Area of Need: Left Fielder & High OBP
Status: $1.5 million dollar team option with Brewers
Availability: Likely available via trade
The first thing you need to know about Norichika Aoki is that he hits A LOT of infield singles. In 2013 Aoki had 171 hits, 43 of which never left the infield. That is a staggering 25% of all hits that did not find a way to the outfield. For reference sake, Aoki’s fellow countryman Ichiro Suzuki – also well-known for his slash hitting infield hit approach – has just 23% of his career hits being of the infield variety. Aoki stepped into the batter’s box 674 times in 2013 and just about 50% (!) of those appearances ended with Aoki putting the ball in play in the infield. He is a slash hitter through and through but an effective one.
The second thing you should know about Aoki is that he is not up there simply hacking away and trying to make contact at any cost. His walk rate in two major league seasons is roughly league average (around 8%) and he holds a career batting average/on base split of .287/.355. So this is not a player with a single-minded offensive approach necessarily. He will try to beat the ball into the ground to get on base but he will also take a walk when given the opportunity.
Add those three elements together and what you have is a high-average hitter who knows what is his hitting strength is, walks at a league average rate, and can handle the bat in situational circumstances. That sounds like a really strong leadoff hitter or possibly a #2 hitter. Throw in a little pop (8 homeruns in 2013 and a career .112 ISO) as the icing on the cake. Aoki has a skillset that would fit in really nicely near the top of the Orioles lineup.
The question for Aoki is whether he is available. He has a $1.5 million option for 2013 and the Brewers have indicated they will exercise it. Why wouldn’t they? $1.5 million is a steal for Aoki’s production. He might not reach free agency, but the 31 year old is still likely available this off season. The Brewers have quite the outfield depth going into the offseason. Ryan Braun will be back from his suspension next season. Carlos Gomez had a breakthrough 2013 season. Rookie Khris Davis was called up during the season and immediately did his best Chris Davis impression by belting 11 homeruns in 153 plate appearances. Add on young outfielders Logan Shaefer and Caleb Kindi and the Brewers enter the offseason with outfield as a relative strength. According to MLB.com, that strength might lead the Brewers to entertaining offers for Aoki.The third thing you should know – which should be rather obvious from his slash hitting approach – is that he can handle the bat well. He has a 45% career productive out rate which is well above the major league average of 31% during that time period.
If they do make him available, the Orioles should be interested. The Brewers cannot expect a ton in return for a player who is on a one year contract and has a career .755 OPS. I’d imagine that Aoki presents an affordable addition to a lot of teams and it is not like the Brewers need to trade him, so it might take a little extra from any team that wishes to land him. I don’t think it is a stretch to believe that Zach Britton+ could be enough to strike a deal.
Outlook: Moderately Likely – I think Aoki fits the O’s needs so well and he is so very affordable that I would be surprised if they do that not at least perform their due diligence on him. If the Brewers are serious about moving him – and by all indications it is something they are at least going to explore – than something could get done depending on if the Orioles can offer whatever it is the Brewers want.