For the Milwaukee Brewers and Japanese star Norichika Aoki, it’s all over but the signing.
This weekend in Maryvale Park Doug Melvin, Ron Roenicke, and a few select coaches watched a one-hour workout and went over a physical with the three time batting champion of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows to see if he would be a good fit for the team going into 2012 and beyond.
So far, there is nothing coming out of either camp as to whether or not a decision is likely to be announced before the January 17th deadline. If the two cannot agree to conditions, Aoki returns to the Land of the Rising Sun and we get our $2.5 Million posting fee back. To me, it seems like a lot of money for Milwaukee to put up – and a lot of wasted frequent flier miles for Aoki – if it’s going to be one hour of workout time and then back to the Nippon Professional League. So that had me thinking – is Aoki a good fit for the Brewers?
Usually, in situations like this, I like to make a pros and cons list just to see how everything shakes out. Also, considering how there is literally nothing else to talk about in Brewers news right now, we might as well ride this thing out and squeeze some final column inches out of it.
He’s Good Insurance – Look, Braun is probably going to be suspended. Say what you want, but right now we need to face facts and it is very much a possibility that the Hebrew Hammer will be riding pine for 50 games. You cannot replace that kind of production all at once, but adding a piece like Aoki is a great start and an excellent stop-gap while we wait out Braun’s sentence (assuming, of course).
He’s got the goods – Numbers never lie, or at least if you think numbers never lie then you certainly need to look no further than this argument to decide if Aoki can don the Blue and Gold. In just six seasons of professional baseball in Japan, Aoki has a .329 batting average and a slugging percentage well north of .400. He’s able to hit for power every bit as well as he is able to hit for power. His numbers will undoubtedly not be this stellar in the Major Leagues (we’ll get to that in a minute) but they can still transfer to high-level stats here in Milwaukee and the States.
He’s in his peak – In baseball, the late 20’s and early to mid 30’s are generally considered the prime performance brackets for a Major League player. This is when a ballplayer should settle into their groove and starting cranking out consistently high numbers if you want to consider them an elite player. Aoki turns 30 this year, and he’s already proven to be a consistent player on both offense and defense in the highly competitive Central League in the NPBL. If we are to believe that, on average, his production should still trend gradually upwards for the next few years, then you have to be excited about having a guy like this on your team.
He’s a team player – This comes as much from playing in Japan as it does anything else. In Japan, the culture and the dynamics of the game dictate that every player work as hard as they can for the overall team goal. This doesn’t sound shocking, I know, but it is quite different from the American game. In Japan, games are allowed to end in a tie (in order to get everybody home before the last trains leave – seriously) so therefore playing for one run and sacrificing yourself is a highly encouraged and practiced skill. It’s not uncommon to see a power hitter asked to drag out a bunt on a regular basis. Someone like Aoki is well-versed in playing for the little things in the game that can pay off later. I don’t think I need to explain what an advantage an attitude like that can have in the right environment.
He plays in Japan – As much as that can benefit him from a psychological aspect, the simple truth is that Japanese Baseball simply isn’t the same as American baseball. Japanese baseballs and bats are smaller by a small but hardly negligible degree. This means a few things: mainly, Americans pitchers can get a better grip and have more control over their pitches, whether they be breaking balls or fastballs. This means he will need to adjust to American pitching rather quickly if he wants to find success. The heavier and larger bats will have an effect on his swing mechanics and bat speed coming into the Majors, and that is something to think about. It shouldn’t hurt a man of his talents at all, but it has to be a concern when you’re going over his abilities. Also, you have to consider the dimensions of American parks vs. Japanese Parks. Most of the parks in the Central League in the NPBL are very similar to parks you’d find in the States. On average, however, Japanese parks tend to be smaller by a few feet down the lines and a few feet off of center. Again, it’s not a huge deal but it will effect his power numbers somewhat.
His numbers are down – I know, about 750 words ago I was gushing over his stats. But his 2011 stats did take a big nosedive off of an astounding 2010 season. What does it mean? Unless you can read Kanji it’s going to be an awful time trying to find the reasons for it. His strikeouts didn’t increase but almost every other measurable statistic went down. Without knowing any specific causes for these downwards ticks in his numbers, it’s hard to make an argument either way but you have to be nervous when you see an anomaly of that magnitude.
He could be pricey – Many Japanese players who come over to the Majors want to be secure in their decision. After all, it’s hard to transition to life in America when you have a one-year deal looming over your head. With that being said, it is likely that Aoki would be looking for a minimum of three years on his contract should he sign with Milwaukee. We have some cash lying around, but it’s still going to be tough to try to pay off a guy we barely scouted for more than a season based an hour of workout time and a handful of video tapes. I know it’s the nature of the game, but that could be a very expensive experiment without a big payoff.
Where would he play? – Aoki is a left-fielder by nature, and it would net some insurance against Braun’s absence should he be placed on double-secret probation. But what if he isn’t? We don’t know anything about Braun’s appeal process as of right now, and if his side of the story holds up we will have nowhere in particular to play our new foreign star. He has experience in center field but I think it’s safe to assume that two players is enough in one position – at least at the prices we have now. One could assume we would shuffle Gomez to Right and have Aoki play regularly in Center to Braun’s left. Everything is up in the air right now and it’s not a shoo-in that we even have a space for him in the field.
After mulling everything over, it appears that most of the arguments in the cons column are not overly concerning to the point that I would be upset with signing Norichika Aoki to the Milwaukee Brewers. Yes, his numbers fell off a bit – but does it seem more plausible that he had an off year, or that the previous five seasons were consecutive flukes? We don’t know what he would be looking for price-wise, and as I mentioned the different aspects of the game in Japan vs. the US are small enough not to worry about – especially when you consider that numerous Japanese players make the switch with little to no problems.