Norichika (Nori) Aoki – 34 years old
2016: Seattle Mariners
Aoki made the move to Major League Baseball in 2012 after an extremely successful career in the Japan Central League with the Yakult Swallows. With Yakult (based in Tokyo), Aoki hit .329 with a .403 on-base percentage over seven seasons.
He’s now played for four teams in five years and the Mariners understandably have interest in bringing him back as their leadoff hitter. With both he and Gutierrez facing free agency and moving pieces elsewhere on the roster, however, something has to give. If that’s Aoki, the 34-year-old veteran still presents value to the right team.
What jumps out about Aoki immediately is his incredible consistency. Over the past three seasons his batting average and on-base percentages have a variance of just .004. Even among veteran hitters, that’s a very uncommon level of predictability.
Predictability is only half the battle, though. Aoki did have some inconsistencies within his 2016 season and, at one point, was even optioned to triple-A for a stretch. While his numbers are comfortable, in the big picture, are they impactful enough for the Toronto Blue Jays?
It depends on role, first and foremost. Aoki’s on-base tool would make him a logical candidate for Toronto’s leadoff spot, thus allowing Devon Travis to hit elsewhere in the lineup and produce runs. Aoki no longer owns the 30-steal speed that he broke into the league with a half-decade ago, but he also won’t be a liability when asked to go from first to third.
Aoki is very skilled at avoiding empty at-bats — strikeouts — which is an area the Blue Jays are looking to improve in. Being a left-handed bat only helps him. For his MLB career, Aoki has 214 strikeouts and 203 walks.
With Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki waiting in the heart of Toronto’s lineup, not to mention Russell Martin and the potential return of Encarnacion, someone with the on-base potential of Aoki becomes slightly more valuable.
His 1.2 Wins Above Replacement last season represent a career low, but if he’s able to maintain this level for one year, Aoki makes for a fine placeholder.
Defensively, Aoki has been used mostly as a left-fielder for the past two seasons but did break in as a right-fielder, where the numbers suggest he may be better suited. Regardless, he doesn’t profile as a ‘plus’ defender on either side.
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