The Brewers finally made their first big move of the offseason that didn’t include a middle reliever (hopefully) yesterday when they dealt outfielder Norichika Aoki to the Royals straight up for left hander Will Smith. The move gives the Brewers another young arm with lots of control years left, and a lefty to boot. It will also cause a shift in the Brewers’ daily lineup, where Aoki had become a fixture both in right field and the lead-off spot in the lineup. Lets talk first about what the Brewers got.
Smith is a 6’5”, 250 lb. left hander who has less than a full year in the major leagues to this point and has 35 big league appearances, 17 as a starter (mostly in 2012) and 18 in relief (all in 2013). Smith struggled mightily in 2012 starting for the Royals, allowing but sparkled in relief in 2013, posting 2.45 ERA just out of the pen. A big reason for the jump in productivity from 2012 to 2013 was driven by a massive improvement in K:BB ratio, from 1.79 to 6.14.
Smith was still prone to giving up round trippers in 2013, but it does seem that if he can maintain something like the K:BB ratio he posted out of the pen, he should at least be a solid option out there for a while. The big question is whether or not he can start long term. What do you think Steve, can Smith be a starter?
The Brewers probably want him to be a starter, but my initial reaction is that he won’t work out in the rotation. His massive improvement came in two places that are cause for concern. First he had a good season in AAA, but it was his third time pitching at that level. Second, his major league success happened when he was coming out of the bullpen and he primarily faced left-handed batters. Smith seems to have developed a stronger slider and the Royals were deploying him in situations where he could succeed. He’s a useful piece on a major league roster (depending on your view regarding situational lefties), just unlikely to be a real difference maker when added to the Brewers roster.
Aoki has been a likely trade chip for the Brewers since the 2013 season started spiraling down the drain. He isn’t a prototypical corner outfielder, hitting for contact with little power, and also running more on the base paths than most of the lumbering sluggers. He was a bargain player, making less than $2 million per season and providing 1.5-2.5 WAR, and fills a need in Kansas City where he can take over for Jeff Francour (and his replacement David Lough), and move Alex Gordon’s under-appreciated bat out of the lead-off spot in the lineup.
The Brewers get to move a 32-year-old in the final year of his deal and recoup some value that can help down the road (if they really believe that Smith can start). It opens up and outfield spot for Khris Davis, and the Ryan Braun forgiveness tour can begin when he graciously accepts to move from left to right field. But does this move make the Brewers a better team? Can Khris Davis repeat his 2013 performance when he receives 500 at bats instead of 150?
I have to say I share your skepticism that Smith is ever going to be a major league starter that can hold down a rotation spot legitimately, and not just be there because a team has no one else to turn to. Since the Brewers decided to trade Aoki for him, I would hope that they have some scouting or analytics reports that say Smith has legitimate starting potential. It would seem a waste of an asset like Aoki to settle for a middle reliever, especially given his salary this year.
I’m also somewhat skeptical that Khris Davis can sustain anything close to what we saw from him this year in MLB. That would mean an awful lot of scouts were really wrong for a long time. It happens sometimes with guys like him, but it’s probably not a smart money bet in an individual instance. That being said, I think a soft platoon of Davis and Caleb Gindl, with Davis still seeing some at bats against right handers, could be useful on a number of levels. Not only could it result in a better overall line from left field, but also ensures that there is at least one player on the bench on a given day is getting regular at bats and could help bolster the bench a bit.
The PR angle of Braun moving to right is also an interesting little tidbit here. If he doesn’t mess it up by saying something impolitic, it will give narrative spinners something nice to say about him. He’s going to need as many chances as possible to show his humility, and this certainly is one.
I think perhaps the biggest thing the Brewers are going to miss is Aoki’s bat at the top of the lineup. He knew how to get on base and set the tone for the lineup behind him. I worry that if Scooter Gennett and Jean Segura are hitting at the top of the order and they don’t improve their respective walk rates, that it could result in too many situations where Braun comes up with two quick outs in front of him. That doesn’t mean the Brewers shouldn’t have pulled the trigger on a trade, but it might not make them any easier to watch this year.
Given all of that, do you see this being a smart move, both in the short and the long term?
The process is good, but time will tell if it is the right move. Aoki’s age and contract status made him an asset that the Brewers had to cash in on, and they flipped him for cost-controlled talent. But it does seem underwhelming. Doug Melvin was able to flip Francisco Rodriguez for Nick Delmonico, and while Delmonico struggled when he switched organizations, it really seemed like a shrewd move to get a top-10 organizational prospect for the pitching rental. Melvin has stated that he believes that winter deals bring back more value in trades, but that July deal sure seems like a lesser player bringing more upside than came back here.
Maybe the word was out that the Brewers were committed to their younger outfielders and had to move Aoki, which in turn undercut the deals they were being offered? Still, many teams need a player who can get on base and is cheap. There had to be more than one suitor for Aoki.
Jean Segura and Scooter Gennett were a couple young guys that added some excitement when the team was struggling this summer and have to be the candidates that will likely take over for Aoki at the top of the line up. Segura rocketed out of the gates, hitting .352/.390/.554 in his first 230 PAs. He then setted into a level of play that was closer to season expectations, and ended up .294/.329/.423 for the season.
Gennett lit up the league with a .324/.356/.479 in 230 plate appearances. That’s a small sample though, and we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about what to expect in the upcoming season from his time filling in for Rickie Weeks. Sometimes it takes 600 PAs to expose players and figure out what they could potentially be in the majors.
Overall, I like the fact that the Brewers are committed to finding out what they really have with some of these young players. These are guys that have always been intriguing minor leaguers even if scouts haven’t always been convinced that they would be major league contributors.
Man, that almost sounds like you saying something nice about the Brewers minor league system. You feeling alright?
I can’t really argue with any of your conclusions, though. I think we both really wanted to see the Brewers at least explore the possibility of a trade with Aoki, since free agency was is looming and his price tag seemed to suggest surplus value. We really should temper our disappointment with the return because Smith is just getting started in the big leagues and there is little that is certain in terms of what he can become.
Perhaps most importantly, this is a pretty clear cut case of the Brewers valuing the future at least as much as, if not more, than the present. It’s not that the club can’t contend for something in 2014, but the division is absolutely stacked and it’s going to take a lot going right for it to happen. So if the team can convert some present assets into present AND future assets, it makes a lot of sense tactically. We haven’t seen a lot of that, so even if the execution was somewhat flawed, at least their thought process seemed to be in the right place.