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Brewers surprise winner in bidding for Aoki

Doug Melvin on December 2, responding to questions about the Brewers bidding on Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima:

“I have trouble bidding on somebody you never saw,” said Melvin. “We make mistakes on players we’ve seen for three or four years. Why would we spend on somebody we haven’t seen?”

It’s December 17th, and the Brewers have won the right to negotiate with Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki. The Brewers will pay the Yakult Swallows $2.5 million for the chance to talk to Aoki about a contract, and the two sides will have 30 days to work out a deal. If they don’t, Aoki stays in Japan and the Brewers keep their $2.5 million. If a deal is reached, the Brewers are on the hook for that money and whatever Aoki signs for.

Needless to say, this isn’t your typical Doug Melvin move.

Just a couple weeks ago, Melvin didn’t seem interested in bidding on any Japanese free agents, and it’s never been a market in which the Brewers have been very active. Perhaps Melvin was bluffing. Maybe Ryan Braun‘s potential suspension has him looking for backup plans. Given the blind bidding system, it’s possible the Brewers just submitted a bid and didn’t expect to actually win the negotiating rights. The way the posting system is built, there’s really no harm in submitting a bid even if interest is mild at best.

Like most players coming over from Japan, there looks to be a wide range of opinions on Aoki’s MLB potential. Some have called him Japan’s best hitting product since Ichiro, which I fear is setting a lot of people up for disappointment. There’s a huge difference between saying “he’s like Ichiro” and saying “he’s the best since Ichiro,” but the second you mention the future Hall of Famer, people are going to get their expectations up.

Like just about any Japanese hitter not named Hideki Matsui, Aoki won’t hit for much power. Most reports have him as a line-drive spray hitter, but the thing that personally has me excited is his patience at the plate. He’s posted OBPs of .400+ in each of the past four seasons, and tends to walk more than he strikes out. At 5’9″, it looks like he knows how to use his small strike zone to his advantage.

It’s always tricky trying to “convert” Japanese numbers to MLB numbers, but Aoki’s stats overseas compare favorably to some who have had success stateside. Kosuke Fukudome, for example, had a career NPB line of .305/.397/.543, while Aoki has posted a line of .336/.411/.472. In the States, Fukudome has been a bit of a disappointment considering the money he’s made, but hasn’t been as terrible as some would lead you to believe, hitting .260/.361/.399 for his career. Based on the numbers alone, one could expect Aoki to maybe do a touch better in the batting average and on-base departments, but not have the occasional pop of Fukudome. Considering Fukudome’s power never really materialized over the course of a full seasons, you can see why some people (like Keith Law) are skeptical that Aoki could be much more than a role player.

Still, it’s reasonable enough to think that he could end up being more successful than some of the most recent imports like Fukudome, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, and Akinori Iwamura. Considering the posting fees the Twins and Rays paid for the latter two ($5,329,000 and $4,500,000, respectively) they could up with a relative bargain.

Some Aoki videos Toby Harrmann of Brewerfan.net was able to dig up: