HOUSTON -- Veteran outfielder Norichika Aoki was the Astros' first addition this offseason, when they plucked him off waivers from the Mariners shortly after the conclusion of the World Series. Within a couple of weeks, the Astros had traded for catcher Brian McCann and signed outfielders Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltrán, making Aoki a largely forgotten commodity.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, though, sees the 34-year-old native of Japan as an important piece to the club next year. A left-handed bat who's difficult to strike out, Aoki batted .283 with 24 doubles, four triples, four homers and 28 RBIs with a .349 on-base percentage over 118 games this past season.
"He's a little bit of an under-the-radar acquisition for us," Hinch said. "We started with him and we've sort of gotten bigger and bigger as the acquisitions have come. Aoki, I planned on playing in the outfield quite a bit. He's good against right-handed pitching. He holds his own against lefties. ... He's a tough guy to strike out."
Aoki, who signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal for next year, played primarily left field (88 starts) in 2016, but made 14 starts in center. He figures to get starts in left field against right-handed pitching. Aoki can play right, but the Astros hold a better left-handed option in Reddick there.
Aoki was among the Major League leaders in '16 in plate appearances per strikeout at 10.38, trailing only Andrelton Simmons (12.71) and Joe Panik (11.19). Since arriving in the Major Leagues in 2012, Aoki's 12.48 strikeout rate is tops among all hitters.
"Originally, when we got him, there was a great attraction to his at-bat quality that he could add to our feast-or-famine notoriety," Hinch said. "We had a lot of guys that swung and missed, and a lot of guys that hit home runs. And Aoki is one of the toughest outs in the big leagues, and that type of balance to our order was attractive.
"Now that we have added a few pieces, whether he hits in the top of the order or the bottom, how much he plays against left-handed pitching will be determined. But we expect a good at-bat and we expect a competent defender in the outfield. And he, again, is a guy who knows how to hit. ... [He's] been on playoff teams, played in the World Series. He's done some things that many people in the room haven't, so I expect him to contribute accordingly."
A native of Hyuga, Japan, Aoki has played in parts of five seasons (2012-16) in the Major Leagues and owns a .286 batting average and a .353 OBP in 649 career games. He had 41 postseason at-bats with the Royals in 2014, including 14 in the World Series.