According to to the Manichi Daily News, the Yakult Swallows (NPB) have granted star centerfielder Norichika Aoki’s request to post to the MLB. The three-time Central League batting champion, who petitioned his club– for the second time in two years-- to post him, last Monday, announced his intentions yesterday via press conference.
Reportedly distracted by the tsunami and earthquake’s horrific devastation of his hometown, Miyazaki, Aoki posted the worst numbers of his career last season– batting .292 with four homeruns and 44 RBI in 583 at bats. However, it’s worth noting that NPB batting statistics were down across the board due to changes in the composition of the baseball and tweaks to league rules. His .292 average was good for seventh in the Central League.
The twenty-nine-year-old’s eight-year career (statistics courtesy of JapaneseBaseballPlayers.com) provides good evidence that his toolsy skillset will transfer to an everyday job in Major League Baseball. Often compared to Ichiro, Aoki has batted .344 or better in four of his seven seasons since taking his post as the Swallows’ everyday centerfielder in 2005. In 2010, he batted .358 with 14 home runs, 19 stolen bases and collected 209 hits.
An annual member of Japan’s “Best 9″ (all-league) team since 2005, Aoki owns five Gold Gloves and was tabbed NPB’s top hitter by Baseball America‘s John Manuel just prior to the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He started in leftfield alongside MLB stars Kosuke Fukudome and Ichiro Suzuki in the ’09 WBC, and batted .324 with a .732 OPS for the tournament’s champion.
While Aoki’s agent compares him to Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino, SBNation editor Grant Brisbee gives a more skeptical account– writing that the centerfielder “seems like a Denard Span type, where his average and position will dictate just how good he is.”
The only player in Japanese baseball history with two 200-hit seasons, Aoki expressed his longtime interest in playing in the MLB during his brief news conference yesterday afternoon (NikkanSports.com link):
When I was in college, I really felt like wanting to play in that kind of an environment…It’s not without uncertainty. I haven’t really compared myself to other players. I want to go the Major Leagues because I want to go. That’s it…My dream is not just to go over there to play, but it’s to perform strongly in the Major Leagues..I’m ready to play for whatever team needs me, regardless of contract terms.”
Sanspo.com (via Yakyu Baka) reports that numerous MLB clubs are showing interested in bidding on Aoki. The Oakland A’s, San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals and Minnesota Twins are supposedly the most aggressive suitors at the moment. The Nationals who are left with a hole in centerfield by the recent departures of Rick Ankiel and Nyjer Morgan, may be the best fit. Their strong interest in Denard Span and B.J. Upton, apparent in their trade deadline negotiations with the Twins and Rays, suggests Aoki may indeed end up in Washington as a consolation prize to this winter’s top free agent outfielders.
If he signs with a big league club, Aoki is poised to leave a formidable Japanese Baseball legacy behind him. He set a Central League hits record (202) while batting .344 during his first full season (2005), en route to the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. He took home batting titles in 2005, 2007 and 201o, led the CL in stolen bases with 41 in 2006 and then became Nippon Professional Baseball’s first player to record multiple 200-hit seasons in 2010. The member of two champion WBC teams, Aoki tore apart his foes during ’08 Beijing Olympics, collecting ten hits and 7 RBI in nine games.