Whether the Seattle Mariners will be a success under GM Jerry Dipoto remains to be seen. However, no one can question his determination to make good on a promise to improve his new team’s outfield defense and athleticism. Today, he took another towards doing just that by signing free agent outfielder Norichika “Nori” Aoki.
Aoki, who turns 34 in January, posted a .287/.353/.380 slash in 392 plate appearance games during his one season with the San Francisco Giants. The four-year major league veteran has been a model of consistency since arriving in the United States prior to the 2012 season. How consistent is he? His career batting average and on-base percentage are identical to his 2015 numbers and his career slugging percentage is just six points higher than last season’s tally.
After starting strongly with a .317/.383/.385 slash in his first 63 games with the Giants, Aoki suffered several physical setbacks that eventually derailed his season. First, he was hit by a pitch on June 20 and suffered a minor fibula fracture in his right leg.
He returned to action on July 27, but encountered another set of obstacles when he was plunked in the head by a pitch on August 9 and ran into an outfield wall just a few days later. After the wall incident, he was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list and his season went into a full tailspin.
Although he returned to action within two weeks, Aoki only played in 12 more games before his season prematurely ended on September 3 due to lingering after effects from the concussion.
As with every deal, it’s not official until a player passes a physical exam. It’s reasonable to assume that the Mariners were comfortable enough with Aoki’s concussion problems to negotiate a contract. Nevertheless, his exam results need to be clean before the signing is officially announced.
The left-handed hitter has posted better platoon numbers against southpaws with a .321/.376/.400 career slash, but he’s been effective against right-handers too. The addition of the quick-footed Aoki along with speedy shortstop Ketel Marte provides first-time manager Scott Servais with a dynamic duo at the top of his order.
Aoki appears to be the clear-cut choice to lead-off since he’s been at the top of the order during 79-percent of his major league career. In addition to having good on-base abilities, he can occasionally swipe a base. His career base stealing average is just under 20-per-season.
Defensively, Aoki is a solid corner outfielder. His four-year total for defensive runs saved (DRS) is nine. He has a reputation for occasionally taking poor routes on balls, which has caused some to describe his outfield play as an adventure. Despite this flaw, he’s still a significantly better defender than any regular corner outfielder that the Mariners have used in recent years.
The former Giant joins an outfield of Franklin Gutierrez, Leonys Martin, Seth Smith, Nelson Cruz, and possibly prospect Boog Powell. Although he’s occasionally played center field in the past and was predominantly a left fielder with the Giants, the majority of his major league playing time has come in right field.
Which corner outfield spot he plays with the Mariners will be dependent on who’s on the Opening Day roster. It’s quite possible that Aoki’s arrival makes Smith and his $6.75 million salary expendable. It’s also possible that Seattle could add another outfielder like Marcell Ozuna – who’ve they’ve been linked to in media reports – or someone else not currently on anyone’s radar.
Another factor will be the amount of time Cruz spends as the team’s designated hitter under the new regime. If the team is as focused on defense as it appears, his outfield time will continue to decline in 2016. As of today, I’d project the outfield to be Smith and Gutierrez in left field, Martin in center, and Cruz and Aoki sharing right field duties.
Financial terms of the deal are unknown at this time. The Giants had a $5.5 million option on him and declined to exercise it. Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune expects Aoki’s deal with Seattle be for one year and a club option for at least one more year.
Clearly, Dipoto isn’t close to being done with remodeling the supporting cast around his core of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz. He’ll certainly add new faces and he may even flip previous acquisitions to improve the club. Just today, Seattle sent relief pitcher C.J. Riefenhauser – acquired last month from Tampa Bay – to the Baltimore Orioles to complete yesterday’s trade of Mark Trumbo for catcher Steve Clevenger.
Bear in mind that the Winter Meetings don’t start until next week and only 12 players on the Mariners’ 40-man roster who broke camp with the team last year. That’s including catchers Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre, who probably won’t make the cut in Peoria next year. More familiar faces – like Smith – may be gone very soon.
It was pointed out to me today that Mariners fans aren’t used to seeing so much change in one offseason. They’ve become accustomed to slow, incremental changes that rarely worked out well. Perhaps, that’s the best part of Seattle’s Hot Stove this year – their GM has a plan and he’s laser-focused on getting it right.