Despite falling short of expectations, Nori Aoki hangs on to spot in Royals’ lineup

12/31/1840 2:00 PM

06/05/2014 1:33 PM

For Nori Aoki, last week featured a cavalcade of outs amid a comedy of errors. He batted .143 with one extra-base hit in 28 at-bats. Against Houston, he whiffed on an inside pitch, which connected with his left shoulder and caused him to fall. Against Toronto, a foul ball struck him in the groin as he attempted a sliding catch.

The production of Aoki has fallen short of the expectations set last winter when the team traded left-hander Will Smith to Milwaukee for him. Yet manager Ned Yost indicated he had no intention of removing playing time from Aoki and giving at-bats to backup outfielder Jarrod Dyson against right-handed pitchers.

I’ll give (Dyson) a day here or there,” Yost said before the Royals faced the Cardinals on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium. “But, to answer your question, no.”

Yost has begun realigning his defense in the latter innings, with Dyson taking over center field, and Lorenzo Cain shifting to right. Aoki remains the team’s everyday leadoff hitter, despite his sagging output. He has been a pesky, effective hitter against lefties, with a .356 batting average heading into Tuesday’s game against southpaw Jaime Garcia.

Still, he was expected to offer more. During two seasons with Milwaukee, after eight seasons with the Yakult Swallows in Nippon Professional Baseball, Aoki established himself as a versatile, valuable piece. He was affordable, too: He will make $1.5 million in 2014 before hitting free agency.

But Aoki, 32, has provided scant reason for his current club to pursue a reunion. He entered Tuesday’s game with a .320 on-base percentage, 35 points below his mark in Milwaukee. His on-base plus slugging percentage was .633, down from .755 with the Brewers.

After a useful April, Aoki slumped for most of May. He posted a .590 OPS with only three extra-base hits in 28 games. The numbers make Yost shrug. “Guys get hot and guys get cold,” he said.

At the very least, the organization has been satisfied with his defensive performance lately. He surprised team officials in the spring and the start of the season with his lackluster foot speed and underwhelming throwing arm.

In recent weeks, though, Aoki has counseled more closely with first-base coach Rusty Kuntz, who has improved his positioning. And his arm strength has increased after overcoming a case of shoulder soreness that vexed him during the spring.

“He was a little sore,” Yost said. “He couldn’t bring out his arm strength. He could play through it — and played through it. But now his arm is much better than it was in spring training.”

Chen’s rehab

Bruce Chen (bulging disk in lower back) threw 46 pitches in his first rehab appearance, a three-inning stint with Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He gave up two runs on eight hits. Both runs came from solo homers. He will likely need two more starts before he is stretched out to work as a starting pitcher.

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/McCulloughStar.

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