There hasn’t been a lot about the Brewers over the past couple seasons that was consistent. Norichika Aoki was. He played in 306 of 324 games, usually hit at the top of the order, and if you go by on-base percentage, he was one of the best leadoff men in baseball. And now he’s a Royal, heading to Kansas City in a trade for left-handed pitcher Will Smith.
Listed at 6’4″ and 250 pounds, Smith fits the front office desire to acquire large-statured young arms. His 123 innings of experience in the big leagues have been a mixed bag — he struggled to miss bats in the rotation, but put up good numbers in relief. He’s had a fair amount of success in the minors, posting a 3.49 career K/BB rate there. His fastball sits in the low 90s and doesn’t seem to get past many right-handed hitters, but a newly-developed slider may have played a significant role in his breakout as a reliever last season. Smith won’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2016 season.
The Brewers had a logjam in the outfield, and trading Aoki was the most logical move. He’ll be a free agent after this upcoming season, and with a slew of young outfielders ready to play in the majors, it was pretty clear that Aoki would not be back after 2014, one way or another. For a mid-level (at least on the national scale) move, though, this is a deal that has some pretty significant ripple effects.
For one, the Brewers are already confirming that Ryan Braun is moving to right field. Khris Davis (probably) moves into the everyday lineup in left field. That’s one question (who plays right?) for which we now have an answer, but there’s plenty more.
For example, is Smith a starter, or a lefty specialist reliever? Smith was a full-time starter as recently as 2012, but spent last year split between the rotation and the bullpen for Triple-A Omaha and the majors. Despite some solid minor-league numbers in the rotation, Smith struggled there in the majors in 2012. Out of the bullpen, he was dominant against lefties, with 27 of his 44 strikeouts last season coming against them. Doug Melvin says they want to “try” Smith as a starter in camp. At the very least, it looks like the Brewers got that second lefty reliever to pair with Tom Gorzelanny that they wanted.
Another — with Aoki gone, who leads off? The smart money this early would probably be on Jean Segura, but what happens if Scooter Gennett beats out Rickie Weeks for the second base job? Or at least gets significant playing time in a strict platoon with Weeks? Or what if Corey Hart is brought back to play first base? Ron Roenicke may like the fact that Hart has plenty of experience in that role. Whoever replaces Aoki at the top of the order will have big shoes to fill, at least when it comes to getting on base.
Aoki’s departure may also leave a hole in the Brewers’ outfield defense. While Braun was still far from Gold Glove-caliber in left field, he had made great improvements there since his initial move. Now he’s being replaced in left by Davis — who isn’t as strong defensively — and moving to the other side of the field to a position he hasn’t played before. How different will reads off the bat be for him? How is he going to handle having to take different routes to the ball? We could be in for some defensive adventures at both corner outfield spots. It’s a good thing Carlos Gomez can cover the gaps.
As a bit of an underrated player, Aoki will be missed in Milwaukee, but he was by no means an unreplaceable piece. Whatever tradeoffs the Brewers are making in OBP and defense could be made back in slugging. Smith at least looks like an interesting arm with tons of team control left. An argument could be made that the Brewers could have gotten more for a solid everyday contributor like Aoki, but this move would seem to indicate the Brewers wanted someone who could contribute this year at the major league level, and contribute for more than just a year or two.