Norichika Aoki Rumors

NL Central Notes: Zimmermann, Cards, Miller

A rumored deal of Jordan Zimmermann to the Cubs is reportedly not happening, which makes sense to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal since such a trade wouldn’t really be a fit for either the Cubs or the Nationals.  The Cubs are likely to address their pitching need by either signing a top free agent arm or trading one of their infield prospects for a controllable younger arm.  Dealing for Zimmermann would the Cubs to both give up prospects and spend big, Rosenthal notes, since Chicago would obviously want to sign the righty to a long-term extension.

Here’s some more from around the NL Central…

  • The Cardinals are wary of making commitments that will result in future roadblocks to upcoming younger players, Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.  GM John Mozeliak notes that the team feels it could be “exposed” at first base or the corner outfield if it does not get the performances it hopes for, and is interested in left-handed relief help and a utility infielder.
  • In fact, the Cardinals met with representatives for Andrew Miller on Tuesday, Goold tweets. The meeting was characterized as exploratory in nature, though the fit is obvious.
  • Both the Cardinals and Reds had interest in Michael Cuddyer before he signed with the Mets, Goold reports in a separate piece.
  • Though the Reds are interested in Nori Aoki and Michael Morse, that is not an exclusive list, GM Walt Jocketty tells C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer (Twitter link). The club’s top priority is adding offense, and it is considering trade scenarios in addition to looking at the free agent market.

Nori Aoki Seeking Three-Year Deal

Free agent outfielder Nori Aoki is looking for a three-year deal, reports Jon Heyman of CBS Sports (Twitter link). He’s currently drawing interest from both the Reds and the Royals, although Kansas City at the moment is said to be more interested in Torii Hunter, Heyman adds.

Aoki batted .285/.349/.360 in his lone season with the Royals and played a key role from a defensive standpoint as the team made its way to the World Series. However, he’s seen a precipitous drop in his power since coming to the Majors. After hitting 10 homers as a rookie with the Brewers in 2012, he hit eight in 2013 and just one in 2014. His isolated power dropped from .144 in 2012 to .084 in 2013 and .075 in 2014, although a portion of the most recent dip could at least be attributed to moving to the spacious Kauffman Stadium.

The Reds are in need of a left fielder and are said to also be targeting Mike Morse, while Kansas City has been linked to a reunion with Aoki on more than one occasion. However, there wouldn’t be room for both Hunter and Aoki in K.C., so it seems that for the time being, Aoki is on the back burner as GM Dayton Moore looks to add some punch to his lineup in the form of the veteran Hunter.

MLBTR’s Charlie Wilmoth recently profiled the 32-year-old Aoki and suggested that he could land something in the range of two-year, $16MM contract.


Free Agent Profile: Nori Aoki

Nori Aoki‘s one season with the Royals was the franchise’s best in recent history, and he was one of eight players who formed a suffocating defense that was crucial to the team’s run to the playoffs. Now, though, the CAA client is a free agent, and it’s unclear what the market might hold for a 32-year-old corner outfielder with minimal power.

Pros/Strengths

Aoki’s approach at the plate has resulted in excellent and consistent batting averages and OBPs. He’s batted .288, .286 and .285 in his three seasons in the big leagues, with OBPs of .355, .356 and .349. The 2014 AL league average OBP was .316, so Aoki was way ahead of the pack in that regard, and that was no accident — Aoki walks about as often as he strikes out, with 141 career strikeouts and 144 career walks. He hits both righties and lefties well (he batted .363/.428/.435 against lefties this season, which is noteworthy even though it’s unsustainable) and does not need to be platooned.

USATSI_8128198_154513410_lowresLike most Royals, Aoki is above average defensively for his position — he posted a 5.9 UZR in 2014 and is 8.2 runs above average in his three-year big league career. His speed hasn’t translated to great value on the bases, but it’s served him well defensively. Aoki has also been very durable, with a three-week stint on the disabled list with a groin strain in 2014 as the only significant absence since he arrived in the US.

Aoki has been at least a two-win player in two of his three seasons in the league, and if he can maintain his high on-base percentage, his secondary skills are good enough to hit that threshold. He also did not receive a qualifying offer, so the team that signs him won’t have to give up a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

In 2012, his first season in the US, Aoki hit ten home runs and 51 overall extra-base hits, good power numbers for a table-setter. In the last two years, however, that power has vanished — Aoki had eight homers and 31 extra-base hits in 2013, and just one homer and 29 extra-base hits in 2014.

Aoki’s fly ball percentage has decreased from 27.7% in 2012 to 17.1% in 2014, and the average distance of those fly balls has decreased from about 280 feet in 2012 to 249 feet in 2014, ahead of only Donovan Solano, Elvis Andrus and Emilio Bonifacio on Baseball Heat Maps’ Flyball Leaderboard. Meanwhile, Aoki this year hit ground balls at a 61.9% rate this season, the second highest percentage among qualified hitters throughout MLB, behind Ben Revere and just ahead of an ancient Derek Jeter. In other words, unless there’s something about Aoki that hasn’t been revealed to us, his loss of power doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

A corner outfielder doesn’t need great power to be productive, but Aoki would lose value quickly if any of his other skills were to slip. His lack of power also limits his upside. Aoki’s Isolated Power last year was .075. Of the 13 qualified batters last season with Isolated Power numbers of below .090, only two — Revere and Dee Gordon — produced above average offensive value overall, according to Fangraphs.

Personal

Aoki, of course, starred for eight years with the Yakult Swallows in Japan before arriving in the United States. He was born in Hyuga, a small coastal city in Southern Japan, and his parents still reside there. Aoki and his wife, Sachi, have two young children.

Aoki’s interpreter, Kosuke Inaji, has worked with him in both Milwaukee and Kansas City and is “very much an extension of him,” Vahe Gregorian of the Kansas City Star writes. “He’s like our fifth outfielder,” Carlos Gomez said of Inaji when he and Aoki were with the Brewers.

Aoki wins plenty of praise as a teammate. “He had a great personality,” says former manager Ron Roenicke. “He fit in really well with the guys. We had fun with him. But he worked as hard as you could work. You can’t put more effort into the job than he did.”

Market

There aren’t many good position players available this offseason, but there are a fair number of outfielders, including Melky Cabrera, Yasmany Tomas, Colby Rasmus, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios and Torii Hunter. It’s possible Cabrera, in particular, might have to sign before the rest of the market develops. The Royals appear likely to have interest in retaining Aoki, and he could also fit in with the Reds, Twins, Mets, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Orioles, Rangers, Giants or Tigers. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe noted this week that the White Sox could be a possibility as well.

Aoki still profiles as a starter, but it’s unclear what his next team might be getting. His on-base ability is valuable, but the disappearance of his power is worrisome.

Expected Contract

A legitimate on-base threat is hard to find, and at his age (33 in January), Aoki could remain productive for at least two more years. He also has experience at all three outfield positions and could probably slide into a fourth outfielder role if his offense slips.

For all his drawbacks, Aoki was obviously a bargain throughout his previous contract, which paid him just $4.95MM total for the 2012 through 2014 seasons. This time around, he should be able to find a two-year contract at a significantly higher annual salary. He might end up being able to land a two-year, $16MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Jocketty: Reds Free Agent List Includes Morse, Aoki

The Reds have outfielders Michael Morse and Nori Aoki on their list of free agent targets, GM Walt Jocketty tells John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer (Twitter link). Jocketty said that he would prefer to find the outfield bat that the team needs on the open market rather than via trade.

Left field was a problem area for the Reds last year, as Ryan Ludwick performed at a below-replacement-level clip. The team did not pick up his option, preferring to pay a steep $4.5MM buyout rather than exercising it at $9MM.

Cincinnati does not figure to have a ton of payroll space to use in pursuing a replacement. After opening last year with a club record $114MM payroll, only to miss the postseason, the Reds currently have about $80.5MM in guaranteed money on the books for 2015 with upwards of $40MM in potential arbitration payouts yet to come.

Morse, 32, swings an impressive stick but has one of the league’s worst gloves on the outfield grass and comes with a reasonably concerning medical sheet. I recently predicted that he would ultimately land a two-year, $22MM deal this offseason, while noting that he probably makes more sense as a first baseman/DH playing in the American League. The 32-year-old Aoki, meanwhile, is more of an on-base specialist whose selling point is his all-around solid play. He could be somewhat cheaper than Morse, though he should receive wide interest.


Cafardo’s Latest: Aoki, Ross, Friedman

Here are some of the highlights from the latest Sunday notes column by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe

  • The White Sox will have “a lot of interest” in free agent outfielder Nori Aoki, Cafardo predicts.
  • David Ross was told by Red Sox GM Ben Cherington earlier this week that the club “wanted to see how the roster shook out before making a commitment to” bring back the veteran catcher.  Cafardo speculates that Cherington could be keeping his options open in regards to the team’s need for a left-handed hitting bat; if one can’t be found at another position, the Sox could look to add one at catcher.
  • Now that Joe Maddon is managing the Cubs, Cafardo wonders if Andrew Friedman will regret sticking with Don Mattingly in Los Angeles and not making a move to bring Maddon to the Dodgers.  “I think it will be a case of, ‘Why didn’t I do what the Cubs did?’ ” a baseball executive tells Cafardo. “Joe Maddon seems to be the hot manager out there and guys like that aren’t available very often. When Maddon is out there you don’t need a long, drawn-out managerial search. If you can afford him, you hire him.”
  • Rays bench coach Dave Martinez has been mentioned as a prime candidate to become the team’s next manager, and will surely be on the team’s list of interview candidates.  That said, “the feeling is that if…[Martinez] was going to get the job, he would have gotten it by now,” Cafardo writes.
  • Nelson Cruz‘s free agency “will test the Orioles‘ commitment to winning.”  In Cafardo’s opinion, the team has “no excuses” for not re-signing such a key part of their lineup, especially with extra revenues coming in from TV and increased attendance.

AL Central Notes: Royals, Aoki, Butler, Lovullo, Tigers

Though the Royals are coming off their best season in nearly three decades, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News writes that the team will soon need to turn its focus to some difficult offseason decisions. Industry expectations, according to Martino, are that the Royals will at least listen to trade offers for its more expensive players — including Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas — if other teams come calling this winter. Gordon’s case is the most pressing, as he’s only controlled through 2015 at $12.5MM before he has a $12.5MM player option. Gordon has publicly stated that he plans to exercise that option, though it’d be a surprise, to say the least, considering he could be in line for a much more sizable long-term commitment next offseason if he turns it down. Martino also notes that the Royals will have interest in re-signing Nori Aoki this offseason. From my vantage point, the team needn’t feel pressure to move any of the three previously mentioned players, though I’ll cover that at greater length in the upcoming Royals Offseason Outlook.

For the time being, here’s more on the AL Champs and the rest of their division…

  • The Royals are expected to decline their $12.5MM option on designated hitter Billy Butler in favor of a $1MM buyout, tweets Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. The move isn’t exactly unexpected after the down season he had at the plate. However, Heyman adds that the team may look to pursue Torii Hunter, as they did seven years ago, in the event that Aoki signs elsewhere as a free agent. The Kansas City Star’s Andy McCullough also hears that Butler’s option is likely to be declined.
  • The Twins‘ front office flew out to Torey Lovullo’s home in California to conduct their second interview with him on Monday this week, tweets Jason Mastrodonato of MassLive.com, but there’s still been no decision reached as to who will be the team’s next manager. Lovullo and Paul Molitor are believed to be the favorites.
  • Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski spoke candidly to reporters, including Matthew Mowery of the Oakland Press, about the team’s lack of financial flexibility this offseason. Said Dombrowski: “We have the most generous owner in baseball you could possibly have in sports. But we’re in a situation where $200 million payrolls aren’t what is common here. … It’s a situation where we’re really in a spot that if you’re going to have four starters being paid and you’re going to have a couple superstars in the middle of your lineup, that means there’s not as much availability to do some other things. And you have to determine what you’re going to do.”

Brewers Notes: Aoki, Melvin, Loney, First Base

The trade of Norichika Aoki to the Royals for southpaw Will Smith was "was coaxed primarily by Aoki's agent to assure more playing time," Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes.  Khris Davis' impressive rookie season put him in line for a starting job in 2014, and with Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez locked into the other two starting outfield spots, Aoki was looking at a reduced role with the Brewers next season.

Here's some more Brewers news from Haudricourt's chat with Brewers GM Doug Melvin…

  • Melvin reiterated his stance that the Brewers' lack of major offseason moves is due to the belief that the team will improve simply with the continued development of young players and the returns of suspended or injured stars like Braun or Aramis Ramirez.
  • The Brewers pursued James Loney, who instead re-signed with the Rays for a three-year, $21MM contract.  "We knew if he had the same deal he was probably going to go back to Tampa," Melvin said.  Indeed, Loney said that he chose the Rays' contract over similar offers from not just the Brewers, but also the Pirates and Astros.
  • Melvin cited some interest in Justin Morneau, who signed with the Rockies last month, but the GM sounded as if he wasn't particularly enamored with the free agent options at first base.  "The list wasn't very good. It's one of those years where the position we needed, there were fewer opportunities to get someone," Melvin said.
  • In also noting that the trade market for first baseman was thin, Melvin acknowledged he had at least had discussions with the Rangers and Mariners.  "There just aren't available guys. Texas, at this point, is not willing to talk about [Mitch] Moreland. Seattle is not interested in moving their guys. So, there aren't a lot of choices."
  • The Brewers didn't have much available payroll space this offseason but extra money would've been there if the situation warranted.  "We haven't increased it that much, but if the right player was there I would go to (team owner) Mark (Attanasio) and say it's the right player," Melvin said.  "When it comes to payroll, we're always guarded to make sure that we don't put ourselves in a hole or a bind that we can't get out of two years from now or three years from now. Our payroll will be in a much better position next year in that regard."  The Brewers have only $39.1MM committed for 2015 as Ramirez, Yovani Gallardo and Tom Gorzelanny all come off the books next winter, plus Rickie Weeks seems unlikely to receive the 600 PA he needs this season to trigger his $11.5MM vesting option for 2015.

NL West Rumors: D-Backs, Padres, Giants

It remains to be seen whether or not Masahiro Tanaka will be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, but if he is and the Diamondbacks have yet to address their starting pitching needs, expect Arizona to place a bid on the Japanese right-hander, tweets Steve Gilbert of MLB.com. Here's more on the D-Backs and a pair of their NL West rivals:

  • Kevin Towers and the D-Backs don't mind waiting on Eric Chavez, who is deciding where he wants to play and monitoring Arizona's moves, according to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic (Twitter link).
  • Asked about the possibility of trading Archie Bradley, Towers suggested today that it would be "very, very tough" for the D-Backs to do so, tweets Gilbert.
  • The Padres have interest in Scott Downs, among other southpaw relievers, tweets Jon Morosi of FOX Sports. San Diego's Josh Byrnes confirmed that the team is casting a wide net for bullpen help, indicating that he has touched base with "most" available left-handed relievers (Twitter link via Adam Berry of MLB.com).
  • According to Berry (Twitter links), Byrnes said the Padres have weighed "six or eight ideas" and have meetings set up to discuss free agents and trades. Byrnes also shot down the latest round of Chase Headley rumors, stating that the team views the third baseman as part of its 2014 plans.
  • Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area has some details on the Giants' search for an outfielder, tweeting that the Giants called three times on Norichika Aoki before the Brewers decided to send Aoki to the Royals. In a second tweet, Baggarly says the Giants are interested in Michael Morse and Corey Hart, but probably not at the years and dollars those players will command.
  • John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle provides a couple more Giants updates, reporting that no teams have inquired on San Francisco's five starters, but that the club's young pitching has drawn some interest. Shea adds that the team appears unlikely to bring back Chad Gaudin (Twitter links).

Central Notes: Aoki, Hughes, Dunn

Milwaukee's trade of Norichika Aoki to the Royals makes sense for the Brewers and for Aoki himself, MLB.com's Adam McCalvy writes. Khris Davis' emergence late last season means there won't be room for Aoki as a full-time player now that Ryan Braun's suspension is over, as the Brewers will go with an outfield of Davis, Carlos Gomez and Braun. Aoki's path to playing time will be clearer in Kansas City. "Everybody was on board with it," says Aoki's agent, Nez Balelo. "[Kansas City] was the best viable option. He’s going to love it there because he will get an opportunity to lead off and play every day." Here are more notes from the Central divisions.

  • Royals infielder Christian Colon has switched agents from Scott Boras to Excel Sports, tweets Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.
  • The Royals and Angels might make good trade partners, with the Angels sending second baseman Howie Kendrick to Kansas City in return for young pitching, the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna tweets.
  • Phil Hughes was surprised to receive a three-year, $24MM deal from the Twins, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News reports. "Obviously the season I had was a disaster," says Hughes. "Coming into this thing, I was kind of expecting to just rebuild my value with a good year next year somewhere." The Mariners and Angels were among the other teams who bid for Hughes, but the Twins' offer of three guaranteed years won out. 
  • Now that the White Sox have signed Jose Dariel Abreu and re-signed Paul Konerko, there's less playing time available for Adam Dunn, writes CSNChicago.com's Dan Hayes. It appears Konerko and Dunn will platoon, with Konerko starting at designated hitter against lefties. Dunn hit .226/.327/.459 against righties last year, compared to .197/.296/.385 against lefties.

Royals Acquire Norichika Aoki

The Royals have acquired outfielder Norichika Aoki from the Brewers in exchange for left-hander Will Smith, the Brewers have announced via press release. The trade was first reported last night by the folks at the Royal Revival blog (on Twitter).

Aoki-Norichika

Aoki, 32 next month, enjoyed his second solid season with the Brewers since coming over from Japan. The lefty swinger batted .286/.356/.370 with eight homers and 20 stolen bases. Though his power numbers dipped in 2013, the former NPB batting champion has a solid .287/.355/.399 line in his two Major League seasons to go along with excellent right-field defense (+4.2 UZR/150; +21 DRS). He comes at a highly affordable rate also, as the Brewers exercised a cheap $1.9MM club option on Aoki following the season. He is a free agent following the 2014 campaign.

Aoki's acquisition would seem to call Kansas City's pursuit of Carlos Beltran into question. The Royals had reportedly been one of the front-runners to land Beltran (if not the front-runner), but unless they plan on shifting Aoki to center field, his presence in right field and Billy Butler's presence at DH make it more difficult to see Beltran fitting into the plans. However, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports (via Twitter) that the Royals still plan on pursuing Beltran even after acquiring Aoki.

Smith, 24, was shifted to the bullpen in 2013 and enjoyed an outstanding breakout campaign in a half-season's worth of big league action. Smith posted a 3.24 ERA with 11.6 K/9, 1.9 BB/9 and a 43 percent ground-ball rate in 33 1/3 innings for the Royals. His ERA would likely have been lower had it not been for a fluke 18.8 percent homer-to-flyball ratio that figures to regress going forward. xFIP, which assumes a normalized HR/FB ratio, pegged Smith at 2.50 last season. Smith held opposing right-handers to a .684 OPS and stifled lefties to the tune of a .157/.204/.353 line, so he's capable against hitters from both sides of the dish.

The Royals originally acquired Smith along with Sean O'Sullivan in a deal that sent Alberto Callaspo to the Angels. He's spent most of his career as a starting pitcher in the minors, where he has a 3.85 career ERA in 231 1/3 innings. Smith won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2015 campaign and can be controlled through the 2019 season.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.