When Major League Baseball handed down a 50-game suspension to 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun earlier last month on the grounds of failing a mandatory drug test last October, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin had a decision to make—and a fairly important one at that.
Facing the prospect of his club playing out virtually the first third of their 2012 regular season without their preeminent slugger in his usual spot in the lineup, Melvin had to decide whether to replace Braun with internal talent already in place—Nyjer Morgan, Carlos Gomez and/or a bevy of up-and-coming prospects—or to search the free-agent market for a modest replacement.
To the surprise of many, Melvin placed a bid on 30-year-old Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki, and won negotiating rights to the longtime overseas star. The winning bid was worth approximately $2.5 million and the Brewers then had until mid January to negotiate a deal.
This past weekend, Melvin, manager Ron Roenicke and bench coach Jerry Narron took to Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix, Arizona to evaluate Aoki's hitting, fielding and speed. They must now decide whether or not to pursue signing the outfielder to a contract for this upcoming season.
With Braun's impending 50-game suspension looming, the Brewers certainly have a need for depth off their bench to start next season. The loss of Jerry Hairston, Mark Kotsay and Josh Wilson this offseason has depleted Milwaukee's support off the bench. Adding Aoki, who has a considerable amount of speed in the field and on the basepaths, could prove vital.
Aoki has played five seasons in the Japan Central League as a member of the Yakult Swallows, harboring a .329 BA, 68 HR, 295 RBI, 451 runs scored and 93 stolen bases. Only once has he posted an on-base percentage below .400 in a season and he has twice garnered an OPS above .940 from the left side of the plate.
Scouts have classified Aoki as a disciplined, line-drive type hitter who loves using the entire field. He has great range in the outfield but has a below-average arm.
We've seen Japanese hitters fail to make the transition to the Major Leagues before. With that in mind, the Brewers would prefer a one-year contract, and then determine if he's worth bringing back next offseason, according to sources.
The Brewers have until 5 p.m. ET Jan. 17 to complete a deal or their posting fee will be returned. We'll keep you updated throughout the week as information becomes available.