As the Milwaukee Brewers’ 2012 season swirls down the toilet with their inability to sustain even a modestly favorable measure of wins to losses, one player who came to the team in the offseason has really played well and has earned his place on next year’s team. Norichika Aoki, 30, has really impressed me so far. He puts the bat on the ball, runs well, fields his positions, and seems to have what they call a high ‘baseball IQ’. Having watched other Japanese stars stumble in the big leagues over the last several years, notably Tsuyoshi Nishioka with the Minnesota Twins, I’ve been blown away by Aoki’s consistent excellence in 2012. Like many Brewers fans, I was optimistic but guarded about how Aoki would adjust not just to the American game but to this country. The Twins’ Nishioka has provided a cautionary tale about what can happen when major league clubs invest a lot of money in Japanese players following the analysis of scouting and statistics, along with the hope that it will translate in North America.
Of course, there have been phenomenal successes of Japanese players in MLB since Masanori Murakami became the first Japan-born player way back in 1964: Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito, and, to an extent, Daisuke Matsuzaka, among others. Along with those big names, however, are some guys who have slipped through the cracks. Kei Igawa, Kazuo Matsui and Kosuke Fukudome are examples of players who haven’t quite lived up to expectations that they would perform well at the major league level. Norichika Aoki’s 2012 season is an extremely small sample size, but it looks like he has staying power. He’s currently batting .300 with four homers, 33 runs scored and 18 RBI, playing mostly right field now that Corey Hart is at first base. He’s prevailed in the table-setter role in the 1 or 2-spot in the batting lineup, doing a great job of getting on base in front of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, and also doing more subtle things like making contact in key at-bats, bunting well, and picking up quickly on how the Brewers do things.
Part of the problem seen with Nishioka of the Twins is the difficulty some Japanese ballplayers have had adjusting to the speed and idiosyncrasies of the American game. Nishioka broke his leg within his first couple weeks playing for the Twins when he got mixed up in a play at second base that unfolded a bit more ferociously than he was accustomed. The Yankees’ Nick Swisher slid hard into second and took him out. I think it’s particularly hard for Japanese players to adjust to playing the infield in MLB. That’s why Aoki seems well suited to remain a productive player for the Brewers. He doesn’t have to deal with the differences in how things happen in the infield and with base runners.
Instead, Aoki can play mostly right field, shift around the outfield a bit as a substitute when someone needs a day off, and focus mostly on his hitting and base-running. He can also be used as an effective bench bat or pinch runner, or defensive replacement; he’s versatile. With Braun and Hart entrenched at the corners, it was unclear early on if Aoki could find regular outfield duty. But the injury to first baseman Mat Gamel opened up a scenario where Aoki could become the regular right fielder while Hart moved to first base. That has really allowed him to relax, get consistent at-bats, and show his skills. If Aoki can continue to play well through the end of the season, the question becomes what to do with Hart or Gamel next year. Hart, part of the old core, is a powerful but streaky hitter who apparently can play a pretty good first base. Yet Hart is somewhat balky as an outfielder. But what about Gamel? There would be nowhere to put him next year if Hart stays at first. It’s a head-scratcher of a situation that could be eased in a variety of ways, but the most obviously glaring thing is that Hart is making a lot of money while the other two are on moderate salary scales.
There’s certainly risk involved with Japanese players. That goes for any player to whom a team extends a contract, though. The main thing is the amount of money put out there for them, including the ‘posting fee’, which goes to the Japanese team’s coffers and isn’t included in a player’s American contract. The Boston Red Sox paid over $50 million just for the opportunity to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka. Matsuzaka has been a pretty good pitcher, but he has dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness that call into question the value received by the Red Sox for all that money. The latest mega-contract given to a Japanese star was the $60 million, six-year contract handed to Yu Darvish to pitch for the Texas Rangers. Darvish, named to the AL All-Star team, has pitched well in 2012, to a 3.59 ERA with 10 wins in 16 starts. But the Rangers had to pay the $60 million on top of their bid of over $50 million on a posting fee. In addition, there are some reports that the Rangers were over $30 million heavier on their bid than any other team.
The massive posting fees and contracts given to Matsuzaka and Darvish represent an egregious amount of money coming from two well-heeled teams for starting pitchers. Those contracts, despite the performance of the players signed to them, make Minnesota’s $9 million, three-year contract (following a $5 million posting fee) for Tsuyoshi Nishioka appear modest. What looks even better than that is the $2.5 million posting fee the Brewers paid to sign Aoki to a reasonable contract that will pay him about 2.5 million in the first two years and could be worth more depending on his performance and option year. If Hart gets moved (and you’d think his overall value is up since he’s shown the ability to play first base), maybe Gamel goes back to first next year and Aoki stays in right. That leaves a full outfield with nowhere to go for prospects Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl, unless Morgan or Gomez were to be sent packing. Personally, I’d like to see Gomez stay and Morgan go. I’d like to see Schafer and Gindl get a shot to make an impact or an impression sometime this year. And I’d love to see Norichika Aoki continue to have good at-bats and prove he should be the starting right fielder for the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers.