|Nori Aoki (Keith Allison, Flickr via UCinternational, Wikimedia Commons)|
Aoki, in retrospect, was destined to be a Seattle Mariner once Jerry Dipoto took over. Dipoto has publicly pined for more athletic outfielders and better on-base skills. Aoki fits that profile perfectly and on a budget. He will earn $5.5 million in 2016, and in all likelihood his playing time will trigger a $6 million option for 2017.
There are a few reasons Aoki is relatively cheap. He is not a bargain, but rather probably slated to earn what he is worth. Aoki really only has one above-average skill, and that's his ability to make contact. That drives his batting average north of average, into the .280 range, and since he combines that good contact with average plate discipline his on-base percentage is also above average. Aoki also has some good speed on the basepaths, but how valuable that is remains up for debate in quantitative circles. It's something, but certainly does not make up for his lack of power. Overall, Aoki is a nice hitter.
Aoki is also a decent outfielder, and maybe even a good one. Traditional scouting seems to suggest that he is better than analytics like UZR suggest. However, every metric agrees that Aoki is at least a capable defender in left or right field, and maybe a good one. This is noteworthy given the defensive eyesores Jack Zduriencik was willing to place in corner outfield slots with regularity the past few years. Aoki is a defensive upgrade. The only question is how much of one.
The Mariners starting outfield might be set at this point. Dipoto said that he expects Aoki to play left field regularly and bat leadoff. That would allow the Franklin Gutierrez/Seth Smith platoon to shift to right field while recently acquired Leonys Martin roams around center field. This also assumes that Nelson Cruz will DH more often next year.
All in all, Dipoto has pieced together what promises to be the M's best defensive outfield in years. Catching fly balls and taking more pitches are less sexy skills than CRUSHING BASEBALLS, but it is refreshing to watch the Mariners embrace those "Safeco'd" fly balls instead of trying to rather literally beat the data-confirmed stereotype into submission.