This post was originally going to be exclusively about Norichika Aoki, because I really needed to focus on something other than Ryan Brain’s once inevitable-seeming suspension via MLB’s seamless and well-oiled drug testing “process”. (This process apparently involves taking urine samples home and keeping them in your fridge, for some sick reason.) A guy who only a few days ago seemed like a lock for the Brewers starting lineup -for the first fifty games, at least- will probably be fighting for at bats in a relatively stacked outfield.
In his honor, I’ve crossed out words that have been rendered wonderfully irrelevant by yesterday’s news. You’re welcome.
I still have no idea what to make of the 2012-13 Brewers, and I’m not sure they do either. This isn’t like last year, when a series of go-for-broke trades landed Milwaukee an exciting, intimidating, and ultimately championship unworthy squad. We knew, more or less, what the Brewers were going to look like then: big bats, small gloves, and above average pitching. Turns out the pitching was less than average against other postseason teams, but that’s the way it goes. Or at least that’s the way it went.
This year, we’ve watched Doug Melvin attempt to replace a monstrous one-man win generator, Yuni “still arguably worth some amount of money” Betancourt, Jerry “I have nothing bad or funny to say about Jerry Hairston, Jr.” Hairston Jr., and -mostly likely, for fifty or twenty five games, anyway- Prince’s incidentally or actually testosterone-enhanced left field counterpart with nearly a half dozen question marks. Some of these ciphers are exciting, others less so, given mixed track records (Aramis Ramirez’s defense, Alex Gonzalez’ OBP) and intermittent success in the majors (Mat Gamel’s everything).
It’s been suggested, given the past performance of Japanese players in the MLB, that we can treat Japanese imports much like AAA callups, and if anything, that’s probably a little conservative. Obviously, the sample size of Japanese “rookies” in a given year is small, and the upside here is smaller than the usual rookie; for a 30-year-old outfielder, it’s probably safe to eschew the use of the word “upside” at all. (I suspect, in any case, that Aoki will inevitably play a big role in this whole Corey Hart/Mat Gamel split at first base idea that’s been bandied about. I’m comfortable with He’s a left fielder for sure, right? And hopefully not a center or right fielder, unless his arm is actually as acceptable as Melvin claims?)
Aoki still excites me, though, and maybe more than he should. There’s still a novel feel to the proceedings whenever a player from Nipponese Professional Baseball makes the stateside switch. Here, the Brewers obtained a bona fide NPB star, a guy with multiple batting and fielding titles. I’m not sure anyone saw this move coming outside of Melvin and Aoki’s stateside agent, and but it’s hard to imagine this will come out as anything but a steal or a wash for the Crew. I’m not even sure how to define Aoki’s “underperforming” with a contract of $2.3 million over two years and a $2.5 million posting fee. Even if there’s a sizeable dropoff in power, as with most former NPB Japanese hitters, we’re talking about a guy with .467 slugging over the last five seasons. I’d take something around .400 as long as he keeps getting on base at a .408 clip. Which he probably won’t, but some combination of those two numbers would make the move for Aoki well worth it.
There’s an interesting study comparing the salaries of Japanese imports to their comparable American colleagues. The focus is whether or not Japanese players are paid less in the MLB for comparable performances; not an outrageous concern, given that the NPB requires its players to stay in Japan for nine years before they can put themselves up for posting. One would expect American teams to flinch at a crop that entirely consists of grizzled veterans playing in what is largely regarded as a second-class league. It’s a league where the balls are smaller, the strike zone is smaller, and the fields are smaller, making for a slightly confusing set of variables when trying to predict future performance. Plus, the training culture in Japan is incredibly intense, and I have no idea if that adds to an older player’s value or diminishes it, although I suspect the latter.
If you read that last paragraph and thought, “Why are you excited about Aoki, again,” fair enough. Part of loving sports is embracing uncertainty, not just dealing with it. Sure, your team probably won’t win a championship, and maybe even a division-level consolation prize is too much to hope for most years, but in theory every squad has an equal opportunity to win it all at the start of the season (in the same sense that Ron Paul had an equal opportunity to win the Republican nomination, I guess.) A personality/athlete/man like Prince leaves a void in a team, and Ryan’s strange, “post”-steroid era tribulations only make that absence more profound. Braun is likely midway through a career-long stint with the Crew; I wonder if the still-probable suspension will make clear just how wise Doug Melvin was to tie him down until 2012. What conclusions do we draw if the team does well in his absence? The next few seasons will probably establish just how wise the extension was; I only hope fans don’t jump ship if Braun fails to immediately have another MVP-caliber year.
I’m really excited to watch the Brewers this year, though, and I have almost no expectations. Well, that’s not true. I expect a different kind of frustration: smaller bats, bigger gloves, and about the same level of pitching (with, perhaps, an uptick in wins and downtick in ERA for Greinke, because that has to happen, right? He deserves it and we deserve it!) There are a weirdly huge number of players who arguably don’t comfortably fit into one position: Gamel, Ramirez, Aoki, just to name a few. According to some, we need to have a three or four man rotation at first, and a two or three man rotation at third, which really just sounds like a plot to give Roenicke an aneurysm. In any case, I imagine that Aoki will have to justify his at bats pretty quickly, because with Braunie back Aoki is insurance, not a necessity. Given that he comes from a sports culture where infielders apologize to their coaches for missed grounders in practice and relievers are known to throw 250 (!) pitches in bullpen sessions, I suspect he might relish the chance to earn those at bats.