The Baseline: Picking and choosing

Story by Emily Gresbrink

The most important part of a season for sports teams takes place before the season itself actually starts: the draft.

The off season is a time not only for picking out the best amateur baseball players, but it’s also the season of swaps, drops and negotiations. It’s stressful for fans and franchises alike—teams have to take into account the player dynamics, the spaces and strengths needed on the field, and the salary … yucky. Conducting drafts elicits plenty of mistakes, some of which will determine the fate of the season from the moment the player’s pen meets the contract paper.

Luckily, our locals (the Brewers and Twins) both made interesting and excellent pickups for this year! Here are two I noticed right off-hand that will be extremely beneficial to both teams in an upcoming 2012 season that could prove to be tricky for each (more on that next week…).

1. The Brewers signing of Japan’s Norichika Aoki

This is by far one of the best acquisitions I have seen in MLB this year. Japanese baseball players are generally very strong athletes (think the Indians’ Kosuke Fukudome and Tsuyoshi Nishioka of the Twins) and Japanese baseball is an extremely competitive and well-decorated sport (Olympic medals exist in and around Nishioka and Aoki’s houses, for example). Although their playing style is more rigid and accelerated than American Major Leagues, the Japanese players we’ve gotten thus far adapt well to our playing style.

Aoki is not an exception to that description at all – the Brewers are pretty darn lucky to get him.

Aoki has been playing baseball in Japan since 2004 where he holds medals from the 2008 Beijing games. The 7-time all-star set base stealing and batting records for his team, the Yakult Swallows. He’s known for his ‘Aoki Shifts,’ which involve hitting a ton of singles to left field. On the other hand, he has been criticized for his awkward batting stances and bat positions.

But honestly, if you can hit the ball, does it matter? Naw, not really. A hit is a hit. BUT, if Milwaukee doesn’t completely breed him into MLB style, and he keeps up these Shifts, I expect great things for the Brewers from Aoki. He’s got a lot of talent as a well-rounded player and lots of experience behind him – I think he will be an invaluable player for the team.

2. The Twins buying up Josh Willingham

When this lad was signed, everything got much more wonderful.

Willingham is a free agent coming from the Athletics. He’s played for the Marlins and Nationals too, so he’s not a stranger to the field.

Background: He hit 29 homers in 2011 and has passed the 20-homer mark four out of the last six years. He’s got a .261 career average, and he’s been in the game since 2004, just like Aoki (except Willingham was in the U.S. the whole time).

Oh, Lord knows we need a good hitter now that we’ve lost basically the best hitters we have. Sigh.

Willingham will be entering his ninth year playing the Majors. Coming off a rough season, the Twins could definitely use his solid performance record and notoriety for hitting home runs. I mean, at one point last year, there were seven (SEVEN!) Twinkies with averages below .235. That’s just sad. And we ended the season with a .389 winning percentage – the only other team under .400 was Houston. Ouch.

The Twins need a miracle. Seriously. And this guy’s career quality is that miracle. If Willingham doesn’t make a difference this season, then I don’t know what I will do.