indians infielder Jose Ramirez, a two-time All-Star who is tied for the major league lead with 29 homers, played with Aguilar in the minors and thought he had the tools to succeed at the highest level.
So did teammate Michael Brantley, a fellow All-Star who advised Aguilar to keep working because he had the talent to make it.
“I was down there rehabbing and I watched his at-bats, I watched how he swung,’’ Brantley said, “and I saw he could be a great big league hitter, which he turned out to be.’’
Even though Aguilar delivered 16 home runs, 52 RBI and an .837 OPS in 311 plate appearances for Milwaukee last season, his hold on a roster spot was tenuous going into spring training. The Brewers, who had fallen a win short of forcing a playoff for a wild-card spot in 2017, bolstered the lineup in the offseason by acquiring outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain.
With no DH in the National League and first base mostly occupied by Eric Thames – there was even talk of longtime slugger Ryan Braun spending some time there – it wasn’t clear where Aguilar would get his at-bats, if anywhere.
But Aguilar said manager Craig Counsell appeased him with assurances he would find a place for him. Injuries to Thames and Braun eventually opened up opportunities for Aguilar, who took over as the club’s regular first baseman in May and hasn’t stopped hitting.
Aguilar points to playing time and his burgeoning confidence and the biggest difference between now and the times when the Indians called him up.
“‘You’re going to play.’ That’s the most important thing they (the Brewers) told me,’’ said Aguilar, who was also participating in Monday night’s Home Run Derby. “I’m the same player, but with a lot more confidence. I don’t care who’s pitching. I’m not facing names. I’m facing a pitcher who has a high probability of getting me out, but I also have a high probably of executing right, so we’re going to battle.’’
And these days, many of those battles are going his way.