When the Brewers signed Norichika Aoki to a two-year deal with a club option for 2014 prior to the 2012 season, the belief around baseball was that Aoki would remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player following completion of that contract. That belief has held until today, but MLB.com's Adam McCalvy reports that Aoki's contract contains language that allows him to become a free agent upon the expiration of his current deal.
McCalvy confirmed the information with Aoki's agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports, as well as Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash. There had already been speculation that the Brewers could listen to trade offers on Aoki, but knowing that his proximity to free agency is three years closer than most realized, it's likely that GM Doug Melvin is more open to dealing Aoki than previously thought.
The Brewers won negotiation rights with Aoki by submitting a $2.5MM posting fee, and they signed him to a heavily incentivized two-year, $2.5MM contract with a club option for 2014. The club option is for a mere $1.5MM, so it will absolutely be exercised by the Brewers or an acquiring team, barring a catastrophic injury.
Aoki is a .287/.357/.410 hitter with 14 homers and 39 stolen bases in 227 Major League games. A three-time batting champion in Japan, the 31-year-old has transitioned his game to the Major Leagues beautifully. Fangraphs values his MLB production to date at 3.2 wins above replacement, though that's been weighed down by some poor baserunning in 2013 (Aoki has been caught stealing in eight of his 17 attempts). Aoki's overall production and incredibly reasonable price tag should make him a tantalizing trade chip for teams in need of outfield help, should the Brewers choose to deal him.
Aoki's name can be added to a free agent class of right fielders that contains the likes of Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Nate Schierholtz and possibly Nick Markakis and Alex Rios, depending how their option situations play out. You can see the entire list of 2015 MLB free agents here.