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Aoki's performance represents a key piece of the puzzle if the Brewers are Braun-less for 50 games.
The 2011 Group of Key Utility Players
Craig Counsell, IF: Local Wisconsin player and fan favorite. Nearly set record for most at-bats without a hit, retired as a player, moved to Brewers front-office role.
Mark Kotsay, OF/PH: Came through with key hits on occasion but also was mired in a slump at one point in the season and had a few key errors in day games.
Jerry Hairston, IF: Midseason pickup, filled in admirably, not heavily pursued by Brewers for re-signing.
Josh Wilson, IF: Desperation waiver-wire move. Wilson didn't exceed or fail expectations, but then again, expectations were pretty low with starting SS Yuniesky Betancourt failing to provide any offensive production along with extremely limited defensive capabilities while Counsell's struggles seemed to be endless at the plate.
Taylor Green, 3B: As a rookie, Green came in due to Casey McGehee's immense struggles. Jury is still out on whether Green can be an everyday player in the majors. Seems to have more plate discipline and range than McGehee.
Backup catchers: Of a group that included Wil Nieves, Mike Rivera and George Kottaras, only Kottaras managed to latch on the club for significant time and contributions. Kottaras has some pop in his bat but isn't a plus defensive backstop expected of the backup catcher role.
Likely 2012 Utility Group (as it stands 1/29/12)
Norichika Aoki, OF: The Brewers' first-ever dip into the Japanese prospect market, Aoki is said to have a plus-glove and hits for on-base percentage with little power. Time will tell if Aoki can adapt to life in the states and whether his batting titles in Japan translate to production in Major League Baseball. Smart move by the Brewers, considering Braun's 50-game suspension is likely, allowing for more options in the outfield.
Cesar Itzuris, SS/2B: Versatile vet, light-hitting yet a switch-hitter. This is likely the Counsell replacement.
Jeff Bianchi, SS/2B: I think this is more of a training-camp body brought in for competition, would provide AAA depth if he stayed and could move up if injuries incur. Has a shot at the opening day roster if Itzuris underwhelms and Bianchi impresses.
Martin Maldonado, C: This is a big spring training for Maldonado to prove he's ready to be an MLB catcher after putting up a respectable offensive showing in the minors to prove his great defensive skills can be utilized in the big leagues. That said, with the re-signing of Kottaras, it's unlikely this is Maldonado's year to open the season as the Brewers' backup catcher.
Others to compete for a spot: 2B Eric Farris, OF Caleb Gindl, OF Logan Schafer.
Holdovers: Kottaras, Green.
Note: I'm considering the center-field platoon of Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez to be more of a shared starting duty, rather than the more random aspect of being a true utility man in the MLB.
In terms of veteran leadership, it will be hard to replace the trio of Counsell, Kotsay and Hairston. That said, this once-young, wet-behind-the-ears club now has key starters who are veterans expected to take on bigger leadership roles.
Aoki should be an all-around improvement over Kotsay performance-wise.
The same could be said for the far-better defensive skills of Maldonado compared to Kottaras. Of the other unproven rookies, it will be interesting to see who comes to the foreground, but Schafer's skill set is most likely to have the best results in the big leagues.
I predict this group will be more productive than last year's, though I think one proven versatile veteran is still needed to back up the infield. A good utility group can become huge in key games and may play into whether the Brewers are in the pennant race or flailing their arms in frustration.