Aoki could play another season in Tokyo

How much do you want Aoki to stay?

Yakult, Tokyo’s parent company, surprised many when it decided to post Norichika Aoki after the 2011 season.

Why? Aoki won’t have the service time to earn international free agency until partway through the 2013 season, so most Tokyo fans were expecting another year at Jingu Stadium for the team’s perennial Golden Glove, Best Nine and All-Star center fielder.

But Yakult did post him, and on his 30th birthday he flew out of Narita Airport on his way to a tryout and negotiations with the MLB team that won the right to talk to him.

And I’m now starting to wonder if that wasn’t just a very astute and calculated gamble by the Swallows’ front office.

I jest. The Swallows front office knows/cares as much about baseball as I do about a certain canine.

Salary negotiations with the Brewers have reportedly started off in the bench player neck of the woods, and that seems to be a pretty clear indication of the role Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke think Aoki could play for the team in 2012.

That’s probably bad news for Aoki. Even if he induces orgasmic adulation at his upcoming tryout in Arizona, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to drag the offer anywhere near the US$4.2 million he made in 2011. The tryout is necessary, by the way, because Milwaukee doesn’t have a scout in Japan.

From Milwaukee’s perspective, they already have four solid outfielders in Braun, Morgan, Gomez, and Hart

Aoki's biggest adjustment? Gloves in Milwaukee only have four fingers.

with minor league prospect Caleb Gindl also likely to get a look. But with Braun facing a probable 50-game suspension, Aoki could represent insurance OBP and run scoring if he can be signed for the right price.

I’m typing all this, of course, without any real understanding of just how badly Aoki wants to play in the bigs. Maybe money isn’t a deal-breaker for him at this point. Who knows, he might even be willing to leave it all up to his spring training performance like fellow WBC alum Munenori Kawasaki just did with Seattle.

Or maybe, like soon-to-be-snubbed-by-the-Yankees Hiroyuki Nakajima, he suspects that Milwaukee has no intention of signing him to a decent major league contract, and he’s playing along just to show how Amish this whole posting nonsense is.

Whichever way things turn out, there’s no denying that Aoki could be playing in Tokyo again next season.

And for the record, Tokyo Swallows fans have no problem with that.

While I’m on the subject, I might as well take this opportunity to throw a few new Aoki observations out there since there are some who think that Aoki is overrated in terms of how much of an impact he’ll have in North America. As someone who watched Aoki play in no less than 100 games last season, I’d say that at the very least I was consistently aware of his offensive ups and downs. And while I have no way of predicting how well things will pan out for him wherever he lands, I can offer my thoughts on what happened in 2011.

Actually, let me clarify that. At least 40 of the games I saw were viewed live, so I was miles from the batter’s box, and my eyesight is piss-poor to boot. But I also observed around 270 plate appearances, replays and all, with the help of my trusty television.

So how did he look? Well, Aoki was a mess at the plate at times. Like Balentien, Tokyo’s surprise home run champ, Aoki started hot but then saw his offense trail off. Not nearly to the extent that Balentien’s did, but for Aoki it was a noticeable drop in production.

Aoki doesn't have Ichiro's arm or pop, but at least he's a nicer guy and more of a team player.

Series after series, his timing was all wacky. He was leaving the box too early, miscalculating contact, and repeatedly surrendering to infield groundouts. I swear that there was a one month period when I could count on one-and-a-half hands the number of times that he got the ball to leave the infield; he wasn’t even thinking about pulling the ball. Very un-Aoki.

But if you go back and look at the box scores, you can infer that he might have been trying desperately to get his bread-and-butter slice-to-left going again before he started trying to figure anything else out (like two-hopping balls to the warning track in the gap).

It was painful to watch, and it took him a long time to recalibrate his swing to the new pitch trajectories. But he did adjust. And unlike some of the other veterans on the team, he was productive in the playoffs against some of the best pitching in the Central League.

A repeated criticism of his 2011 regular season numbers is that he hit only 18 doubles as opposed to 44 in 2010. Fair enough, but 2010 was the only time in his entire career that he’s hit more than 30, so there’s room to argue that it’s an unfair comparison. I don’t want to say that 2010 was a fluke, but he hit between 23 and 29 doubles every other year that he’s been an All-Star, so in that light his tally from last season doesn’t seem quite so paltry.

Well, what about the drop in his home run output and slugging from 2010 (14 and .509, respectively) to just four and .360 in 2011 (ouch!)? From what I observed this past season, I’d simply remind folks that he spent a significant portion of the summer ignoring both his power and most opportunities to collect extra base hits. Instead, he seemed to be desperately trying to relearn how to slap the ball between short and third, perhaps a bit like a golfer going through a swing change. Many of us disapproved of his approach at the time, but that is the way that he chose to deal with his slump.

I believe that Aoki may have experienced something akin to what Ichiro Suzuki went through this past season, at least as far as an unexpected drop in offensive production is concerned. Aoki is sometimes referred to as the second-coming of Ichiro, which he’s not, but there are indeed several similarities to their games. Both specialize in getting on base and scoring runs, cover a lot of territory in the outfield, and have power that, more often than not, they choose not to utilize.

I’m not insinuating that Aoki possesses Ichiro’s level of untapped pop, but rather I’m attempting to make the

Then again, Aoki should fit right in.

case that both players struggled for an extended period of time to overcome an unfamiliar obstacle. The unexpected turbulence in Ichiro’s life is possibly his age. For Aoki, it was a newly-introduced baseball with harder break that often left him scratching his carefully coiffed noggin.

Not because he couldn’t hit the new ball–he just couldn’t place it exactly where he wanted to. For a long while it seemed as if he was in denial that he could no longer do with it as he pleased, and he remained stubbornly determined to prove to himself that he could push and pull it to different parts of the outfield. The process took f-o-r-e-v-e-r, and as a result he didn’t dominate in 2011 as he’s been known to.

Hopefully my observations here help soften the glare of his 2011 numbers a bit, especially when acknowledging the likelihood that even Aoki didn’t know he would get posted during the 2011 off-season.

But no matter what I say to try to qualify Aoki’s most recent numbers, there’s a better than outside chance that 2011’s lost season, offensively-speaking, will dog him during negotiations and result in him remaining contracted by the Tokyo Swallows for the 2012 season.

If that’s how things actually transpire, then the Yakult front office has successfully hedged its bet by giving the team two chances to auction its star player–unlike Oakland last year with Iwakuma and most likely Nakajima this year.

But even better, added to the off-season acquisition of MLB outfielder Lastings Milledge, the Tokyo Swallows would have a stronger chance of winning the 2012 Central League pennant if Aoki stays.

Think about this: Milledge in left, Aoki in center and Balentien in right. Sounds like a winner to me. And as 2012 will be the contract year he was looking forward to all along, that can only mean big things for Tokyo baseball fans.

But we’ll still have to go through all of this posting nonsense once again at the end of the year.

About Christopher Pellegrini

Christopher is a budding sabermetrician and long-time supporter of Tokyo's more lovable team, the Swallows. He has publicly volunteered, several times, that he plans to buy the team at some point in the future. When he finally runs the joint, it is likely that he will fine any player who swings at the first pitch or sac bunts (unless it's a pitcher, of course). Follow him on Twitter: @chrispellegrini

  • Guest

    Got the feeling that the front office does not value Aoki as a long-term ‘face of the franchise’ type player like Miyamoto or Furuta. They could have offered him a multi-year deal at the end of 2010 but rather gave him the go ahead to try the posting system at the end of 2011. Then they made a panic move and got roped into giving Lim a multi-year big time deal at the beginning of last year. They seem to have de-committed to Aoki at that point. If the team had better financials, I’m sure they would of tried to keep him on but at the current state, I think they are desperate for the posting fees. His defensive skills in center will be missed the most. Can’t remember the number of times he helped the pitchers out by snagging a deep ball driven into the outfield. There was a smooth transition from Iida to Aoki, just can’t picture Ueda or rookie Hiyane replicating what their predecessors did…frightening.

  • Kozo

    It’s pretty clear from Aoki’s comments that he’s always had his eyes on the majors, so I’m not sure if he would have accepted a multi-year deal at the end of 2010. In fact, one of the knocks his critics always had of him was that he seemed to have his eye on the majors and was adjusting his play accordingly.

    The Swallows certainly did a good job framing all their decisions as allowing Aoki to follow his dream. (e.x. Saying in advance they would accept any bid, the farewell ceremony during fan day, always talking about Aoki’s desires in comments etc.) The front office might have had ulterior motives for accepting Aoki’s request, but they’ve certainly left the door and relationship open for Aoki to return.

    Actually, given his public comments about pursuing his dream and heavily sentimental farewell, I think Aoki will sign with the Brewers unless the Brewers decide not to offer a contract at all. Aoki’s really going to look bad if his reason for returning to Japan is “they wouldn’t pay me enough”.

    Simon posted an interesting article in Japanese about the different way Aoki and the Brewers see the situation, which addresses some of these issues.