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Over the course of their long rebuild, and even over their recent ascent into competitiveness, the Astros have occasionally been guilty of pursuing talent at the expense of maximizing value. That’s not necessarily the sabermetric sin it might seem. Today’s game, fraught as it is with strikeouts, and with increasing reliance on relief pitchers (for run prevention) and power (for run production), lends itself to a natural and rational emphasis on tools.
There are two problems with that, though. One is that, even in this postmodern version of baseball, OBP is life, and life is OBP. The Astros had only a league-average team OBP in 2016, and their left fielders had a .283 mark that ranked second-worst in the AL. The other problem is that the Astros haven’t, at least to this point, been willing to invest enough money to acquire the top-end talent they need. Talent is never under-priced.
Nori Aoki might be under-priced, or he might not be. That depends on two things:
1. Your opinion of his defense.
His circuitous routes are famous (or infamous), and it’s probably safe to say that he’s a below-average defender, but FRAA liked him in 2016. If he’s close to average, his offensive skill set is more than enough to offset the defensive damage. If he’s truly disastrous, that’s not necessarily true.
2. His contract status.
Aoki played 2016 with the most under-reported contract (from a details perspective) in MLB. We know that he made $5.5 million, and that there was a vesting option if he reached a certain number of plate appearances. He didn’t reach that number. It also seems that there was either a mutual or a conditional option included in the deal, perhaps for a lesser dollar figure, depending on whether he finished the season battling concussion problems or not. He did not finish the season battling concussion problems. We don’t have any specific, reported value on those options, though, at least as of this writing, but it seems they were declined by whichever parties might have had a chance to exercise them.
Strangely, the MLB.com story reporting the move indicates that Aoki is now arbitration-eligible. That makes sense on its face, since Aoki has just five years of service time, but his previous contract (with the Giants) required that he be released at its end, allowing him to become a free agent. That’s a common clause for Japanese players who come to MLB, even on their second or third deals (as that one with San Francisco was for Aoki). It’s bizarre that, in this contract with the Mariners about which we have so much less than the usual amount of information, that clause seems not to have been added.
Aoki should make somewhere around $8 million in arbitration this winter, though, so that’s what the Astros seem to have gotten themselves into.
That a division rival was so clearly ready to non-tender Aoki as to be willing to waive him has to have the Astros feeling both nervous and excited. If he spends the summer running in circles and not quite getting to routine fly balls, they might look silly for spending what still seem to be limited resources on him. Aoki makes contact and gets on base, though, and the Astros desperately needed such a player, especially to flesh out the bottom of their order.
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