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Once in a while, a team makes a move so franchise-altering that its shadow extends over the next several seasons. Last winter’s Wil Myers-James Shields swap was one such move, and it’s affected our interpretation of everything that’s transpired in Kansas City since. The Royals finished over .500 for the first time in a decade, but that success couldn’t quiet the questions. Did they win enough games to justify surrendering the Rookie of the Year? How many would they have won with Myers? Without him, how many won’t they win in the future? And so on. And now, almost a year to the day that that trade was made, the Royals have made another exchange involving a pitcher and a right fielder. The article writes itself!
Okay, evidently it doesn’t. I’ll go on.
In one sense, Aoki blends right in with the rest of the Royals’ lineup: they’re a high-contact team, and he’s a high-contact hitter. Kansas City had the third-highest contact rate and third-lowest strikeout rate among major-league teams last season; Aoki had the second-highest contact rate and lowest strikeout rate among qualified players.
But Aoki also walks a little more often than the typical Royal, and he gets hit by pitches at 2 1/2 times the average rate, which makes him one of his new team’s biggest on-base threats. Among hitters who’ve made at least 100 plate appearances for Kansas City over the past two seasons, only Billy Butler has posted a higher OBP than Aoki’s .355 over that span.
And on-base percentage probably understates Aoki’s offensive impact, because as a speedy hitter with baseball’s highest groundball rate—62.5 percent of his balls in play last season stayed on the ground—Aoki is perfectly constructed to reach base on error. (Well, not perfectly—right-handed hitters reach on error more often.) He’s done so 27 times over the past two seasons, which easily led the majors (he also led the majors with 79 infield hits, 16 of which were bunts). Including Aoki’s ROE in his OBP—which would make sense, since reaching on error is a skill—would raise it 22 points, to .377. Of course, if you add ROE to Aoki’s OBP, you have to add it to every hitter’s, but Aoki’s ROE rate has been 2.3 times higher than the average hitter’s, which means he’s had 15 more ROE than the average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances. Add those into his line, and his OBP rises 12 points relative to the league.
Another positive byproduct of adding Aoki: it just might Yost-proof the lineup. Whether Aoki continues to bat leadoff or drops down to second, the top of Kansas City’s order now seems too crowded for Emilio Bonifacio or Alcides Escobar to sneak in (although it would mean living with back-to-back lefties). So not only will Aoki add his own offensive value, he might indirectly optimize scoring elsewhere in the lineup. The downside is that he doesn’t hit for much power, but hey, homers don’t count in Kauffman anyway. (Actually, come to think of it, Kauffman kills walks, too.*)
Counterpoint: no, it doesn’t. According to my brand-new Bill James Handbook, Kauffman had a 102 walk index from 2011-13.**
**But hey, I had to get my snark in somewhere.
Although he’s swiped 50 bags over his first two seasons stateside, Aoki has actually been a net negative on the bases, since he was caught 12 times and had a tough time advancing on grounders in 2013. However, most metrics rate him as one of baseball’s best right fielders, thanks to plus range and an above-average arm, so he’ll fit right in on a team that trailed only Oakland and Tampa in Defensive Efficiency in the AL last season. With Alex Gordon in left, Lorenzo Cain in center, and Aoki in right, the Royals figure to have one of baseball’s best defensive outfields. Aoki’s arrival does them give them a glut of potential fourth outfielders, with both Justin Maxwell and David Lough capable of handling that role, so another move could be coming (even if it’s just a trip to Omaha for Lough).
Preliminary PECOTAs project Aoki to be worth 2.1 WARP next season, which would make the 32-year-old an average player. At a cost of $1.95 million, he’ll provide plenty of surplus value. Some sources list Aoki as eligible for arbitration for the first time next winter (as his service time would suggest), which would really make this a steal, but his contract calls for him to become a free agent. Barring an extension, this looks like a one-year rental, but it makes perfect sense, given the Royals roster’s strengths and where they are on the win curve.
Last winter, we questioned whether the Royals were close enough to being a playoff-caliber club to make a win-now move. (We also questioned whether trading Shields for Myers was a win-now move, given who the Royals had in right field, but forget that for the moment.) That concern seemed well-founded when, even with Shields, they finished 5.5 games out of the closest Wild Card spot and seven behind in the division. Having taken last season’s step toward respectability, though, the Royals are now in a position where it makes perfect sense for them to push, with every extra win bringing them closer to the 90-victory sweet spot on the marginal curve. You can quibble about whether the Royals, as currently constructed, are really a mid-80s-win team, since some regression could be coming on the mound—Kansas City just got 543 2/3 innings of 3.56 ERA pitching out of Ervin Santana, Bruce Chen, and Jeremy Guthrie, which might be tough to replace—but they could offset that with offensive improvements, and they’re close enough to the playoff bubble that they should be making moves with the near future in mind.
Surrendering Smith stings less because Kansas City is dealt from depth. The 2013 Royals had more effective relievers than Ned Yost knew what to do with (which, admittedly, might have been true no matter how many effective relievers they’d had). Smith is a valuable piece, by setup man standards, but the Royals have no shortage of 20-something bullpen arms under team control, and plenty of big-name prospects in the pipeline. With Aoki in hand, Royals fans can really rosterbate in earnest. Sign Beltran. Trade Butler! Factor in those fastballs from Yordano Ventura (and Kyle Zimmer), and a full season of second-half Hosmer! Hope Moustakas and Escobar won’t be so bad! Before this move, it was already possible to picture the Royals contending, in a way that it wasn’t last year. The addition of Aoki makes it even easier. —Ben Lindbergh
Aoki’s overall fantasy value shouldn’t change much in Kansas City, but the Brewers made this trade due to the emergence of Khris Davis and a suddenly crowded outfield in Milwaukee, so the move makes his spot more secure. Aoki provides just enough home runs and RBI to make him mixed-league relevant, and should continue to be started in all formats if the Royals don’t do anything else that threatens his playing time. —Mike Gianella
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Acquired LHP Will Smith for RF-L Norichika Aoki. [12/5]
Smith, whose conversion from the rotation last season went well, is everything you’d want in a lefty reliever. He throws fairly hard for a southpaw, with a four-seamer that comes in around 93, and he drew swings on 60 percent of his sliders, the seventh-highest rate among relievers. Same-handed hitters couldn’t touch him: he struck out 27 of the 54 southpaws he faced. But he’s more than a LOOGY, holding right-handed hitters to a .235/.273/.412 line and using his five-pitch starter’s arsenal to work more than an inning in almost half of his appearances, including some long-relief outings. Showing strong control, he settled into a higher-leverage, late-inning role as the season wore on, with a high homer (and HR/FB) rate being the only black mark on his ledger. The Brewers’ bullpen was awful in 2012 and still shaky at times in 2013, and the young second southpaw’s presence should provide some solidity.
Smith will turn 25 in July, and he’ll be under team control through 2019, with two more pre-arb seasons ahead of him. Doug Melvin suggested that the team might try him as a starter next spring, but even if he stays in the bullpen, he’s a pretty valuable piece (especially if his much-improved slider stays effective against righties), and a decent, if not overwhelming, return for one year of Aoki. The last time these two teams hooked up in trade, it was the Royals on the receiving end of young players, with Zack Greinke going the other way. Now, the competitive tables have turned, in part because of the players the Milwaukee gave up in that swap. The Brewers have an ample supply of corner outfielders—for now, Ryan Braun will move to right, and Khris Davis will likely take over in left—and they won’t be contending in 2014. Moving Aoki made sense, and in Smith, the Brewers got a guy who can contribute both now and in the future. —Ben Lindbergh
Smith improved in real life last year, but it is likely that he will remain in relief for the Brewers. If Milwaukee does decide to shift him to the rotation, keep him in mind, but his splits don’t make him an automatic bet to translate his bullpen success in 2013 to future rotation rewards. At the moment, he’s a $1 flier in NL-only formats.
Davis is an even bigger winner than Aoki, since any questions about what the Brewers plans were for him vanished with this trade. His home run pace from last season—11 in 153 plate appearances—isn’t sustainable over the course of a full season, but a 20-25 home run pace with a .250 or .260 batting average wouldn’t be surprising. Davis immediately takes on relevance in all leagues, and is an especially intriguing play in NL-only leagues in 2014. —Mike Gianella