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Norichika Aoki: NL Outfielder?

A little personal exuberance aside, it isn’t likely that Japan’s newest (possible) position player import is an impact fantasy bat this year. His skill set, situation, and even posting fee don’t suggest a breakout is on the way. We can dream — but the realities of the situation are likely to wake us up.

Three years ago, work in my previous incarnation as an educational publisher had me in Japan regularly. The Yakult Swallows played in Tokyo and tickets were much easier to get than Yomiuri Giants tickets, so I was a default fan of the Swallows, as bad as that sounds, and their center fielder Norichika Aoki.

After a few games, I’d gotten over some of the differences. Sure, my draft beer came from a huge backpack on a tiny girl. And yeah, I was noshing on some edamame instead of peanuts. Cheerleaders? Singalongs? Fine. Maybe I hadn’t completely gotten over the choreographed umbrella dance — that was a sight to see — but I was getting more used to it.

No matter what, I was still enjoying the star center fielder for Tokyo’s second team. Aoki wasn’t stealing as many bases as he had in his 26-year-old season the year before (31). But that was because he’d been moved to the three-hole for both the Japanese World Baseball Classic team as well as his home team. Both teams needed his developing power to drive runs — unfortunately, a little drop in power in 2009 had his batting average closer to .300 than .350 for the first time in his career.

That season was pretty much the worst of his career to that point, and yet it was hard not to like him. He still had a .303/.400/.444 line that was sweet for a strong defensive center fielder. As it did every year, his slightly strange crouched stance with the long step was fun to watch. Even with the drop in power, he packed some punch. He played with energy and confidence, and the fans had two prepared songs for him.

Aoki’s been itching to come to America ever since his sophomore season in 2006, when he first dreamed about it in public. Unfortunately for him, the Swallows waited until one year before he would hit free agency to finally post him. In a doubly unfortunate feat of timing, Japan just switched to a smaller ball last year and offensive numbers took a dive across the board — Aoki slugged .360, a far cry from that 2009 season that had been his career-worst. He didn’t hit .300 for the first time in his career, and he failed to reach double digits in steals for the first time as well.

So instead of a large posting and a starting spot waiting for him, Aoki will have to fight his way onto the Brewers should he sign with them, and the Swallows will only receive $2.5 million for his rights. He’s a lefty center fielder, and Nyjer Morgan played that role to a .304/.357/.421 tune last year (with good defense). Because backup Carlos Gomez is right-handed and owns a plus-plus glove of his own, the ‘defensive backup outfielder’ position is taken as well.

There is a crack of light for Aoki, created by Ryan Braun‘s positive test. The team needs a left fielder for the first 50 games. Whether he’d beat out Caleb Gindl or Logan Schafer for that playing time will work itself out later — but Aoki does have a better glove than Gindl and probably more of a bat than Schafer. And Aoki probably does own more upside than the (non-Prince Fielder) flotsam and jetsam remaining in free agency. His lower posting fee and .292/.358/.360 2011 numbers both conspire to make him cheaper, so the Brewers could afford him. The team has apparently already performed the physical on him so that they can sign him quickly as the deadline approaches, too.

In a way, this is probably the best way for Aoki to come over. Had he come in his hey-day, we may have had unreasonable expectations for the Japanese star. We might have called for Ichiro-like batting averages, with more power and a little less speed, had he come over even just last year, after his .358/.435/.509 2010 season in which he hit 14 home runs and stole 19 bases.

Now we know what to expect — excellent defense and plate discipline, and strong hit tool. The power probably won’t be there, and he may not steal a ton of bases, but he is fast. 22.5% of his hits in 2011 were infield hits — which could be seen as a positive or a negative. But speed, glove and patience will be in tow.

With Gomez and Morgan best used in tandem, and Braun out for 50 games, he has that window to show a passable batting average and OBP and a great glove. Once that window is closed, who knows what the team will end up doing. That risk alone makes Aoki a deep-league pickup at best, and we can thank his negatives for waking us from our dream and saving us from taking such a longer-shot pick in mixed leagues. But in ottoneu, where deep benches reward the ability to platoon, and $1 lottery tickets can turn into valuable (if merely passable) fantasy fifth outfielders, he’s surely worth a look.