By John Pesetski Special to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
PHOENIX – Star Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is the darling Japanese MLB import this spring, but the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t do too badly themselves on the overseas market this offseason.
While Darvish’s transition to America is getting all the attention, the Brewers introduced three-time Japanese Central League batting champion Norichika Aoki to Cactus League media on Thursday. Signed as a free agent on Jan. 17, the seven-time JCL All-Star officially joined the Brewers at their Maryvale training complex two days before full team workouts are set to begin.
“We’re pretty excited,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. “We had the opportunity to work him out here in Phoenix. We’ve heard all about what he has done in Japan and know he is ready for the challenge.”
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So what has he done? The 30-year-old debuted with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows of the JCL in 2004. In 2005, he won the league’s batting title with a .344 average on his way to also being named the Central League Rookie of the Year. He added two more batting crowns in 2007 and 2010, while posting a career .329 average with 84 home runs, 385 RBI and 164 stolen bases in seven seasons. Primarily a center fielder in Japan, the six-time Gold Glove winner has the ability to play all three outfield positions.
“I feel like a rookie again,” Aoki said Thursday through an interpreter. “I’m excited to get off to a new start in my career. When I first came here to America with my college to play baseball, I enjoyed my experience here. I’ve always watched Major League Baseball and just feel like I’m ready for the challenge.”
Aoki, a left-handed hitter who throws with his right arm, worked out for the Brewers at Maryvale in early January. The team won the rights to negotiate with him by paying a $2.5 million posting fee to the Swallows, then signed him to a two-year contract with a team option for 2014.
“We’ve worked out Nori,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “We’ve seen videos. We heard great things about his game. He’s won Gold Gloves and he’s won batting titles in Japan. He’s a well-polished player. We feel like with his game, he’s able to do a lot of things to help us.”
A veteran of international play, the Tokyo resident was on both the 2006 and 2009 Japanese teams that won the World Baseball Classic. In 2009, he was named to the WBC all-tournament team, batting .324 with seven RBI in only nine games, although he did go hitless in five at-bats in Japan’s semifinal round win over Team USA. He also represented Japan in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
Aoki’s versatility makes him particularly valuable to the Brewers, who still don’t know the status of All-Star left fielder Ryan Braun’s appeal of a reported positive test for a banned substance. He’ll have to find a role in a loaded outfield that includes Braun, Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan and Carlos Gomez, but the Brewers believe he can contribute.
“The guy can hit to all fields,” Roenicke said. “He can hit the ball out of the park occasionally. He can bunt. He can steal. I feel really comfortable he’s going to play great defense. And OBP is huge for what I like in an offense. He’s not going to be an easy out. He’s going to make pitchers work.”
The Brewers, who’ve had Japanese players on the roster in four of the past 10 seasons, are comfortable Aoki will fit right in.
“These guys are just like us. They’re baseball players, too. He’ll fit right in here. It doesn’t take long at all.” catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. “It’s always fun to mix with guys from other cultures — whether it’s Latin players or Asian players — everybody’s a part of this team.”
One thing that may aid Aoki’s rapid assimilation is the presence of interpreter Kosuke Inaji. An American who moved from Japan at age 3, Inaji worked with the Brewers in 2011 as the interpreter for reliever Takashi Saito. In fact, the interpreter received as warm of a welcome from the players Thursday as the new outfielder did.
For his part, Aoki is already sounding like he’ll be right at home.
“Saito has told me a lot of good things about the team, the staff and the fans of Milwaukee,” Aoki said. “He told me that Ron is an excellent communicator and that the park is a nice place to play. … I’m excited to get to Milwaukee. Plus, my father is a big fan of beer, so he is excited about Milwaukee.”