One of two things the Washington Nationals have been clear about this winter is that they're in the market for a center fielder. A "center fielder/leadoff hitter" as Nyjer Morgan described it to MLB.com's Bill Ladson in a Q&A last season. "A leadoff-type of on base percentage guy that could hit at the top of the lineup that could play center field," as D.C. GM Mike Rizzo himself told reporters earlier this winter. Perhaps no player available this year fits the mold better than the 29-year-old Yakult Swallows' center fielder, six-time Gold Glove winner and three-time Central League batting champion Norichika Aoki.
The Swallows announced on Monday in Japan that their center fielder for the last six-plus seasons would be posted. MLB teams now have four days to submit bids for the rights to negotiate a deal with Aoki, a player NPB Tracker's Patrick Newman described as, "... the closest thing Japan has to another Ichiro," in a January 2009 scouting report on the outfielder. Aoki put up a .303/.400/.444 line in '09 with 23 doubles, 16 HR's and 18 stolen bases in 142 games and 624 plate appearances that season, and followed that up with a .358/.435/.509 2010 campaign in which he had 44 doubles, 14 HR's and 19 stolen bases in 144 games and 667 PA's.
In 2011, in what will likely be his last year with the Swallows, Aoki's stats suffered some in a year-of-the-pitcher-type season in Japan which coincided with the introduction of a new "noncarrying" ball. The outfielder finished the season with a. 292/.358/.360 slash, 18 doubles, five triples, four home runs and eight stolen bases in 144 games and 643 plate appearances.
SI.com's Jon Heyman (who's now with CBSSports.com) in Novemeber ranked Aoki 21st on a list of the 65 top free agents in an article in which he predicted each player's contract, which in the non-free-agent-NPB players' cases includes a posting fee and contract worked out with whichever team wins the bidding process. Heyman's prediction for Aoki, a player he too described as, "... the best pure hitter to come from Japan since Ichiro," was a $10 million dollar posting fee and a 3-year/$15 million dollar deal.
Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore reported, in a Nationals Journal post entitled, "Nori Aoki a possible backup plan for the Nationals in center field", that the Nats had considered bidding on the Yakult Swallows' outfielder if they were unable to find a trade partner in their pursuit of a center fielder/leadoff man.
Aoki seems to believe he'll be playing in an MLB city next season. In a recent Sponichi article translated by Yakubaka.com, the outfielder told reporters he has no real preference for where he plays, but he thought that, "'... it would help if the team had another Japanese player. That way I would be able to exchange words.'" In another Sponichi report today translated at Yakubaka.com he told the press he looked forward to facing 25-year-old Nippon Ham Fighters' right-hander Yu Darvish in the majors next season. How about playing alongside him?
The idea of solving both of the Nats' stated needs with unproven players from Japan will surely be shot down as too much of a risk, but they might just be the top candidates to fill the leadoff man/center fielder and rotation roles the Nationals have openly stated they need to address. The Nats have been searching for a veteran arm to work with their young staff, but 25-year-old potential top-of-the-rotation arms don't become available too often. MLB teams have four days to submit bid for Aoki. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's told reporters this winter that the Nats are willing to explore all options as they attempt to address their needs. "As we've always said," Rizzo said, "We're open to acquire talent in any way, shape or form that we can, and if it's international talent, we're certainly willing to acquire international players."