Royals deal from strength to add Norichika Aoki to outfield
The Royals announced Thursday morning that they have acquired outfielder Norichika Aoki from the Brewers for lefthanded reliever Will Smith. Aoki will be 32 years old in January and has hit .287/.355/.399 with 50 stolen bases in two seasons since leaving his native Japan to sign with Milwaukee. He projects to be a regular part of Kansas City’s outfield alignment, most likely in rightfield, his primary position since coming to the majors.
This is a nice move for K.C., which has been going hard after free agent rightfielder, and former Royal, Carlos Beltran (and will continue to do so) but will face ample competition for his services. Aoki is not an impact bat on the level of Beltran, but he is a well-rounded everyday player who adds versatility and depth to Kansas City’s outfield and can be a valuable contributor at the top of the order.
Defensively, Aoki is above-average in rightfield and he was the starting centerfielder for the Yakult Swallows as recently as 2011. Having spotted there for the Brewers (14 starts in two seasons), he could help fill that position for K.C. in the event of a Beltran signing or an injury to incumbent centerfielder Lorenzo Cain. A lefthanded hitter, Aoki is also a nice compliment to the righthanded Cain and incumbent rightfielder Justin Maxwell, another injury-prone righty who hit a solid .268/.351/.505 after being acquired from the Astros at the trading deadline.
Aoki is no platoon player, however. In 2013, he hit .339/.381/.400 against lefthanded pitching, a performance which eases concerns about a potential Royals lineup that could feature lefties Aoki, Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer in the top three spots. Aoki, who led off 133 games for Milwaukee this past season, is a good fit for that spot in Kansas City, as well. Among the Royals’ projected nine starters, only Billy Butler (who could hit third ahead of Hosmer to break up those lefties) had a higher on-base percentage in 2013 than Aoki’s .356, which was in turn an almost exact match for his .355 in 2012.
Aoki did see his stolen base rate drop from 79 percent in 2012 to 63 percent this past season, meaning his 20 steals were actually a detriment because of the 12 times he was caught. He also saw his power drop significantly in 2013, as he had 21 more hits than the year before (the result of increased playing time) but 20 fewer extra-base hits, resulting in a 60-point drop in his isolated power down to a weak .084.
Those are both concerns for a player moving into his mid-30s, but they may have been partially fluky. He still makes solid contributions defensively, has an ability to get on-base at the top of the order and boasts a low strikeout rate, having whiffed just 95 times in two years while drawing 96 unintentional walks. The result is that he has remained a three-win player per Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement. After triggering several playing-time-based bonuses in his contract, Aoki will make just under $2 million in 2014, the final year of his deal. That’s a fair price to pay for a three-win player, particularly for a team aspiring to contend after looming on the edge of the wild card race this past season.
As for the cost paid in the trade, the Royals dealt from strength in sending the 24-year-old Smith, a converted starter, to Milwaukee. Kansas City’s homegrown bullpen is one of the best and deepest in the majors, with closer Greg Holland backed up by righties Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow and Louis Coleman and lefty Tim Collins. Smith throws in the low 90s, working primarily with a sinker/slider combo, though as a former starter he can also mix in a curve and changeup.
A control artist as a starter, he saw his strikeout rate jump with the move to the ‘pen. He also posted outstanding peripherals (including 11.6 K/9 for K.C.) while dominating lefties in a 2013 season split between the two roles as well as Triple-A and the majors. He should be a key part of a rebuilt bullpen in Milwaukee behind closer Jim Henderson (though he is only the first brick laid in that process), but for the Royals he was an easy price to pay for a necessary upgrade in the outfield.