It's funny how a team's success can affect a player's value. Last offseason, the Kansas City Royals traded left-handed pitcher Will Smith -- viewed by many as a "swingman" or potential fifth starter -- for outfielder Nori Aoki. Eighty-nine wins and one World Series run later, Aoki is now one of the top free agents on the open market. Will the Tigers pursue him this winter?
*2015 Steamer projection
Who is he?
Before he came to America, Aoki was a very successful player in the Japanese Central League. He spent eight seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, hitting .329/.402/.454. He won multiple batting titles in Japan, and is one of four Japanese League players to ever collect 200 hits in a single season. The Swallows posted Aoki after the 2011 season, when he was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers to an incentive-laden contract.
Aoki finished fifth in the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .288/.355/.433 in 520 plate appearances for the Brewers. It is still his best offensive season since coming to America, but Aoki has still hit .287 with a .353 on-base percentage in over 1800 plate appearances.
Why should we care?
As detailed above, Aoki is excellent at getting on base. He has put up an on-base percentage of .350 or better in each of his three seasons, a big reason why nearly 85 percent of his career plate appearances have been out of the leadoff spot. He has not hit .300 in an MLB season yet, but still hits for a high average. His walk rate isn't excellent, but has consistently sat between 7-8 percent during his MLB career.
Aoki does an excellent job of putting the ball in play, an underrated stat for light-hitting players like him. While strikeouts don't tend to matter so much for power hitters like J.D. Martinez, they can make a big difference for speedier hitters. In Aoki's case, he has collected a whopping 108 infield hits in the past three years. This is nearly one quarter of his 451 hits in his career! With such a low strikeout rate, Aoki puts himself in a better position to get on base more often.
Defensively, Aoki grades out as an above average right fielder. He takes some curious routes at times -- as anyone who watched the World Series can attest -- but he has a career 8.6 UZR and has been worth +10 defensive runs saved. His arm is pretty good too, resulting in 22 career assists from the outfield.
Why should we stay away?
While Aoki does a great job of getting on base, he hits for almost no power whatsoever. He only homered one time in 2014 and has only collected 44 doubles in his past two seasons. He did hit six triples in 2014, but it would be nice to see a player with Aoki's quickness collect a few more extra base hits. Corner outfielders are typically able to provide a lot of offensive value, but Aoki's lack of power has resulted in a somewhat meager (for a corner outfielder) 106 career wRC+.
One of the more popular rumors we have seen so far this offseason is to sign Aoki as a center fielder. That is a bad idea. Aoki was considered a decent center fielder in Japan, but the playing fields and ballpark dimensions are smaller over there. Plus, at 33 years old, Aoki isn't the same player that he was when patrolling the outfield for Yakult in his 20s. His range in right field already rates below league average, and the spacious outfields he would be patrolling would not be very forgiving.
Will he end up in Detroit?
Aoki is getting plenty of love because of his team's performance in the playoffs, but the reality is that he was a 1.1 WAR player in 2014. He gets on base at an excellent clip, but provides almost no power and doesn't have the glove to play center field. His reverse splits don't really fit with the righty-mashing lefty bat that the Tigers need. He steals a lot of bases, but grades out as a below-average baserunner.
Even then, a player with this many flaws would still be valuable. But what will he get paid? He was a steal at the $2 million he made in 2014 and would probably provide decent value for $5 million or so per year. That seems very optimistic, though. Aoki may fetch $8 million per year or more on the open market with the dearth of talent available. MLB Trade Rumors projects a two year, $16 million contract for Aoki, but I think it takes three years to get a deal done.