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Japanese player could fit with White Sox
By Scot Gregor | Daily Herald Staff

Japan WBC team's Norichika Aoki hits a ball during the team's official workout for the Asia Round of the World Baseball Classic in March.


Associated Press

Norichika Aoki celebrates after scoring in Japan's 5-0 victory over Cuba in their World Baseball Classic game in San Diego in March.


Associated Press

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Published: 10/2/2009 12:04 AM | Updated: 10/2/2009 12:13 AM

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The off-season rumor mill is fast approaching, and White Sox fans can expect to be inundated with some familiar names as general manager Kenny Williams attempts to shore up one - possibly two - outfield spots.

Chone Figgins should be available, as should Carl Crawford, Bobby Abreu, Coco Crisp, Mike Cameron and a slew of other outfielders who always seem destined to land on the South Side.

Here's a fresh name to throw on the pile:

"There's a kid named (Norichika) Aoki, who is an Ichiro-type outfielder, hitter, runner, defensive player," said Bobby Valentine, who is wrapping up his sixth and final season managing the the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. "I don't think anybody is the caliber of Ichiro, but he is a special left-handed hitting outfielder."

Guess what is at, or near, the top of Williams' shopping list this season?

It's no secret the Sox are looking for a reliable left-handed bat, and Aoki appears to fit that bill.

The 27-year-old Aoki is wrapping up his fifth full season with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows in Japan's Central League.

In his first four seasons with the Swallows, Aoki batted .338 with a .406 on-base percentage.

Being compared to Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki on any level is a compliment. Aoki's game has also reminded observers of another player who has often been linked to the White Sox - Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre.

The Sox have already lost Jim Thome, and they are likely to cut ties with Jermaine Dye at the end of the season.

That seems to leave a power void, but at U.S. Cellular Field last week, Williams downplayed the need for finding another slugger.

"I don't know that we need left-handed pop," the Sox' GM said. "I think we're entering into an era where 30 home runs starts to mean something again. So it's important for us to get our players to higher on-base percentages as a team, like somewhere in the .350 range."

Earlier in his career, Aoki spoke to Japanese reporters about his future.

"It (MLB) has been a dream of mine since my college days," he said. "It might be difficult to do so as a free agent since I'll be over 30 by then."

Aoki could be posted by the Swallows, who would be paid by the major-league team signing the outfielder.

A White Sox source isn't sure if that's the route Aoki is going to take this off-season, but the outfielder is definitely a player to keep an eye on.