Aoki trade signals Braun's shift to RF

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By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, December 6, 2013

When the Milwaukee Brewers traded outfielder Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals on Thursday for left-hander Will Smith, it was a move that accommodated various players as well as the club’s plans for 2014 and beyond.

The swap opened right field for the move of Ryan Braun from left field, which went from a strong possibility to a certainty. And by moving Braun, it opened left field for young slugger Khris Davis, whose impressive debut last season earned him a chance to play regularly.

The trade also accommodated Aoki, who understandably wasn’t excited about the possibility of greatly reduced playing time entering his free-agent year. In exchange, Aoki’s agent, Nez Balelo, sought the security of a contract extension, which didn’t fit the Brewers’ plans.

Last but not least, the deal accommodated manager Ron Roenicke, who had only one left-hander on the roster, Tom Gorzelanny. Smith at least profiles as a lefty specialist in the bullpen but also has starting experience in the majors and the Brewers will look at him in that role first.

“I told him to come to camp as a starter and then we’ll see,” said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. “He has pitched some good games in relief with a lights-out breaking ball. We’ll take a look at him and see where he fits best.

“I talked to him on the phone and asked how he would describe himself and he said, ‘I’m not afraid.’ That was good to hear. (Royals general manager) Dayton (Moore) told me he’s a great competitor.”

Smith, 24, made 16 starts for Kansas City in 2012, going 6-9 with a 5.32 earned run average. Used as a reliever in all but one of 19 appearances last season, he fared much better, going 2-1 with a 3.24 earned run average and 43 strikeouts in 331/3 innings. In 28 games (10 starts) at Class AAA Omaha, Smith was 6-4 with a 3.03 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 89 innings.

“I’m excited about it,” Smith said on a conference call. “It’s not that the Royals didn’t want me. It’s just that Milwaukee wants me more. I’d like to think it’s a good move.

“The Royals had an unbelievable pitching staff and it was a little logjam. … I didn’t really know my future there. To be heading for Milwaukee and maybe have a chance for the rotation, I’m excited about that part of it. I’ve always enjoyed starting. I did it basically my whole career.”

Of his approach to pitching, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Smith said, “I’m competitive. I don’t get scared. I’m not going to back down from anybody. I’m going to attack you with my fastball and use my breaking ball to get you out.”

Aoki, who will be 32 in January, did a nice job as the Brewers’ right fielder after coming from Japan prior to the 2012 season. In 155 games this year, he batted .286 with 20 doubles, eight home runs, 37 runs batted in, 20 stolen bases and a .356 on-base percentage.

Though he spoke little English, the affable Aoki proved to be a good fit in the clubhouse.

“We’ll miss Nori,” said Melvin. “He was a good teammate and a good player. It probably won’t be an overly popular move for the fans because of that but we had a chance to get a good pitcher who we can control for several years. We’ve had interest in him for a couple of years.”

Balelo, who also represents Braun, said the trade was best for all parties involved.

“We said we’d love to work out an extension if they had the desire but otherwise it would be good to find a city Nori would be comfortable with and gave him a chance to play regularly,” said Balelo.

“Nori really liked it in Milwaukee, but this is a good fit all the way around. So, we were all on the same page.”

The possibility of moving to right field was discussed with Braun a few weeks back at a luncheon in Los Angeles attended by Melvin, Roenicke and team principal owner Mark Attanasio. Roenicke said he would contact Braun at some point Thursday to tell him the proposed move was a go.

During an appearance last week in Milwaukee in which he participated in the club’s food drive, Braun said he was open to the position switch.

“He knows he’s a good defender,” said Roenicke. “I don’t think it will take him long to get used to it. I’m sure there will be an adjustment period but with his skill set he should be able to do it without much difficulty.”

The Brewers will give Davis, who will be 26 later this month, a shot at the majority of the playing time in left field. In a 56-game debut in 2013, he batted .279 with 11 home runs and 27 RBI in 136 at-bats (a home run every 12.36 at-bats). With a below-average throwing arm, the right-handed-hitting Davis profiled as a left fielder only, necessitating Braun’s move to right.

Melvin said outfielder Caleb Gindl, a left-handed hitter, also could get playing time in left field. The Brewers also have lefty-hitting Logan Schafer, the primary backup to centerfielder Carlos Gomez.

“We had Nori at a pretty good rate but this allows him to play every day (in Kansas City),” said Melvin, who had exercised Aoki’s $1.95 million option for 2014. “It would be hard to tell Khris Davis we didn’t have a spot for him after the way he performed last season. We need to give our young players a chance to play.”

One downside of the trade is the need to find a new leadoff hitter to replace Aoki, who was dependable in that role. Roenicke said he considered the top candidates to be shortstop Jean Segura, Gomez and second baseman Scooter Gennett, assuming he starts ahead of Rickie Weeks, who has considerable leadoff experience.

Segura, Gomez and Gennett are not high on-base types, but Roenicke said they are the best alternatives at present.

“It’s not just the leadoff spot but really Nos. 1-2 because ‘Seggy’ was our No. 2 hitter,” said Roenicke. “If Rickie is in the picture, he has done it before. I think ‘Seggy’ and Gennett can improve their on-base percentage.

“We’ll miss Nori because we knew he could do it; he’d work the counts. But I understand why we need to do these things. We need to give our young players a chance.”

Smith, whose fastball is in the 90-92 mph range, used his slider more last season while pitching primarily in relief. He was tough on left-handed hitters, who batted only .157 against him.

A seventh-round draft pick in 2008 by the Los Angeles Angels, Smith is a good friend of Brewers pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg, who also began his career in the Angels’ system.

“We’re already trying to figure out spring training arrangements,” said Smith, who grew up in Newnan, Ga., as a fan of the Atlanta Braves. “‘Seggy’ was in Anaheim with us and he’s an unbelievable athlete. He has great hands. He can play.”

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