I surprised even myself yesterday in resisting making fun of the hapless Astros and instead finding something positive to preview. Then again, it’s not exactly hard to be positive when writing about George Springer, who seems set to make an impact in Houston sooner rather than later. Today in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I focus on the Kansas City Royals, who last year secured just their second winning season since 1994, though fell short making the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Though they’ve made no big-name winter acquisitions to help in their quest, smart additions – such as Norichika Aoki – might just be enough to put the Royals over the top this time around.
I’ve for some reason always liked Nori Aoki ever since he came to the Majors in 2012. Perhaps it’s because of the way he dives into HBPs, or is halfway down the first base line by the time it comes to swing, maybe even the odd contortions he routinely bends himself into making plays out in right field. Though he’s certainly not the most exciting player, far from the best but certainly not the worst in every aspect, there’s something about his style of play that I just innately appreciate. And though I can’t pin down whether it’s the slap-hitting, incredible plate discipline, perennially underrated fantasy value, or crazy 3.3% whiff rate (he swung and missed just 82 times at 2,490 total pitches in 2013 – HT to Baseball Prospectus on that one), I was glad to see him rescued from the lackluster Brewers. His new team, the Kansas City Royals, will soon come to appreciate him too.
Aoki’s acquisition was one of GM Dayton Moore’s better ones in recent times, the 32 year-old outfielder’s diverse skill set projected to mask over several of the 2013 Royals’ flaws at a bargain price. Dealing from a position of strength (for once – he still has relievers Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and closer Greg Holland available to trade in his effort to win now before the Wil Myers trade bites him in the ass), Moore sent LHP swingman Will Smith to the Brewers in exchange for one year of Aoki’s service – which was deemed expendable by a rebuilding Milwaukee squad which will also be re-integrated Ryan Braun into their outfield plans. Aside from just costing a fringe starter/long reliever, Aoki will also only command a cheap salary in 2014; per ESPN, he is due only $1.25 million this season (he can also make up to $1,087,500 in performance bonuses based on starts and games played), making the Japanese veteran one of the cheaper 3.0 bWAR players league-wide. Furthermore, should Moore like what he sees and wish to keep him around, the aging Aoki won’t likely be too hot a commodity to drive his price up significantly on the free agent market.
More than simply a fiscal bargain though, Aoki constitutes a much needed addition to the Kansas City lineup; a prototypical leadoff hitter. After a 2013 in which Royals’ leadoff hitters ranked in the bottom third of the league in OBP (.309), strikeout rate (18.7%) and stolen bases (15), Aoki figures to improve them in every category. With an OBP of .355 since coming to America two years ago, and a measured approach which saw him strike out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances last year, Aoki can also boast 50 stolen bases (as opposed to 20 instances caught stealing) in his time as a Brewer. Why listen to me though when you can have the infinitely funnier quote from Baseball Prospectus’s fantastic annual: “Aoki will be doubly valuable providing a speedy table setter at the top of the Kansas City order and evicting the gaggle of speedy table emptiers who squatted there last year.” With no platoon split to speak of (in his two years in the majors, he’s hit .304/.351/.395 vs. LHP, and .279/.357/.402 vs. RHP), a love of fastballs (he hits .338 against them, yet pitchers still throw the fourseam 39% of the time), and a Shin-Soo Choo-like ability to accrue HBPs (11 in 2013), Aoki should be at the top of the lineup card everyday, allowing Alex Gordon to return to a better-suited spot further down the order.
Of course, Aoki only hit 8 homers last season as his slugging percentage plummeted from .433 in 2012, to .370 in 2013. Not much of a line-drive hitter (17.3% LD%) either, Royals fans shouldn’t expect much more than a ton of singles from the groundball-happy Aoki. Though above-average in right field too – Fangraphs pegged him a 3.2 UZR in 2013 – the relatively speedy Aoki will struggle to match the Gold Glove caliber production of David Lough, who had a UZR of 14.5. Still, you always know what you’re getting with the lefty, which is more than can be said for the rag-tag crew trotted out by the Royals in the leadoff/RF spots in 2013.
As mentioned, Aoki isn’t the flashiest player, but happy to quietly occupy a place on the right side of the star-scrub spectrum. His addition remains a marvelous one for a Royals team with aspirations of contention, providing them an indispensable piece at a bargain price. It does too, make you wonder where this Dayton Moore was when the Jason Vargas contract was dished out, or the Myers trade consummated – but that’s for another day. Until then Royals fans, enjoy the Nori Aoki experience. I know I will, for reasons still unclear.