Brewers By the (Jersey) Numbers: #7 Norichika Aoki
As of 3:10 P.M. (Central Daylight Time) today, those are the independent totals of those different time measurements which, when counted down to zero, take you to the scheduled time for the first pitch of the 2012 regular season for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Can you feel the anticipation? Has the excitement started to build for you yet? Have you come up with your sick day story for work (and have you made sure you haven’t used it before)?
Whatever this next week holds for you personally or professionally, the biggest thing is making sure that your plans for Opening Day itself are set.
When are you arriving to the stadium? Are you tailgating? Shuttling in from Bluemound or the surrounding area? Planning on going in for team introductions and to see Miss America Laura Kaeppeler throw out the first pitch?
Or if you live too far away or weren’t able to acquire tickets… Are you tailgating at home? Having friends over? Playing some bean bag toss, ladder golf, or other game on your lawn?
Regardless of what it is, having a plan in place helps to make the day a success.
A man who doesn’t yet know what his plan will be in seven days is one of new imports to the ball club this year, and the man who will wear number 7 on his jersey:
At times, when discussing additions to a sports team, people will call the new players “imports” as I did above. Well, in the case of the 5’9”, 180 pound, left-handed hitting Nori Aoki, “import” is doubly true.
After spending the first eight years and 985 games of his professional career playing in the Nippon Professional Baseball League as a member of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and posting a career batting average of .329 along with 84 home runs, 385 RBI and 164 stolen bases, Aoki was posted to the Major Leagues.
Without attempting to explain the entire system, the Milwaukee Brewers posted the winning bid of $2.5 million which is paid to the Swallows if Aoki and the Brewers could agree to a contract to bring the former NPB batting champion, seven-time All-Star, six-time Golden Glove Award winner, and seven-time member of the Best Nine to the United States and MLB.
That winning big was announced on December 19, 2011 and the Brewers had a finite window in which to negotiate with Aoki. If they could come to terms, Aoki would join the Brewers for Spring Training. If not, the Brewers would keep their bid amount and Aoki would continue his career in Japan.
Aoki seemed to be willing and wanting to come to MLB, but at what cost on a total contract value became the question. This is a guy with major accolades over in NPB and multiple turns on the international Japanese team, including both of the World Baseball Classics which have been held to this point.
With all of those accolades, it was kind of a shock both that the Brewers won the negotiating rights and for how much they spent to do it. This seemed to indicate that the total contract cost wouldn’t be prohibitive for Doug Melvin and Mark Attanasio’s budget.
Long story short (too late?), on January 17, 2012 the Brewers and Aoki agreed to a two-year contract with a team option for 2014, worth a total guaranteed amount of $2.5 million. It breaks down to $1 million in 2012, $1.25 million in 2013 and a buyout of the team option of $250k. On the high end, that figure can balloon all the way up to $8.1875 million if the club option is exercised and he hits all of the built-in incentives.
So why the seemingly low guaranteed dollar amount?
Part of it stems from Aoki’s age, but mostly from the fact that when NPB switched to a style of baseball which more closely mimicked an official MLB ball, Aoki had the worst numbers of his career. That was chalked up in the local media as him being stubborn about not being able to direct the ball wherever he wanted on the diamond quite as easily.
Aoki’s batting average in 2011 was a mere .292 with significantly decreased home runs, walks, and stolen bases over the previous five years.
What’s more, the Milwaukee Brewers don’t scout Japan with any kind of regularity and no scout in the organization had seen Aoki play in NPB in person. With the uncertainty regarding how his game would translate and the unfamiliarity between the parties, it seemed like a smallish contract was a wise move by the Brewers.
The terms were agreed to after Aoki worked out for the Brewers’ brass at their Maryvale facilities in Phoenix, Arizona and Aoki has been working toward a role on the team since. He has stated that the biggest change in Spring Training is that they worked a lot more often and longer sessions in Japan. He was having trouble getting acclimated to a lesser schedule.
That may have been a contributing factor in that Aoki began the Cactus League by going 5-for-30 (.167) with 1 triple, no home runs, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K, and 0 SB through March 15. Manager Ron Roenicke then pulled Aoki aside for a chat about not worrying about impressing the team and that they just need Aoki to play his game, relax and realize that he’s got a job here.
Since then, Aoki has been on a blistering pace of 12-for-21 (.571) with 2 triples, 1 home run, 6 RBI, 2 BB, 3 SB, 2 K.
The other concern with Aoki was whether his throwing arm would be strong enough to handle center field, let alone right field. While he hasn’t been great in that regard, his arm has seemed accurate enough if sometimes lacking velocity. In other words, he’ll usually need to hit the cutoff man, but at least he’s able to.
All in all, the future appears bright enough that the chance Milwaukee took in importing Aoki should provide some benefits to reap.
As for Aoki’s plans on April 6? We should know soon enough whether Corey Hart will be far enough along in his rehabilitation from meniscus surgery to start in right field on Opening Day. If Hart is a go, Aoki’s name will be announced near the beginning of player introductions (since they are done numerically if you’re not in the starting lineup).
If Hart can’t answer the bell, chances for Aoki look up. If a left-handed starter takes the mound for St. Louis, then it would behoove Roenicke to not start Nyjer Morgan if at all possible, though he still could. However if a right-handed pitcher starts Milwaukee will likely go with Aoki to start the ballgame over the right-handed hitting Carlos Gomez.
But whether he starts on April 6th or not, Aoki is here for at least this year and the next so he’ll get his share of starts at some point.
Bottom line for Aoki though seems to be making sure he stays within his game and what got him to the heights of NPB and subsequently across the Pacific. That will help win games.
And if he helps win games, the Brewers and their fans will be very happy indeed.