Whether or not you believe that Ichiro Suzuki's 2011 season signals the beginning of the end of his major league career, the fact is that 2012 is the end of his current contract. If his numbers in 2012 are closer to his numbers of 2011 than his career numbers, the Mariners will almost assuredly not extend a contract offer to the franchise's all-time hits leader and instead look to replace him. One possibility for a replacement that could make some sense just became available, and he comes from Ichiro's own backyard.
Norichika Aoki, a soon to be 30-year-old outfielder that owns three batting titles and a career batting average of .329 in Japan's Central League, is reportedly being posted by his team, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. That means that MLB teams can bid for the right to negotiate with him via the posting system. It is unclear what type of figure it would take to earn those rights and unclear what type of salary Aoki would command, but in looking at a somewhat uninspiring outfield free agent crop, Aoki may be one of the better options.
Aoki said in a Japanese interview four years ago that he, "had a dream to go from college to the (U.S.) Major Leagues," and it appears that he will get that chance now. NPB Tracker's Patrick Newman--about as close to an expert as there is on the talent level of Japanese League players--calls Aoki, "the best pure hitter Japan has produced since Ichiro," and offered this scouting report (on FanGraphs) in August, 2010:
"Aoki is a line drive hitter with occasional power who uses the whole field. He’s also a disciplined batter, walking about as often as he strikes out, which is rare in Japan. Aoki is short and somewhat stocky at 5’7.5, 182 lbs, but is a good runner with tremendous range in the outfield. The only knock on his game is his rather weak throwing arm, which may limit him to left field at the MLB level."
You can read Patrick's full article, featuring Aoki and a few others here.
From watching what video is available online, Aoki isn't Ichiro: 2.0. His swing is much more like most Japanese players than Ichiro's unique swing, although I've read reports that he has several different batting stances that he employs based on the situation. He is short but stocky (actually listed at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, but he's probably somewhere in the middle of that number and Patrick's numbers above), and he has hit with some very good power in Japan to date, with 68 home runs over the past five seasons and as many as 44 doubles one year. He has very good speed and a weak arm, though he has won three gold gloves for his play in center field in the Central League. In 2010 he became one of just four players to get 200-plus hits in a season in Japan (including Suzuki), and he is the only one to do it twice.
In reality, Aoki is very unlikely to come to the U.S. and replicate the success that Ichiro or Hideki Matsui have had, but expecting him to produce at or above the level of Kosuke Fukudome is certainly reasonable, and maybe even on the low end from what I hear.
Is he a fit for the Mariners? I'm not sure--primarily because of his age and the M's existing in-house options--but he certainly is a player to keep an eye on and one that could be a good short-term answer for a number of teams if the price is right.
Want more Mariners news and articles? You can follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.