This is the 10th in a series of stories that will take you Around the Horn with the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers and has already covered the rotation, the bullpen and catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop, left field and center field. Up next: Right field.
PHOENIX -- The Brewers signed Norichika Aoki away from Japan based on a stat sheet, some video, a one-day workout and a worry that left fielder Ryan Braun might be suspended to start the season.
That was last year in January. Did manager Ron Roenicke know what he was getting?
"Oh yeah, I knew exactly what he was going to do," Roenicke said.
He was kidding.
In truth, Aoki far exceeded expectations in his debut season in the U.S., playing his way into the starting right-field job and then the leadoff spot by batting .288 with 10 home runs, 37 doubles (a franchise rookie record), 50 RBIs and 30 steals. Aoki finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
Flash back to January 2011, after the Brewers posted $2.5 million for Aoki's rights but before he signed his two-year contract. Roenicke was among a contingent of club officials at Maryvale Baseball Park to watch Aoki work out. He took fly balls, ran the bases and batted. Those officials did their best to envision how Aoki's skills would play in the U.S.
Aoki threw well and showed good bat speed and foot speed.
"We were just fortunate it worked out well," Roenicke said. "We'll see where he is this year. I know he wasn't satisfied with last year."
That's right, Aoki said.
"I still expect more out of myself," Aoki, 31, said through translator Kosuke Inaji. "I had some good moments and also some bad moments. Eventually, I might have that feeling [of being established], but I don't feel that yet."
Last year began amid uncertainty for the three-time Japanese batting champion, who reported to Maryvale Baseball Park and found one familiar face -- nonroster pitcher Frankie De La Cruz, a former teammate in Japan.
So Aoki went about learning. He learned names, he learned the Americans' system of Spring Training, he picked up English and adjusted to a new culture away from the ballpark. Other Brewers were amazed how quickly it all happened.
"I couldn't imagine, just culturally, making that transition, coming somewhere where you don't understand the language, don't know the customs or the way we play baseball and go about our routines," Braun said. "It's certainly different here. He was incredible last year."
Aoki began the season on the Brewers' bench but was installed as the everyday right fielder beginning in May, after Mat Gamel suffered a season-ending knee injury and Corey Hart moved to first base.
In the end, Aoki produced hitting streaks of 15, 13, 10 and 12 games, the first NL rookie to have four streaks of 10 games or more since the Cardinals' Bake McBride in 1974. He flashed some power late in the year, tying the Rays' B.J. Upton for the most extra-base hits in September (18).
"I always want to challenge myself," Aoki said, "so it's not like I see myself as the starting right fielder. It might be easier this year because I know what to expect."
Is he doing anything different in his second Spring Training camp?
"He's not swinging 1,000 times a day," Roenicke said.
Aoki says he was actually taking about 400 swings a day last year and this year plans to cut that total at least in half. Japanese players traditionally take much more batting practice than their North American counterparts, but there are more off-days in Japan.
"Last year, I was able to see how other players prepared for the season and I talked to the coaches to make adjustments," Aoki said. "So it's not just the number of swings I took. It's my workouts as well."
He spent the winter getting physically stronger, a chance so noticeable that Roenicke joked Aoki might hit 30 home runs in 2013.
"I like that," Aoki said with a laugh.
The Brewers have heard that laugh more often this spring. Aoki's English has improved so dramatically that he interacts with teammates without Inaji's help. The other day, he sat at a round table in the clubhouse and talked over lunch with Braun, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and infielder Alex Gonzalez. Four players from four countries.
In another moment, during his chat with reporters, Inaji lost his train of thought while translating. Aoki noticed, grabbed his friend by the shoulders and shook him as if to say, "Snap out of it!" He laughed.
"He's got a nice little personality," Roenicke said. "I think the more comfortable he gets, the more we're going to see it. He's good -- he fits in very well here."
Aoki, who is represented by the same agency as Braun, CAA Sports, will earn $1.25 million this season in the second guaranteed season of his two-year deal. The Brewers hold a $1.5 million option for 2014 with a $250,000 buyout, but will own Aoki's rights for his first six years of Major League service, just like any other player. Assuming he plays this season and next in the Majors, Aoki would be arbitration eligible starting in the 2014-15 offseason.
The business considerations can be handled later. This month, Aoki has been enjoying an easier start to Spring Training camp.
"It's the same scene, the same environment," Aoki told reporters. "It's just different because I'm more familiar with it. Last year I came, I didn't know anything, I didn't know anyone. Now, I even know you guys."
He laughed again, a player right at home.