In Norichika Aoki, it appears that the Mariners have a known, stable presence in left field in 2016. In four MLB seasons, his wRC+ has been 113, 102, 104, and 112, and his numbers in Japan were similarly consistent. That production, combined with Aoki's statistically solid defensive reputation and a small financial commitment (1 year, $5.5 million with a mutual $6 million vesting option in 2017) makes him look like a solid addition to a team that has spent most of the decade playing infielders in the outfield.
It's not that simple, though. Nori Aoki could indeed be exactly the player outlined in the preceding paragraph. But the reality is that Aoki represents one of Jerry Dipoto's greatest risks, and his failure could trigger a classic Mariner roster blackhole if things break the wrong way. What are the concerns? Well, if you would use your eyes to read instead of your lips to talk I could get to that.
Aoki's reputation for consistency is well merited. He's been a pleasant form of predictable, and he's mostly been durable enough to stay on the field. Prior to 2015, Aoki had played at least 130 games every year since he arrived stateside, and in Japan he missed more than two games in a season only once, in 2008.
But his sterling health record began to crumble in 2014 with Kansas City, when a groin injury put him on the DL for the first time. In 2015 Aoki again went on the DL, this time with a leg injury after he was hit by a Carlos Frias fastball. The big concern for 2016 though is this:
At first Aoki was day-to-day. Then he was on the seven-day concussion DL. When he returned, he slumped, hitting .200/.259/.340 in 54 PA's before informing the Giants in early September that he was still experiencing concussion symptoms, effectively ending his season.
Concussions are brutal things; they can herald the end of a league's existence and serve as a vehicle for Will Smith's award-trolling. When a baseball player suffers a concussion, in addition to the very real everyday life concerns he faces, the game's demand on his body's fine motor skills and muscle memory can bring about an alarming reduction in performance, assuming that he can take the field at all. So, while the Mariners have a large sample size of data telling them what Nori Aoki was before a Jake Arrieta cutter bore into his helmet at 92 miles per hour, they have nothing telling them what he is today.
Joe Mauer and Jonathan Lucroy are just two of the high profile players who have seen their careers take a dark post-concussion detour. I'm sure the Mariners gave Aoki a thorough physical, and I'm even more sure that Aoki himself claims he's fine and ready to play. But even in today's comparatively enlightened technological age, we know precious little about the human brain, or the effects of trauma on it. Aoki's performance in 2016 is more of a wild card than we want to admit.
Every baseball team has a Plan A, and I imagine that the vast majority of them (non-Reds/Padres division) make a lot of sense and look pretty good. Where an organization finds itself tested is when a portion of Plan A inevitably goes to shit. Someone always gets hurt, or underperforms; 2001 is the exception that proves the rule.
Acquiring a player fresh off of a head injury is a gamble because, and I know this sounds weird, the Mariners outfield depth is crap. Yes there are reasons to be excited about Boog Powell, and yes we all love Guti, and yes Seth Smith sweats competence. But as high as I am on him, Leonys Martin was a disaster in 2015, and beyond him the roster is littered with O'Malleys and Romeros. No one questions Nelson Cruz's ability to turn a bat into Grond, the Hammer of the Underworld, but his time in the outfield should be over.
The Mariners need Nori Aoki to stay healthy, and given context, that's frightening.
Complaining about the Mariners not spending money is tired and pointless. In the past decade-plus alone, this organization has paid big bucks to Nelson Cruz, Chone Figgins, Carlos Silva, Robinson Cano, Richie Sexson, and Adrian Beltre, among others. The team has also opened their checkbook to retain Ichiro and Felix Hernandez while each was at the height of his powers. Even as front offices, managers, and players have come and gone, the financial decision makers that greenlighted those big contracts remain in place. The Mariners are clearly willing to spend money.
This year's deep free agent class (and 2016-17's Matrix sequels) gave the Mariners a limited opportunity to add a true star at a position of great need. They were never going to sign Jason Heyward, despite David's commendable efforts. But even today, outfielders across the price spectrum, from Yoenis Cespedes to Dexter Fowler, are available, and both are substantially better and younger than Nori Aoki.
The timing of Aoki's acquisition on December 2nd, well before the Winter Meetings, essentially precluded the team from grabbing a superior player at a bargain price. You can shuffle the chairs around all you want, but you still only have so much floor space. Another acquisition is still technically possible, but it won't happen. In the greatest outfield FA market in years, with a roster bereft of outfielders, the Mariners decided very early on that Nori Aoki was their guy. Like someone who hastily grabs 21 Jump Street off the first page of a Redbox, I simply don't get the rush.
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I didn't come into this article wanting to write negatively about Nori Aoki. I love Nori Aoki! He's a blogger's dream because he provides an endless stream of easily generated and shareable #content, such as:
and of course the follow up to Hans Moleman's award winning film MAN GETTING HIT BY FOOTBALL: MAN GETTING HIT BY BASEBALL
Nori Aoki is funny, personable, and immensely fun to watch play baseball. Even after writing all these words generally bemoaning his acquisition, I can't wait to watch him in a Mariners uniform. But I'm a fan, a writer, someone whose goals in this whole thing aren't necessarily to simply win every game. For those who do fall in that box though, i.e. the whole Mariner front office, Nori Aoki offers a limited ceiling and a surprisingly low floor at a critical position.
Last night, the news came down that Justin Upton had signed with the Tigers at 6 years, $132.75 million. It's easy, and fun, to make jokes about Detroit's impending Fallout 4 campaign. But Upton has an opt out clause after 2 years, relieving both parties of the burden of each other's company at precisely the right time. It's the kind of creative, mutually beneficial deal that we've seen a lot of this Winter, and most of it after Aoki's signing.
The Mariners may or may not have had a chance to put themselves in strong playoff contention by acquiring a star outfielder. But, for a franchise that obviously wants long term sustainable success, Nori Aoki possibly represents another misunderstanding of that value of the present day. Oh well, at least we'll have gifs.