Aoki visits old friends at Maryvale Park
Royals outfielder coming off two years in Brewers organization
PHOENIX -- Brewers officials are having a healthy internal debate about whether left-hander Will Smith's future lies in the bullpen or back in the starting rotation, but there is no debating that he figures prominently in the team's plans.
Saturday offered an opportunity to say hello to the player they sent out to bring Smith in. Norichika Aoki, the Brewers' starting right fielder and leadoff man for most of the past two seasons before he was sent to the Royals for Smith, reunited with his old teammates Saturday when the Brewers met the Royals at Maryvale Baseball Park.
Aoki fit right in, old walk-up music and all. It was hard to miss, since Aoki stepped to the plate last season to the theme song of WWE wrestler Fandango, a favorite of Brewers media relations maven Mike Vassallo.
"Mike Vassallo said he had a surprise for me," Aoki said through translator Kosuke Inaji. "I thought this was going to be it."
He looked up to the press box with a smile, shared some words with Brewers catcher Martin Maldonado, then grounded out to second base. Two innings later, Aoki delivered a two-run single.
"It brought back good memories," he said. "It was nice seeing familiar faces."
Aoki insisted he had nothing to do with the trade that sent him to the Royals on Dec. 5, though it was made clear at the time of the trade that Brewers officials and Aoki's representatives agreed that a move was in the best interest of all parties.
The Brewers were planning to increase the role of 26-year-old outfielder Khris Davis, who emerged as a power threat after Ryan Braun was suspended. With Braun back and Carlos Gomez a mainstay in center field, Aoki, who is a free agent after this season, might have seen his playing time diminish.
"The team here is great," he said of the Royals. "All the guys are fun to be around. … There's different players I'm going to have to play against this year, but that's another thing I'm looking forward to."
The Brewers liked the swap because it gave them five years of control of Smith, plus a spot in the lineup for Davis, in return for a free-agent-to-be.
"We'll be more creative [with the leadoff spot]," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "But we're hoping, obviously, in the long run, that we're getting a different thing offensively. We're hoping we get somebody who drives in a lot of runs and has some power that is added to our lineup. There's different elements of what you think you need, and not just that year but down the road."
Aoki will nonetheless be missed, Roenicke said.
"Any time you have a player as a coach or a manager or whatever -- I'm sure they feel this way in the front office, too -- that does the things that you think a player should do, which is prepare themselves well, always be available for whatever it is in the community you want him [to do], and also goes out on the field and performs, it's hard when you think about losing those guys," Roenicke said. "He had a great personality. He fit in well with the guys. We had fun with him, but he worked as hard as you can work."