Mariners land Aoki to boost outfield
Lefty batter coming off injury-shortened season with Giants
SEATTLE -- New general manager Jerry Dipoto's efforts to retool the Mariners took another step on Thursday as the club announced the signing of free agent Nori Aoki to a one-year deal with a mutual vesting option for 2017.
Dipoto said Aoki would likely hit leadoff in an everyday role for manager Scott Servais and helps fill his goal of making the club's outfield more athletic.
"We feel he'll make a difference as a catalyst at the top of our lineup," Dipoto said. "You've got a stolen-base threat who is on base 35 percent of the time and has shown you a bat for average that is ridiculously consistent. We're excited to have him in that role."
The agreement was first reported Wednesday, but Aoki needed to pass an extensive physical exam on Thursday before the paperwork was completed. CBSSports.com reported the deal will play $5.5 million, with a $6 million option in 2017, with another $1.5 million in potential annual incentives.
Aoki closed out last season on the disabled list because of a concussion that sidelined him for four weeks after he was hit in the head by a pitch, but he passed his physical without problem and said he's been working out without issues in Japan.
Aoki was a seven-time All-Star in Japan's Nippon League before playing the past four seasons in the Major Leagues. He will become the ninth Japanese-born player for the Mariners, joining outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (2001-12), infielder Munenori Kawasaki (2012), catcher Kenji Johjima (2006-09), and right-handed pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma (2012-current), Masao Kida (2004-05), Shigetoshi Hasegawa (2002-05), Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000-03) and Mac Suzuki (1996-99).
Aoki said Ichiro, who is eight years older, was a big influence in his game.
"I used to watch a lot of Mariners baseball back in Japan," he said through interpreter Kosuke Inaji. "I saw a lot of games here in Safeco Field. It's an honor to play here. As for Ichiro, I've always admired everything he's done in his career. I'm glad I'm able to play here where he played in the past."
Dipoto has already acquired center fielder Leonys Martin in a trade with the Rangers and re-signed free-agent left fielder Franklin Gutierrez, so Aoki adds another veteran option to an outfield that also returns Seth Smith and Nelson Cruz.
Aoki is a left-handed hitter, but hits both righties and lefties equally well, and Dipoto said he'll primarily play in left field. That allows Franklin Gutierrez and Seth Smith to platoon in right field, or also play left field on days Aoki fills in at center to give Martin a day off against tough left-handers.
Cruz will also play some right field, but figures to get more time at designated hitter next season, if all goes according to plan.
Dipoto said Aoki was targeted from the start of the free-agent period and his high on-base average as well as speed and athleticism make him a perfect match for one of the Mariners' biggest needs. Aoki has stolen 81 bases in his four seasons and his career on-base percentage of .353 is a major draw for a Seattle squad that ranked 11th in the American League last season at .311.
Aoki has posted a .287/.353/.386 line in the Majors, including two years with the Brewers, one with the Royals and last season with the Giants. Dipoto marvels at two aspects of Aoki's game: his statistical consistency in those four seasons and the fact he has more walks (171) than strikeouts (169) in his 531 games.
"I've never seen anything quite like it. You look at it and he's hit .285, .286, .287 and .288 in his four years," Dipoto said. "His on-base percentages have never been below .349, but never far above .360. He's always in the same bandwidth and it's remarkable how consistent he's been.
"He's an athletic guy and he takes remarkable care of his body. And the hand-eye coordination is the thing that stands out most. He's incredibly well-balanced and his bat-to-ball skills are awesome. To have guys like that helps you score runs," Dipoto said. "When it's second and third with one out, you have a better chance of scoring with Nori Aoki, who walks more than he strikes out, puts the ball in play and generally has an idea of how to make things happen. He'll find ways to get those runners moving and keep the line going. I love that element."
Fantasy spin | Fred Zinkie (@FredZinkieMLB)
With solid plate discipline and excellent contact skills, Aoki ranks among baseball's most consistent hitters. The outfielder's ultimate fantasy value in 2016 could depend a great deal on where he hits in the Mariners' lineup. If he were to bat leadoff -- a likely scenario given Seattle's current roster construction -- Aoki could be a solid source of runs, steals and batting average in standard mixed leagues. But with a spot near the bottom of the order, he would likely see his value limited to deeper formats.