Last week, the Cleveland Indians finally gave up on their 2007 first round pick Beau Mills and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. Mills’ Major League prospects were as low as his rating on Tribe prospect lists, but still I had a hard time seeing how shipping him off to Cincinnati benefited either the Reds or the Indians.
It’s not clear where Mills fits into the Reds’ plans. Joey Votto is as good and durable of a first baseman as there is in baseball, so why bring in another one? Third base is a weak point for the Reds as Scott Rolen is 37 and hitting below the Mendoza line, but Mills has only played 36 games there in the minors. At most, Mills is organizational depth for them.
But the more important question is: Why did the Indians trade him? I was starting to like Mills again as a bench option or potential starter given the Indians’ struggles at first base after he finally started to play well last season, slashing .289/.347/.513 with 18 home runs between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. But 2012 has not been as friendly to Mills, as he hit only .197/.239/.394 at Columbus. I almost have to applaud GM Chris Antonetti for being able to deal a 25-year-old corner infielder with no Major League experience who’s hitting .197 in the minors anything.
But that doesn’t mean the deal makes sense. The fact that the Indians traded Mills for just cash shows that he was simply a player dump and was not in Cleveland’s future plans. Given the current state of the organization, that begs the question of what the team’s future plans. Matt LaPorta and Russ Canzler are the closest guys to a promotion if a first baseman is needed in the near future, but neither is seen as the first baseman of the future.
There’s one guy who may be able to step up: Chun-Hsiu Chen. He’s been a catcher most of his career, but in 2012 he was officially converted to a full-time first baseman. His year has been a perplexing one though—a .319/.396/.426 slashline in Double-A is certainly nice, but that’s a low slugging percentage for a first baseman. He has only two home runs thus far after mashing 16 last year at the same level. So what gives?
His power outage might be due to a new approach to the plate. Chen has never been praised in any fashion for his plate discipline (or lack thereof), but his .396 OBP this year is impressive. Even better is that he has 34 walks so far this year, after drawing only 43 free passes in all of 2011. Strikeouts have always been his weakness, and he’s shown some improvement in that respect: he’s whiffing in 22 percent of plate appearances compared to 26 percent in 2011. He could still stand to make more contact, but the increase in walks certainly makes it more bearable.
And it’s not as though Chen’s power has completely fallen off the table, either. He’s ripped 21 doubles in 2012 after hitting only 24 in all of 2011. The home runs should return, Chen’s numbers show that he’s working on becoming a more mature ballplayer and that should earn him Mills’ old spot at Triple-A Columbus sooner rather than later.
But below Chen might be the real reason Mills was dealt: High-A Carolina first baseman Jesus Aguilar. I’ve written in the past about how he might be the first baseman of the future, and Major League Baseball agrees as he’ll accompany top prospect Francisco Lindor to the Futures Game over the All-Star Break.
Aguilar’s breakout 2011 has been widely analyzed by prospect mavens, and his strong Arizona Fall League showing and subsequent 2012 campaign (.304/.390/.487) may suggest that he has truly arrived. He certainly has played well enough to warrant a promotion, but there just hasn’t been the room. Chen is still learning first base at Akron, and Aguilar needs a lot of work on his defense too. Since both need to play first every day, having them on the same roster wouldn’t make sense.
That means that moving Mills is the first move in promoting these two. At some point by the start of the 2013 season, one of LaPorta or Canzler will move up to Cleveland and play every day; whichever of the two is left behind in Columbus will presumably split time at left field and DH. Chen should get the promotion and play first base every day for the Clippers, and will probably play at least a full year there. That will open up Akron’s first base job for Aguilar, who might not need as much time at that level.
In a vacuum trading Mills didn’t make any sense—he has a chance to be a serviceable first baseman, which would mean a lot to an organization without a clear heir apparent at first for the future. But by opening up opportunities for Chen and Aguilar, dealing Mills could be one of the most important small moves Antonetti has made in his short tenure as GM.