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Milwaukee Brewers: Examining the Domino Effect of the Norichika Aoki Trade

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COMMENTARY | It had been the elephant in the room ever since the emergence of Khris Davis last season: When would the Milwaukee Brewers part ways with Norichika Aoki?

It turns out that Dec. 5 was the day, as the Brewers traded the soon-to-be 32-year-old Japanese outfielder to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for left-handed pitcher Will Smith.

Aoki's $1.9 million club option was recently picked up, as he could have become a free agent following the 2013 season. But once it was made public that Aoki would not be under team control as initially believed following the 2014 season, combined with Davis' breakthrough, it was evident that Aoki's days were numbered in Milwaukee.

Considering Aoki's production, it was a no-brainer to pick up his club option. His cheap contract made him attractive on the open market, and even if the Brewers failed to find a trade partner, he would still be a valuable asset.

However, general manager Doug Melvin felt it was necessary to open up a spot for Davis to play every day as well as get something in return for Aoki. That return was the 24-year-old Smith, who went 2-1 with a 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances last season with the Royals almost exclusively as a reliever.

Smith becomes just the second left-handed pitcher on the Brewers' roster, and his addition could mean Milwaukee has solidified its bullpen. Early this offseason, the Brewers shipped off middle reliever Burke Badenhop to the Boston Red Sox.

Having experience as a starter, Smith will get a crack at joining the rotation next spring, but he has had far more success in the bullpen. That is thanks in turn to the development of his slider, as Smith saw his ERA fall over two runs from 2012 to 2013 (via Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

Milwaukee's bullpen now features Smith, Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Rob Wooten, Tom Gorzelanny, Donovan Hand and Michael Blazek, while others also figure to be in the mix come spring. But while Smith's addition would appear to strengthen the bullpen, that's not nearly the biggest ramification of this trade.

Ryan Braun will now be playing right field.

The maligned slugger will ultimately be returning next season following a 65-game suspension, and the trade of Aoki only coagulated that fact.

So why can't the Brewers simply insert Davis into right field? Because he doesn't have the skill set.

A strong throwing arm is almost a necessity in right field, and Braun fits the bill as he should be able to make the transition to the other corner outfield spot. Davis largely played left field in Braun's absence before battling multiple injuries toward the end of the season.

The Brewers are obviously counting on Braun to continue being the player he was prior to his suspension and run-in with performance-enhancing drugs, as well as Davis picking up where he left off. Davis had an impressive .279/.353/.596 split with 11 HRs and 27 RBIs in 56 games last season.

Of course, the impact goes deeper than Braun's position change. Aoki was a reliable leadoff hitter for the Brewers. Not only that, but he was one of the few left-handed hitters among position players.

Among players expected to get some serious run next season, second baseman Scooter Gennett will be the only player hitting from the left side of the plate. Could he also be the one to fill the void at leadoff?

Milwaukee is a team chock-full of power, especially with Davis now in an everyday role. An ideal leadoff hitter gets on base, has speed and sees a lot of pitches. But there isn't a single player on the roster that realistically meets all of those expectations with Aoki gone.

The Brewers have some decisions to make regarding their No. 1 spot in the lineup, but by dealing Aoki it killed two birds with one stone by opening up a spot for Davis and bolstering the bullpen. The final critical move necessary, of course, is finding a competent first baseman -- ideally Corey Hart.

With Gennett as the lone left-handed bat in the starting nine, Melvin may be inclined to acquire a left-handed hitting first baseman. But if the price is right with Hart, he should be the No. 1 priority at first base.

In a nutshell, Milwaukee's trade of Aoki made it better offensively and improved the bullpen at the same time, and not many trades accomplish such a feat. While there may be a slight drop-off on defense, Davis statistically wasn't far behind Aoki, and the presence of Carlos Gomez makes up for so many deficiencies in the Brewers' outfield (via FanGraphs).

On the surface, the Brewers' trade of Aoki for Smith doesn't appear to be groundbreaking by any means. But when you delve deeper, there is a serious domino effect that will play out over the coming months.

Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who is an avid follower of Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline, as a featured columnist on other sites and publications, and been a guest on multiple sports talk radio shows.

You can get the discussion going and follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.

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