The Royals landed a new outfielder Thursday morning, but it wasn’t free-agent Carlos Beltran, who held a much-publicized visit earlier this week at Kauffman Stadium.
The newcomer is Norichika Aoki, whom the Royals project as their leadoff hitter after acquiring him from Milwaukee for left-handed pitcher Will Smith.
“Nori at the top of the lineup, putting pressure on the defense, certainly improves our offense,” general manager Dayton Moore said. “He has the potential, in our minds, to score 100 runs.”
And Aoki’s arrival doesn’t affect the Royals’ pursuit of Beltran.
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“We do want to try to get another middle-of-the-order bat,” Moore confirmed. “They’re far and few (between), as you know. That’s an area we’re trying to pursue.”
Aoki, 31, is a left-handed hitter who spent the last two seasons with the Brewers after eight years at Yakult in Japan’s Central League. He batted .286 last season with a .356 on-base percentage in 155 games.
“This really is a move that we think puts us in position to have a true leadoff hitter,” Moore said. “It allows Gordo (Alex Gordon) to perform in the middle of the order.”
Smith, 24, blossomed last season after shifting to the bullpen and emerged in the closing weeks as one of the club’s primary setup relievers for All-Star closer Greg Holland.
“Thanks Royals for the opportunities you gave me!” Smith said through his Twitter account. “First class organization filled with wonderful people and great teammates!
“Now thanks for the warm welcome! Excited to join the Brewers! 2014 is going to be awesome! #BrewNation!”
The trade, for the Royals, is a short-term move. They control Aoki for just one season, at $1.95 million, before he becomes a free agent. Smith has less than a year of big-league service and won’t be a free agent for six years.
“All of these deals come with a cost,” Moore said. “You have to give up quality talent to obtain quality talent. We don’t have a ton of depth with left-handed pitching, but we do have some.
“At the end of the day, we felt this was a move we had to make to improve our team.”
Aoki ranked second in the majors last season with 40 infield hits and led the National League with 140 singles while striking out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances.
Smith opened last season as a starter at Triple-A Omaha but shifted after 10 starts to the bullpen. He shuttled between Omaha and the Royals throughout the summer before a final recall on Aug. 25.
“Will Smith is someone we have liked for a couple of years now,” Brewers general manager Doug Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“We had the chance to acquire a 24-year-old big, physical left-hander who we feel can be a part of our staff. We could not walk away from the opportunity.”
The Brewers signed Aoki prior to the 2012 season after he won three batting titles at Yakult while compiling a .329 career average. He was a center fielder in Japan but played primarily right field in Milwaukee.
“We like him as above-average in right field,” Moore said. “We feel like he can play center. His routes are very good. He plays pretty deep, but he comes in on the ball very well.”
Aoki also was a seven-time recipient of the Best Nine Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Silver Slugger, and won six Gold Gloves for defensive excellence.
Even so, acquiring Aoki adds to an already crowded outfield where Gordon, an All-Star, is the regular left fielder and Lorenzo Cain, when healthy, still projects as the starting center fielder.
Where Jarrod Dyson, David Lough and Justin Maxwell now fit is unclear — as are what further adjustments would be needed if the Royals succeed in signing Beltran.
“Right now,” Moore said, “I don’t view their roles as changing a whole lot. As we move forward into the offseason, things could clean up in a way for us that could change us going forward.
“We still have work to do, and I don’t view this move as us being complete.”