MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers added a left-handed pitcher on Thursday, and in the process reconfigured their outfield.
The trade of Norichika Aoki to the Royals for Will Smith netted the Brewers a 24-year-old southpaw who will compete for a spot in the starting rotation, but also has bullpen experience -- and also has five years of club control -- in exchange for an outfielder and leadoff man who is entering the final year of his contract. With Aoki's departure, Ryan Braun will move to right field and the Brewers will fill left field from a group of young players led by promising slugger Khris Davis.
The swap was precipitated by Davis' emergence during the second half of 2013, following Braun's season-ending suspension. In October, Milwaukee exercised Aoki's club option for 2014 at about the same time agent Nez Balelo of CAA Sports was pushing the idea of a contract extension with Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio and general manager Doug Melvin. When it became clear the Brewers were instead considering increasing Davis' role, the sides agreed it made sense to seek a new home for Aoki.
The parting of ways was totally amicable, Balelo said.
"Everybody was on board with it," he said. "[Kansas City] was the best viable option. He's going to love it there, because he will get an opportunity to lead off and play every day."
Said Melvin: "We have younger guys we feel we need to give an opportunity."
The leading contender is Davis, who is about to turn 26 and hit 11 home runs in only 136 at-bats last season. He bats right-handed. Left-handed hitters Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer are also in the mix.
Smith, who does not turn 25 until July, is 8-10 with a 4.76 ERA in 35 appearances, 17 starts, for the Royals over the past two seasons. He worked mostly in relief in 2013, posting a 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances, one start, but Melvin said the Brewers would first look at him as a starter in the spring. The Brewers have no left-handed candidates for the starting rotation, and Tom Gorzelanny is the only active left-hander on the entire 40-man roster (Miguel De Los Santos remains on the restricted list while Major League Baseball sorts out problems with his paperwork).
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Smith has an above-average breaking ball, Melvin said, and he averaged 91 mph with his fastball in 2013, according to data from the website FanGraphs.com.
"He's a big, physical guy," Melvin said. "He'll come to camp and we'll look at him as a starter, but we know he can go to the bullpen. He had some effective bullpen outings last year. He mixes in with [pitching prospects Jimmy] Nelson and [Johnny] Hellweg. [Smith] was one of the better pitchers in the Pacific Coast League, but he's also got innings under his belt in the big leagues.
Smith and Hellweg are actually good friends from their days together in the Angels' farm system (Smith was traded to the Royals in July 2010 and Hellweg to the Brewers in July 2012). The two were "talking all day" in the wake of the trade, Smith said, and they are planning to share an apartment in Spring Training. Smith is also good friends with Brewers Minor Leaguer Ronaldo Jenkins, a 2011 Draft pick by Milwaukee and a fellow Georgian.
Smith welcomed his latest move, even if it meant a whole new round of jokes about the Hollywood star who shares his name.
Save your Fresh Prince of Bel Air jokes, because this particular Will Smith has heard them all.
"Remember that ESPN commercial that came out with Michael Jordan?" Smith said, referring to an ad in which a poor soul who shares the basketball legend's name encounters disappointed looks everywhere he goes. "That's basically my life."
Now he has a new life with the Brewers.
"The first time I was traded, I didn't really know what to think about it, but the second time around, I'm excited," Smith said. "I know it's not that the Royals didn't want me, it's that Milwaukee wants me more. I'm ready to start the season.
"I like to think it's a good move. Obviously the Royals had an unbelievable pitching staff there, and it was a logjam a little bit. But they gave me the opportunity, and I'm very thankful for what they did for me. But to head to Milwaukee with a chance for the rotation, I'm thankful for that, too."
Melvin said the Brewers had tried to trade for Smith in the past and been unsuccessful.
"He's got that developmental part of it maybe more out of the way, kind of like [Tyler] Thornburg has. And left-handed is important," Melvin said.
Aoki, a three-time batting champion in Japan before the Brewers made a surprise bid for him during the 2011-12 offseason, hit .287 with a .355 on-base percentage in 306 games with Milwaukee over the past two seasons. Melvin mentioned center fielder Carlos Gomez, second baseman Scooter Gennett and shortstop Jean Segura as potential replacements in the leadoff hole.
"We'll figure that out as the roster is completed," Melvin said. "That's one thing -- Nori was a very good player for us. He performed well in that leadoff position. ... We'll figure it out. It could be a mix of guys."
Braun, meanwhile, is switching positions for the second time in six years. He debuted as a third baseman in 2007, but moved to left field the following season and has played himself into a capable defender. He confirmed last week that he was open to moving to right field if it made the team better.