Eric has those four years of college and that good experience behind him, so he could be in a position to move up quickly. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing. —Bill Richardson, Orem Owlz manager
OREM — Cary, Ill., just outside of Chicago, is certainly not the farthest place from which an Orem Owlz rookie has ever come. Still, the Utah mountains can be pretty unfamiliar territory to a Midwesterner.
For Eric Aguilera, the Los Angeles Angels' 34th round draft pick in the 2013 First Year Player Draft, the journey into professional baseball has been much more than just a change in location and scenery. Aguilera, currently starting at first base for the Owlz, is already showing his prowess as an experienced hitter and versatile defender.
Drafted as an outfielder, the position in which he excelled at Illinois State University, the the 23-year-old was moved to the infield to give manager Bill Richardson options in the batting order is now sitting atop several offensive categories for the young Owlz.
Not bad for a kid who didn't even arrive in Utah with a first baseman's glove in his bag.
"I had to borrow one at first," he said with a laugh. "It’s taking me a little bit to learn over there, but I'm excited to be learning a new position. Just trying to take it all in really. Trying to pick up as much as I can from some of the other guys, you know just so I’m a solid option over there."
So far the left-hander has been a solid option for Orem, especially at the plate. Aguilera's two home runs are the most on his team, and his nine RBIs lead the Pioneer League.
Following a bases-loaded, 2-out strikeout to end Sunday night's game, Aguilera knocked in three runs, leading the team to victory Monday night. At times the designated hitter, Aguilera carried a .333 batting average into Tuesday night's game against the Grand Junction Rockies.
Richardson referred to his new first baseman as a bit of a surprise.
"Eric has really impressed me," said the Owls first-year skipper. "To make that last out the night before then to come back last night with the game winner — and really just a tremendous game, that really shows me something."
Lightly recruited out of Cary-Grove High School, Aguilera chose to attend Heartland Community College in nearby Normal, Ill. After two solid years of junior college baseball there, he went on to sign with Illinois State.
"That's when I started to realize that I could actually get drafted," said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Redbird. "It was after my freshman year when I started getting some attention."
When asked if he always harbored the dream of someday playing professional baseball, Aguilera answered quickly, "Absolutely. Everybody who plays the game wants that, I think otherwise they wouldn't be out here every day."
Aguilera's numbers in college were impressive. His senior season in 2013, he started every game in right field. He led his team with a .346 batting average and was tied for team lead with seven home runs. He was also tops in hits with 80, RBIs with 58 and total bases with 121. His .524 slugging percentage as a senior earned him his second consecutive All-Missouri Valley Conference First Team selection.
Now Aguilera faces a whole new set of challenges. One of them is not adapting to his new surroundings, however.
"Utah is beautiful," he said, looking beyond the outfield wall at Brent Brown Ballpark. "(Orem) is a nice little town. It's certainly a lot different from the heartland full of cornfields I'm used to. I’d definitely like to get up and see the mountains sometime while I’m here."
Getting called by the Angels with the 1,027th overall pick in the draft was a shock to Aguilera. "I talked to our local scout a few times. Just small talk really — hanging around the field," he said. "My coaches told me there was interest from teams, but they never mentioned the Angels before the draft though, so it was a little shocking. I'm really happy with how it worked out and to get the opportunity where I’m at."
Richardson says Aguilera has the stuff that can get him promoted in a hurry.
"Eric has those four years of college and that good experience behind him," Richardson said, "so he could be in a position to move up quickly. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing."
Kenny Bristow is the staff sports writer for the Wasatch Wave and contributes to the Deseret News high school coverage for the Wasatch region. Email: email@example.com.