For a little while last season, the Kansas City Royals looked like they might be able to shake off all those years of losing and make the postseason. It didn't happen, of course, but the Royals got people in Kansas City excited again.
They finished 86-76, the franchise's first time over .500 since 2003 and the first time they topped the 85-win mark since 1989. For a team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1985, it was an enjoyable run in 2013. Heck, GM Dayton Moore might have been a little too excited about it, saying he felt like they won the World Series.
There's a big gap between finishing in third place in AL Central and raising the World Series trophy, but the Royals aren't just sitting pat this offseason hoping the trophy comes to them. And their latest move is a good one. They've acquired outfielder/leadoff man Norichika Aoki in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers for pitcher Will Smith. Smith, a 24-year-old, had an 3.24 ERA in 33.1 innings out of the Royals bullpen last season.
Aoki, 31, isn't a household name, or even an All-Star, but he's a good piece, a top-of-the-order hit machine who could benefit from a maturing Royals lineup behind him. The World Series run of the Boston Red Sox showed us how having good pieces might be better than trying to get a team of stars to co-exist.
Aoki hit .287/.355/.399 in two major league seasons after coming over from Japan, where he won six Gold Gloves and seven Best Nine Awards (it's like the Silver Slugger award in Japan). In addition to his on-the-field numbers, here's another important one: Aoki will make just $1.95 million in 2014. He is, however, a free agent after that, making this a win-now move for the Royals.
On the Brewers side, the move opens up an outfield space for Khris Davis to play every day. He hit 11 homers and drove in 27 runs in 56 games while Ryan Braun was suspended. With Braun coming back and Carlos Gomez locked in to center field, the Brewers had an outfielder to spare. That means Braun will most likely return to MLB as a right fielder.
In Smith, the Brewers get a young pitcher who was an asset to the Royals bullpen last season, especially down the stretch, and could only get better.
The Royals had a deep bullpen, so trading a young reliever for an outfield/leadoff upgrade makes sense. Aoki could be scoring a lot of runs in 2014 if young Kansas City hitters Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez continue to get better. Aoki struck out only 40 times in 2013 while finishing 10th in the National League in hits. He had the best walk-to-strikeout ratio in all of baseball last year.
KC leadoff hitters last season: .309 OBP. Aoki: .355 OBP.
— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) December 5, 2013
The team, of course, is still chasing Carlos Beltran. He met with Kansas City earlier in the week, and some believe he could land back with the team that originally drafted him. Starting pitching is still a concern for the Royals too. They signed Jason Vargas to a free-agent deal in November, but adding another arm to help out James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and the Royals' young arms would be wise. This is, after all, a team that had Wade Davis start 24 games last year and is likely to lose Ervin Santana to free agency.
It sounds like the Royals still plan to be busy this offseason. After the Aoki trade, Moore, the Royals GM, told Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star:
"We still have work to do, and I don’t view this move as us being complete."
Will whatever comes next — Beltran or otherwise — be enough to get past the quiet-thus-far Indians and the wheeling-and-dealing Tigers? That remains to be seen.
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