PHOENIX — Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Norichika Aoki entered spring training in 2012 with an uncertain role.
A then-30-year old Japanese League All-Star in his first season in the majors, Aoki was listed as the team’s fourth or fifth outfielder and was viewed by many as a low-cost insurance policy in case Ryan Braun’s 50-game suspension wasn’t overturned. Aoki’s role became even more uncertain when Braun was deemed eligible to play.
However, as the Brewers were beset by injuries early in the season, Aoki got a chance to play regularly and took full advantage of the opportunity.
“We really needed (Aoki) to step up last year,” said Brewers first baseman Cory Hart, whose move from right field to patch a hole created by injuries opened up a starting spot for Aoki. “And he did. He worked and did what he needed to do and surprised a lot of people.”
Appearing in 151 games, including 119 starts, the left-handed-hitting Aoki batted primarily out of the leadoff spot and hit .288 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI. The fifth-place finisher in National League Rookie of the Year balloting also stole 30 bases while being caught just eight times. Primarily a center fielder in Japan, Aoki handled the move to right field with ease, demonstrating tremendous instincts, great range and a strong arm.
“His ability to adjust was impressive,” Hart said. “Early on, you could tell the game was a little quick for him. You see that with a lot of guys coming over from Japan. But his work ethic is amazing, and he adjusted sooner than anyone expected.”
One adjustment Aoki admits to struggling with was length of the MLB schedule.
“I definitely felt fatigued at the end of last season,” Aoki said through an interpreter. “It was my first 162-game season. The Japanese season is only 144 games. It’s a long season here, and physically it is quite demanding. I was very tired at the end of last year.”
Aoki worked during the offseason to address the fatigue he felt near the end of 2012.
“After last season, I took one month off to rest,” he said. “I needed to. Then I got back to work. I didn’t do anything different in my workouts, but I did more work in each workout to build up my strength and endurance for this season.”
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke is taking only a slightly different approach to preparing Aoki for the 2013 season.
“It’s more important for us to have him do the real quality work,” Roenicke said. “We talked to him enough last year. He knows what we want. But he also needs the physical side. He’s going to do more things than anybody we have here, but it’s still going to be way less than what he was doing in Japan.”
Also aiding Aoki in 2013 is an elevated level of comfort with his teammates and the major leagues.
“I’m much more comfortable here this spring,” he said. “I know the guys and what to expect in spring training and how the season goes, too. That helps me be comfortable. I finally really felt comfortable last year when I hit the walk-off home run against Chicago in June. Then I really felt like I belonged here.”
Another thing Aoki has done to prepare for 2013 is pass on the opportunity represent his native Japan in the World Baseball Classic. A member of the Japanese teams that won each of the first two WBCs, Aoki was named to the All-Tournament team in 2009.
“It was a very tough decision not to play for Team Japan in the WBC,” he said. “But I felt that I needed to use this time in spring training to best prepare for the season with the Brewers. It’s important to me to be a part of all of spring training. I need to see lots of pitches to get ready. I really want to be consistent this season. That’s what I am working towards.”
However, when asked about specific personal goals for the 2013 season, Aoki responded with a puzzled look and a very brief answer.
“Getting to the World Series,” he said. “And winning. That’s my goal.”