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Monday, December 19, 2011
Brewers might import former 'next Ichiro'

By Christina Kahrl

The Brewers already have all sorts of trouble to sort through. Prince Fielder left town to entertain offers involving oodles of cash, and Ryan Braun is looking at a 50-game suspension for allegedly possessing more testosterone than even Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World. Aramis Ramirez provides at least one new answer for their need for power. But there’s more work to be done if the Brewers are going to have any shot at defending their NL Central title.

To their credit, they’re being a bit creative. Having Alex Gonzalez at shortstop might compensate for A-Ram’s disappearing range on the left side of the infield. Having first base open creates the opportunity Mat Gamel spent the last four years at either Huntsville or Nashville waiting for.

Norichika Aoki
Will Norichika Aoki make this kind of contact for the Brewers?
But to stretch their limited dollars just a wee bit further, the Brewers expanded their personal pool of free agents by paying the posting fee to negotiate with outfielder Norichika Aoki of the Yakult Swallows. Aoki, now coming up on his 30th birthday, was gushingly compared to Ichiro Suzuki back in the day. He bats lefty, runs well, played center and seemed like a leadoff terror every team would be falling all over to get back in 2007.

But that was five years ago, when he was a career .330/.390/.425 hitter. From 2007-2010 Aoki would bounce around a .350 batting average, .430 OBP while slugging .500. In 2007 he scored 114 runs while drawing 80 walks; in 2008, he stole 31 bases in 40 attempts. (Praise be to the always indispensable Baseball-Reference.com for releasing their new tranche of Japanese leagues data today.)

Then came 2011, when Japan adopted a baseball more like the American ball, which radically changed the Japanese leagues. Per a thought-provoking post from earlier today from Tim Ednoff of Baseball American, both circuits saw their runs scored per game drop by more than a full run in 2011 -- the Central League’s ERA dropped from 4.13 to 3.06, and the Pacific League’s -- which uses the DH -- went from 3.94 to 2.94. Good-bye Randy Bass, and hello Deadball Era.

Where this matters is when it comes to interpreting the performance not just of the highest high-profile guys like Yu Darvish, but also a hitter like Aoki. Last year, the second coming of Ichiro saw his performance drop to .292/.358/.360 while stealing just eight bases in 11 attempts. He’s also years past his days as an everyday center fielder. I asked Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider Insider if he’d forecasted Aoki yet, and he had -- to to hit .289/.338/.393 in Milwaukee. (Note: Not a neutral park, as stated earlier.) Miller Park isn’t a launching pad, so that’ll do for a place-holding expectation for what Aoki might be able to do in Milwaukee. Good-bye Ichiro, hello Tony Plush.

Which is perhaps exactly why he’s the sort of guy the Brewers can afford. A posting fee of $2.5 million isn’t much to start out with, and Aoki’s 2011 plummet at the plate conveniently gives the Brewers a better sense of what he might do. And assuming that Braun is missing from left field for the first 50 games, there’s already a spot open in the Brewers’ lineup.

Aoki would presumably be a Ron Roenicke kind of player, presumably running and bunting on command, and complementing the other small-ball gambits that the Brewers’ skipper likes to employ now and again.

What about after those first 50 games, when Braun comes back in late May or early June? That’s certainly going to be interesting. If Gamel is holding down the job, the Brewers have a nice problem on their hands. But if Gamel isn’t earning his keep at the plate at that point, it’s worth remembering that Corey Hart has played 179 games in the minors at first base, and he rarely charms observers with his ungainly brand of right-field defense.

Whether or not the Brewers wind up actually signing Aoki is another thing altogether, so let’s not put too many horses before this particular cart. As the Oakland A’s found out in their negotiations with Rakuten Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma last year, there’s no guarantee that a player will take just any offer from the only team he’s allowed to negotiate with. And since the posting fee is refundable, if the Brewers decide that Aoki won’t sign for their best offer, they can always just wish him well and leave him on the other side of the Pacific.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.