Fate has not been kind to Aaron Westlake throughout his professional career. After a big senior season at the baseball factory known as Vanderbilt University, Westlake was drafted by the Tigers in 2011. This proved to be the worst possible fit for a powerful first baseman with limited footspeed, as the Tigers already had Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez entrenched on their big league roster for the foreseeable future. Even Nick Castellanos was already being hyped as the third baseman of the future. The best Westlake could have hoped for was to hit enough to force a trade to a team who needed his bat more than the Tigers did.
That hasn't happened. Westlake has struggled to adjust to professional pitching, and is running out of chances to get noticed by another club. Even this spring, with Cabrera and Martinez expected to miss large chunks of spring training, Westlake only has a slim chance of making the Opening Day roster. Westlake will get some publicity and plenty of playing time, but will likely spend all of the 2015 season in the Tigers' minor league system.
Where did he come from?
The Tigers selected Westlake out of Vanderbilt in the third round of the 2011 draft. A very productive hitter in college, Westlake got off to a decent start in pro ball. He hit ..264/.328/.377 in 117 plate appearances with the Connecticut Tigers in 2011, and was listed by multiple writers -- John Sickels of Minor League Ball, Marc Hulet of Fangraphs, and others -- as among the top 10 prospect in the organization. Splitting time between first base and the DH spot, Westlake hit .249 with a .320 on-base percentage at Single-A West Michigan in 2012. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League where he flopped against advanced competition, hitting just .194/.216/.347 in 74 plate appearances.
All but written off by scouts at that point, Westlake bounced back with a decent season in 2013. He hit .291/.344/.447 with 39 extra base hits in 390 plate appearances with Advanced-A Lakeland. However, at 24 years old, Westlake was much older than most of his competition. The 2014 season was another disappointing one for the former Commodore; he hit just .236 with a .293 on-base percentage at Double-A Erie.
While drafting Westlake wasn't a splashy pick, the Tigers were praised for their selection on draft day. Westlake had a monster senior season at Vanderbilt, hitting .344/.463/.640 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 250 at-bats. Many believed that Westlake would move quickly through the Tigers' farm system, resulting in either a position change -- our own David Tokarz was thinking he could move to the outfield -- or a trade. John Sickels continued to praise Westlake prior to the 2012 season, naming him the #9 prospect in the Tigers system. However, Sickels was wary of the slow progress at Westlake's advanced age, a worry that has come to fruition over the past few seasons.
Flaws in Westlake's swing were quickly exposed once he got to the professional ranks, and he has not shown very much of the explosive raw power he displayed at Vanderbilt. Westlake has a career .252 average in the minor leagues with a .151 ISO. These figures are passable for a middle infielder or catcher, but nowhere near acceptable for a bat-first corner infielder. Westlake started to tap into some of his power in 2014, hitting 15 of his career 38 home runs at Double-A Erie. However, a 26.2 percent strikeout rate was the result of his long swing and below average contact skills.
Listed at six feet, four inches tall and 235 pounds, Westlake is not a very good runner. Defensively, he looks to be an average first baseman, but nowhere close to the caliber of defender Jordan Lennerton is.
What should we expect from him?
Westlake's chances at making an MLB roster might be on their last legs, especially in the Tigers' organization. There was a moment when he had a slim chance at making the Opening Day roster, but Victor Martinez's optimistic prognosis has all but ended that discussion. Westlake and Lennerton should get plenty of playing time during Grapefruit League action, but only because the Tigers will be looking to limit Miguel Cabrera's innings at first base.