Have the Nationals missed out on the “next Ichiro?”

As the Washington Nationals continue to search for a long-term solution in center field, the Milwaukee Brewers bid $2.5 million for the rights to negotiate with Norichika Aoki, a center fielder from the Nippon Professional Baseball League who will be 30 for the 2012 MLB season, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com.  Aoki in seven complete seasons with the Yakult Swallows has earned a career slash line of .329/.401/.454 along with six straight Japanese-league Golden Glove awards.  Some scouts and analysts claim he is the best pure hitter out of Japan since Ichrio Suzuki.

Comparing Aoki’s Nippon Professional Baseball stats to Ichiro’s shows several surprising similarities.  In nine seasons in Japan, Ichiro hit .353, and collected 1278 hits, while winning seven gold gloves.  Aoki, in two fewer seasons, actually has more hits (1284) but hit for a lower batting average (.329) and won six gold gloves.  The two star players were the first to have 200 hits in one NPB season, which is shorter than the 162-game MLB season.  Aoki was the first NPB player to earn this award twice.

Another strong similarity comes in each player’s international play.  In 1998, Ichiro played a seven game exhibition series against MLB All-Stars.  During that series, he hit .380 and stole seven bases.  Aoki, on the other hand, has had more international experience than Ichiro.   In his latest international appearance, the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he hit .324 and led Japan to victory.  To prove this was not a fluke, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Aoki hit .294 against some of the world’s best prospects.

The differences between the two are obvious, though.  Ichiro entered the major leagues when he was 27 years old, while Aoki will be 30 in January.  While Aoki’s experience is a positive, 30 is a bit old for a traditional MLB rookie, which will shorten the length of his MLB career.  Both players’ playing styles are completely different.  Aoki has multiple batting stances for when he is struggling, whereas Ichiro prides himself in consistency.  This consistency is what he attributes to his great stats in his major league career.  Ichiro is also considered a better defensive player despite their similar speed, because he has a much stronger arm than Aoki does.

This past season, the Nationals showed their need for a legitimate everyday center fielder along with a top of the order bat.  Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina shared center field for the majority of the year.  Ankiel (.239/.296/.363) provided the Nationals with a superb defensive year attributed to his amazing arm, but at the plate, it was a completely different story.  Bernadina (.243/.301/.362) provides above-average defense with his speed and play making ability but had a bad offensive year.  Neither player provided enough consistency to be a top of the order bat, so the line up was changed numerous times during the season.  Bernadina, Ian Desmond, and Danny Espinosa all combined for a horrible .277 OBP in the leadoff spot.  Aoki may be a solution for both of these problems.  He has the possibility of being an above-average defensive player with good speed and a solid contact hitter that could lead off for the Nationals.

The question is, do the Nationals still have a chance at Aoki, and are they willing to take the risk?  It is very possible that the Brewers will not come to an agreement with Aoki because of their depth in the outfield (Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun, Cory Hart, and Nyjer Morgan), which would allow him to negotiate with other MLB teams.  However, Ryan Braun is slated to mis 50 games after testing positive for PEDs, which could increase the Brewers outfield needs. 

The inherent risk in signing Aoki is obvious.  Japanese players do not have a great history of being above-average major league players with the exception of Ichiro.  The Nationals do have to address a significant need in center field, though, and Aoki could be a somewhat inexpensive risk that pays great dividends to the Nationals if they have the opportunity to sign him.

About Joe Drugan

Managing editor of The Nats Blog and co-host of the Nats Talk On The Go podcast.

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