Norichika Aoki wasn't the plan of the offseason. There were Lesters to chase and Sandovals to waste our time. There was always a big free agent just around the corner -- a Cuban hotshot, a starting pitcher, or a something/anything that was more exciting. Instead, we present Aoki, who is something like Marco Scutaro doing a Marvin Benard impression.
That's good, though! Don't be fooled by the casual comparisons, a player who can hit for average, bug the other pitcher, and be a solid-though-frustrating outfielder is a player worth having. It would be cooler if the Giants could surround him with, oh, six or seven players who could hit more than 10 home runs, but Aoki is a good baseball player. It wasn't that long ago that he was coveted because different websites thought he was under Brewers control and arbitration eligible through 2016. That was mistaken, but it turns out the Giants essentially have him at something that mirrors the end of that non-existent contract. It was his destiny, and the Giants were rewarded.
Possibly rewarded. Aoki's adjusted OPS has come down every year since coming to the majors:
While being a league-average hitter is enough for him to be valuable, considering his baserunning, he's not that far away from being a player who doesn't do anything well enough to justify a starting spot. All it would take is a drop in OBP, increased defensive misadventures, injuries that affect his speed ... there are a lot of way for him to move from productive to ordinary, or worse.
Assume that he has another year of peak Aoki left, though. If only because you want to. You'll read a lot about how he'll make the pitchers work. There will be at-bats where his penchant for contact will frustrate, especially if he's leading off a game, but he was 79th among all qualified hitters last year in pitches per plate appearance. Brandon Crawford was three spots ahead of him. Hunter Pence was 45 spots ahead of him. If he makes a difference when it comes to tiring a pitcher out, it has nothing to do with how many pitches he sees.
His value comes through getting on base and hitting for a modestly high batting average, then scampering around like a little dickens. He isn't the best base stealer -- he's been successful only 68 percent of the time in the majors -- but he can go first-to-third, score on the medium fly balls, and do the things that quick players do.
He was also a 20-homer player in Japan once, which gives you an idea of what Japanese ballparks are like. He won't do that ever, ever, ever again, and that's the reason the Giants could sign him for a $4 million deal instead of a $40 million one. His power didn't play that well in Milwaukee, at that means he'll probably hit one home run at AT&T Park this year, and it will need to deflect off a seagull to get over. If he's going to hit well, he'll have to do the singles-and-doubles thing.
How well is he set up to do that at AT&T? FanGraphs has an idea:
If you take a shovel to those dots in left, you'll find a grinning Juan Perez buried underneath. It doesn't look like Aoki is going to benefit substantially from Triples Alley or the short porch in right field. He should still be a productive, worthwhile hitter, but his stats aren't going to show some counterintuitive boost because of his funky style and odd spray chart.
Here, then, is a player with a low ceiling and a low floor. There are termites under the floor, happily eating, but it's not a big deal yet. Also, the termites are a metaphor for age. The wood in the floor is a metaphor for human cells. That spray chart up there is a metaphor for life, if you think about it. Seriously, think about it. It's deeper than Field of Dreams, anyway.
This low ceiling and low floor combine for one very Aoki summer. I'm okay with that.
He makes up for any possible flaws in other ways.