Feb 25, 2014; Surprise, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals right fielder Norichika Aoki (23) takes batting practice during a workout at Surprise Stadium practice area. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas City Royals - Grading Off-Season Moves: Norichika Aoki

After the Royals signed Jason Vargas to a 4-year/$32M contract, General Manager Dayton Moore moved quickly to acquire a big-league quality fixture in right-field by trading for Norichika Aoki. The sad saga of Royals right field is well-known. This time last year, Jeff Francoeur was getting his reps in, coming off a season in which he was the worst everyday player in the majors,  preparing for what would become one of the worst seasons ever by a major league outfielder.

On offense, in the past two years, Royals right-fielders had a wRC+ (weighted runs created*) of just 81. That places them second-to-last ahead of only the Astros, a team that could barely scrape together a replacement-level lineup. During that same time, Norichika Aoki had a 109 wRC+, 28% better than Royals right-fielders.

*Consider wRC+ like properly weighted OPS+

Francoeur was replaced by stop-gap replacements Justin Maxwell and David Lough who, together, hit .281/.318/.433 for the Royals. While a respectable performance by both men, enough indicators suggest that neither of them are long-term solutions at the position. David Lough’s inability to discern hittable pitches caught up with him within two months at the big league level and Justin Maxwell hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to show what he’s made of (unless it’s glass).

Lough and Maxwell’s combined .751 OPS was most likely in the upper echelon of their ability, making them unlikely to reproduce it, whereas Norichika Aoki’s career OPS is .755.

Outfielders already under Royals control could have had a halfway decent season, sure, but probably not decent enough to better the team. This is almost certainly James Shield’s last season with the team, so 2014 upgrades at every weak position was vital.

Nori Aoki is a high-OBP slap singles hitter who almost never strikes out. He also reaches base an obscene number of time on errors. He’s reached base 27 times on errors in the past two years, which is the best since the 1970s. With the impending shadow of regression cloaking the Royals rotation, it was a also a comfort to know that Aoki would not downgrade the defense to improve the offense.

Aoki grades as an above average fielder with a cannon arm. He’s a perfect fit at the top of any lineup, where a high SLG is less valuable. It allows Alex Gordon to slide down in the lineup where his doubles-power will help drive in some runs.

Aoki is also cheap in the big scheme of things. His salary is a paltry $1.95 million and because the Brewers had a surplus of outfielders, their trade price was low. Better still, all they wanted from the Royals was a lefty reliever who has possible upside as a back-end starter.

Royals had left-handed relievers and back-end starters to spare. Other than Major League mainstay Tim Collins, the team also had Donnie Joseph, Francisley Bueno, Buddy Baumann, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb, and, of course, Will Smith. The club wisely decided they could part ways with Smith.

Smith has a mediocre curveball. He occasionally throws a good changeup. Most importantly, though, he has an sub-par fastball (that he can at least throw for strikes).

He probably won’t be a dominant starter because his primary offering isn’t impressive. But out of the bullpen, he only throws his fastball as a setup pitch, and then unleashes a truly unhittable slider. It holds opposing batters to just a .334 OPS. That’s not OBP, mind you; that’s OPS.

His unhittable slider harldy matters to the Royals because Donnie Joseph is essentially the same pitcher out of the pen. He has a fastball that sits in the high 80s to low 90s that sets up a wipe-out slider. Minor leaguers can’t touch it, literally. They have a (seriously, I’m not kidding) .159 OPS against it.

As for a back-end starter with three ok offerings and a good slider, Wade Davis can also match that. Davis is better all around. Wade Davis has a career 4.57 ERA as a starter and 2.24 ERA as a reliever.  Will Smith has a 5.48 ERA as a starter and 2.45 ERA as a reliever.

Aoki is not a perfect right-fielder. He has mediocre power. He gets caught stealing too often. He’s still a very good player.

Would it have been nice to get Jose Bautista? Yes, it would have been nice to get Jose Bautista. However, Dayton Moore still managed to find an unorthodox player who provides much-needed value at a position that has suffered for years under the weight of languishing players with no upside.

The Royals didn’t give up anything they couldn’t spare and got something they couldn’t find anywhere else. Ben Lindbergh and the Baseball Prospectus staff listed this move as one of their favorites of the off-season. (You might also notice that the Infante signing is mentioned at the end of that list, as well. We’ll get to that next time).

Overall Grade: another A-

Tags: Kansas City Royals Norichika Aoki Will Smith

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