/

Dragons favored to book return trip to Japan Series

by Wayne Graczyk

The following is a team-by-team analysis of the 12 teams in Japanese pro baseball this season:

CENTRAL LEAGUE

CHUNICHI DRAGONS

The Dragons are favored to repeat as Central League champions, and why not?

They are back with pretty much the same team they had in 2004, plus slugger Tyrone Woods who led the C.L. with 45 homers last year and 40 in 2003 with the Yokohama BayStars.

Second-year manager Hiromitsu Ochiai has a solid lineup with Woods (45, 103, .298) at first base, Masahiro Araki (3, 44, .292) at second, Hirokazu Ibata (6, 57, .302) at shortstop and the veteran Kazuyoshi Tatsunami (5, 70, .308) at third.

Alex Ochoa (21, 89, .294) is back as the centerfielder, with 2003 league batting champion Kosuke Fukudome (23, 81, .277 in only 92 games because of the Olympics and an injury last year) in right. Left field is the only platoon position, where Ochiai will most likely alternate with lefty-hitting Kazuki Inoue (11, 30, .76) and righty-swinging Takayuki Onishi (4, 15, .242).

Catcher Motonobu Tanishige (18, 68, .260) has a reputation as an excellent handler of the pitching staff which includes 2004 C.L. MVP Kenshin Kawakami (17-7, 3.32), Masahiro Yamamoto (13-6, 3.15) and Domingo Guzman (10-5, 3.76) in the starting rotation. Domingo may miss the start of the season with shoulder problems, however.

The relief corps is headed by workhorse Hitoki Iwase (2-3, 2.80 in 60 appearances) and Eiji Ochiai (4-3, 2.45), no relation to the manager.

YAKULT SWALLOWS

The Swallows finished a strong second a year ago but do not appear to be as talented this time around.

Only five of the eight defensive positions seem to be set with the veteran catcher (and savior of Japanese baseball) Atsuya Furuta (24, 79, .306) still going strong at 40, third baseman Akinori Iwamura (44, 103, .300) who tied a team single-season record for homers in 2004, shortstop Shinya Miyamoto (11, 26, .301), leftfielder Alex Ramirez (31, 110, .305) and first baseman Ken Suzuki (15, 65, .289).

Yakult lost rightfielder Atsunori Inaba to free agency and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and that position may be filled by American newcomer Adam Riggs (29, 90, .331 at 3A Salt Lake).

Manager Tsutomu Wakamatsu also seemed undecided as to who would play center field: Mitsuru Manaka (4, 20, .272), Shinichi Sato (2, 13, .323) or Ryuji Miyade (2, 6, .235).

The pitching also appears a bit thin with sophomore Ryo Kawashima (10-4, 3.17) not in top form. Masanori Ishikawa (11-11) should again win in double figures, and Dicky Gonzalez (4-2, 3.09), a 2004 late-comer, looks to expand on those numbers over a full season.

Yakult does have a superb set-up-man in Hitotoshi Ishii (4-2, 2.05) and a fantastic closer, fireballer Ryota Igarashi (5-3, 2.66 with a Japan-best 37 saves in 66 appearances).

YOMIURI GIANTS

The key to the Giants’ success this season could be in the hands of first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara (12, 27, .228).

Manager Tsuneo Horiuchi decided to go with the veteran who is eight home runs shy of the career 500 mark and needs to stay healthy and hit with consistency after playing only 40 games in 2004 because of injury.

Toshihisa Nishi (28, 60, .289) is back at second base after threatening to leave via the free agent route, Tomohiro Nioka (9, 49, .269) will again play shortstop with slugger Hiroki Kokubo (41, 96, .314) at third.

The outfield is solid with Tuffy Rhodes (45, 99, .287) moving from center to left, newcomer from Boston Gabe Kapler (6, 33, .272 with the Bosox) in center and Yoshinobu Takahashi (30, 79, .317) in right.

Behind the plate is the excellent catcher and hitter Shinnosuke Abe (33, 78, .301). On the bench is Takayuki Shimizu (16, 60, .308) who will take over at first if Kiyohara gets hurt.

Ace Koji Uehara (13-5 with a league best 2.60 ERA) has been hampered by a pulled hamstring but should be ready for Opening Day and win 15 to 20 games.

Behind Uehara is southpaw Hisanori Takahashi (5-10, 5.44), and the other starters are Kimiyasu Kudo (10-7, 4.67), 41 years old, 37-year-old Masumi Kuwata (3-5, 6.47) and Masanori Hayashi (3-9, 4.89).

Hard-working middle reliever Brian Sikorski (5-3, 2.67 in 62 games) is solid in the bullpen, and Horiuchi hopes Dan Miceli (6-6, 3.59 with the Houston Astros) will solve the closer problem that plagued the Giants the past two seasons.

HANSHIN TIGERS

The Tigers were disappointing in 2004, dropping to the second division after winning the pennant a year earlier.

Hanshin released slugger George Arias and picked up Andy Sheets (23, 85, .284) from the Hiroshima Carp. Skipper Akinobu Okada has changed Sheets from shortstop to first base, next to All-Star second baseman Makoto Imaoka (28, 83, .306).

Candidates to cover the left side of the infield are Takashi Toritani (3, 17, .251) and Atsushi Fujimoto (5, 33, .257) at short and Kentaro Sekimoto (5, 41, .316) and Atsushi Kataoka (3, 7, .205) at third. Hanshin’s outfield will most likely feature last year’s RBI champ Tomoaki Kanemoto (34, 113, .317 in left, speedster Norihiro Akahoshi (.300 with 64 steals) in center and former New York Yankee and Met Shane Spencer (4, 26, .281 with the Mets) in right.

Catcher Akihiro Yano (11, 65, .285) will be behind the plate every game.

Okada’s mound staff is led by lefty Kei Igawa (14-11, 3.73) who wanted to be posted and play in the major leagues.

Shinobu Fukuhara (10-15, 3.87) will also be one of the starters, and two new foreign pitchers, righthanders Jamie Brown (4-6, 4.82 at 3A Pawtucket) and Darwin Cubillan (3-4, 24 saves, 4.41 at 3A Ottawa) might also make the staff.

The bullpen is tough with righty Yuya Ando (5-8, 3.58) and Aussie lefty Jeff Williams (2-4, 3.28), the only gaikokujin holdover on the Tigers, alternating as set-up and closer.

HIROSHIMA CARP

Hiroshima appears headed for yet another fifth- or sixth-pace standing in the Central League.

The Carp lost Andy Sheets to the Tigers and with him a good piece of offense and defense. Manager Koji Yamamoto apparently plans to platoon Takahiro Arai (10, 36, .263) at first base with veteran Kenjiro Nomura (5, 43, .270).

Greg LaRocca (40, 101, .328) moves to third after alternating at second and first last year. Infielder-outfielder Takuya Kimura should see a lot of action at second base, with youngster Yoshinori Ogata, a star of the future, taking over at short.

The outfield trio is the Carp’s strongest point with, from left to right, Tomonori Maeda (21, 70, .312), Koichi Ogata (26, 64, .292) and Shigenobu Shima (32, 84 and a league-leading .337 average).

Yoshiyuki Ishihara (6, 35, .288) is the Hiroshima catcher, and he will be handling a staff that needs lots of improvement, especially from Hiroki Kuroda (7-9, 4.65) and Ken Takahashi (3-10, 5.53).

John Bale (11-10, 4.21), the team’s leading winner in 2004, is now the closer.

YOKOHAMA BAYSTARS

The BayStars are the only Central division club with a new manager, as Kazuhiko Ushijima takes over a team with three consecutive last-pace finishes.

He will have Kevin Witt (36, 107. 306 at 3A Memphis) at first base, Seiichi Uchikawa (17, 45, .287) at second, the veteran Takuro Ishii (10, 43, .295) at shortstop and probably Hitoshi Taneda (8, 52, .300) at third.

Yokohama also has a fine outfield group with Takahiro Saeki (19, 57, .322) in left, Hitoshi Tamura (40, 100, .305) in center and Tatsuhiko Kinjo (13, 52, .302) in right.

It is the pitching department that needs help, and that is most likely the main reason Ushijima, a former hurler, was hired to direct the BayStars.

There were no double-figure winners in 2004, and the best starters available are American Cedrick Bowers (7-4, 3.54), Daisuke Miura (6-8, 4.25) and Yuji Yoshimi (7-5, 5.26.

Kazuhiro “Daimajin” Sasaki (1-2, 3.18) will attempt to shake off a so-so season and prove he is still a dominating closer.

Predicted order of finish in the Central League: 1) Chunichi, 2) Yomiuri, 3) Hanshin, 4) Yakult, 5) Yokohama, 6) Hiroshima.

PACIFIC LEAGUE

SEIBU LIONS

There is no question the Lions have the talent to repeat as Japan Series champions, but the players will have to keep their minds on baseball and set aside thoughts of the crisis enveloping the parent company, as they may be playing under the Seibu banner for the final season.

Manager Tsutomu Ito has a superb batting lineup and will have slugging first baseman Alex Cabrera on board for the full season. Cabrera missed the first half of 2004 with a broken wrist but still slammed 25 home runs, had 62 RBIs and hit .280 in just 64 games.

Joining Cabrera in the Seibu infield are second baseman Hiroyuki Takagi (2, 28, .254), shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (27, 90, .287) and third sacker Jose Fernandez (33, 94, .285). Masahide Kaizuka (14, 75, .307) is the designated hitter, and patrolling the outfield most likely will be the veteran Kazuhiro Wada (30, 89, .320) in left, Shogo Akada (9, 41, .259) in center and Tomoaki Sato (2, 27, .317) in right.

The catching, the Lions’ weakest offensive point, will probably be shared by Toru Hosokawa (11, 39, .217) and Kosuke Noda (3, 8, .239). They will be receiving some good pitchers, led by the “Boy Wonder,” Daisuke Matsuzaka (10-6 last year with a league-leading 2.90 ERA).

Seibu’s starting rotation also includes Fumiya Nishiguchi (10-5, 3.22), Kazuyuki Hoashi (10-3, 4.30) and Taiwan’s Chang Chi-Chie (9-8, 3.70).

Kiyoshi Toyoda (5-1, 0.98 and 11 saves) is the closer.

SOFTBANK HAWKS

The Hawks have a new name and new uniforms but the same old talented team, minus second baseman Tadahito Iguchi who has gone to the Chicago White Sox.

Manager (and GM) Sadaharu Oh still has a power-packed batting order led by the 2004 Triple Crown winner, first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka (44, 120, .358) and catcher Kenjii Jojima (36, 91, .338).

With financially struggling Daiei out as the owner, and money-loaded SoftBank in, the Hawks were able to shell out a reported $15 million for a two-year contract for third baseman Tony Batista (32, 110, .241 with Montreal), and the middle infield will be covered by shortstop Munenori Kawasaki (4, 45, .303 and a Pacific League-leading 42 stolen bases) and second sacker Jolbert Cabrera (6, 47, .270 with Seattle), taking Iguchi’s place.

Holdover foreign player Julio Zuleta (36, 100, .284) will serve as DH, and Oh’s defense-oriented outfield includes Hiroshi Shibahara (7, 39, .271), Naoyuki Omura (2, 34, .303 with Kintetsu) and Katsuhiko Miyaji (3, 24, .310).

Jojima will catch a talent-loaded pitching staff led by starters Tsuyoshi Wada (10-6, 4.35), Nagisa Arakaki (11-8, 3.28), Kazumi Saito (10-7, 6.26 but expected to miss the beginning of the season with shoulder soreness) and American lefty Lindsay Gulin (8-3, 4.24).

Shinji Kurano (9-1, 2.55) is an excellent set-up man, and Koji Mise (4-3, 3.06) is the P.L.’s top closer with 28 saves last season.

NIPPON HAM FIGHTERS

A lot of people are picking manager Trey Hillman’s Fighters to make the playoffs again, with some predicting the 2005 Japan Series will be played at Sapporo Dome.

Hillman’s infield alignment will most likely consist of 2004 league home run co-leader Fernando Seguignol (44, 108, .305) at first base, Kuniyuki Kimoto (9, 62, .285) at second, Michihiro “Guts” Ogasawara (18, 70, .345) at third and newcomer Erick Almonte (17, 74, .318 at 3A Colorado Springs) at shortstop.

Expected to be roaming the Hokkaido outfield are Tomochika Tsuboi (11, 43, .284), the spacey but popular Tsuyoshi Shinjo (24, 79, .298) and Atsunori Inaba (18, 45, .265), a free agent acquisition from the Yakult Swallows.

Sherman Obando (8, 25, .338), re-signed by the Fighters midway through the 2004 season, will probably be Nippon Ham’s DH, and Shinji Takahashi (26, 84, .285) is an All-Star catcher.

Pitching-wise, the ace of Hillman’s hillmen is Satoru Kanemura (13-8, 3.93), backed by Carlos Mirabal (11-9, 4.82) from New Jersey.

Australian newcomer Brad Thomas, who saw brief action with Minnesota in 2004, has earned a spot in the rotation.

Yukiya Yokoyama (4-5, 3.39 with 28 saves) is the excellent closer for the Hammies.

CHIBA LOTTE MARINES

Skipper Bobby Valentine’s club missed qualifying for the 2004 Pacific League playoff tournament by half a game, and might have made it had those two games lost to the players strike been made up.

At first base is “Mr. Two-Base,” Kazuya Fukuura (11, 73, .314, 42 doubles), and candidates for second base and shortstop are veteran Koichi Hori (14, 51, .261), Makoto Kosaka (1, 26, .252) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (6, 35, .255).

Matt Franco (16, 65, .278) is the likely third baseman.

Lotte’s outfield consists of Hawaiian Benny Agbayani (35, 100, .315), Kenji Morozumi (1, 2, .267) and Saburo Omura (5, 33, .256).

Valentine has four foreign position players, and Korean Lee Seung Yeop (14, 50, .240) and newcomer Val Pascucci (25, 92, .298 at 3A Edmonton) are competing for a slot on the Marines’ first-team outfielders roster and can also DH.

Tomoya Satozaki (6, 19, .213) and Tasuku Hashimoto (13, 38, .221) are the Chiba catchers, and leading the starting pitchers are Shunsuke Watanabe (12-6, 3.59), Naoyuki Shimizu (10-11, 3.40) and Hiroyuki Kobayashi (9-7, 4.26).

The closer is Masahide Kobayashi (8-5, 3.90 with 20 saves).

ORIX BUFFALOES

Seventy-year-old charismatic manager Akira Ogi is back to lead the merged Orix-Kintetsu team, a wild card if there ever was one.

The Buffaloes got the best of the former Kintetsu and BlueWave players in last autumn’s dispersal draft, and it remains to be seen how well Ogi can get them to mesh into a unit with two homes, Osaka and Kobe.

It is difficult to predict who will play where, but the best infielders available seem to be Masahiro Abe (7, 50, .247 with Kintetsu), Kazuhiko Shiotani (9, 48, .269, Orix), Eiji Mizuguchi (6, 40, .293, Kintetsu), Keiichi Hirano (6, 39, .279, Orix), Hirotoshi Kitagawa (20, 88, .303, Kintetsu) and Makoto Shiozaki (8, 39, .341, Orix).

Arihito Muramatsu (6, 51, .320, Orix) and Yoshitomo Tani (15, 63, .317, Orix) will surely have places in Ogi’s outfield.

New foreign players Cliff Brumbaugh (33, 105, .343 with the Hyundai Unicorns in Korea where he won the home run and batting titles) and Karim Garcia (7, 22, .234 with the Mets and 3, 11, .212 with Baltimore) are also listed as outfielders; one will most likely serve as DH.

The Orix Buffaloes (get used it) top two catchers are Tetsuya Matoyama (2, 11, .21, Kintetsu) and Takeshi Hidaka (5, 38, .275, Orix), and they will be battery-mates with, among others, starters Hidetaka Kawagoe (7-9, 4.17, Orix), Kevin Beirne (6-8, 3.89, Kintetsu), Jeremy “J.P.” Powell (8-8, 3.90, Kintetsu), Kazuya Motoyanagi (6-11, 5.61, Orix), middle reliever Katsunari Yoshikawa (4-4, 2.82, Kintetsu) and closer Kazuo Yamaguchi (3-3, 17 saves, 3.80, Orix).

Ogi won pennants with Kintetsu in 1989 and Orix in 1995 and 1996.

RAKUTEN EAGLES

“Patchwork” is the key word as general manager Marty Kuehnert and field boss Yasushi Tao have stitched together Japan’s first expansion team in more than 50 years with mostly leftover players from the Kintetsu-Orix merger, some new and recycled foreign players and one of Japan’s best pitchers, Hisashi Iwakuma.

Iwakuma (15-2, 3.01 with Kintetsu) heads a starting staff not all that bad for an expansion club. He is expected to be joined in the rotation by Americans Kevin Hodges (9-10, 4.24 with Korea’s Samsung Lions) and Gary Rath (17-8, 2.60 with the Doosan Bears, also in Korea) and Hironori Fujisaki, a Kintetsu farmhand who has impressed throughout the spring.

Collegiate rookie Yasuhiro Ichiba will start on the farm team but hopefully be sharp enough to be called up to the first team by mid-April.

What Tao will do for middle relievers, set-up men and a closer remains to be seen, but he may use Aaron Myette (3-3, 19 saves, 2.89 at 3A Lousiville) or Matt Skrmetta, a 2003 Fukuoka Daiei Hawks pitcher coming back from injury.

The catching corps is also thin, with Akihito Fujii (1, 20, .241, Kintetsu) and veteran Takeshi Nakamura (1, 8, .198 with Yokohama) the top two.

In the infield, the most familiar names are Yosuke Takasu (0, 12, .163, Kintetsu), Hidemitsu Saito (4, 26, .253, Orix), former Central League home run king Takeshi Yamasaki (4, 20, .245, Orix), Koichi Oshima (0, 10, .263, Orix) and Osamu Hoshino (2, 24, .250, Kintetsu).

Two new foreign players are expected to play the corners: Damon Minor (17, 56, .302 at 3A Fresno) at first base, and Luis Lopez (1, 9, .206 at 3A Edmonton) at third.

Among the outfielders are ex-Kintetsu players Koichi Isobe (26, 75, .309), Fumitoshi Takano (5, 24, .293), Daisuke Matsuda (2, 16, .272) and Kenshi Kawaguchi (3, 28, .201), and Ryutaro Tsuji (1, 16, .325, Orix).

Predicted order of finish in the Pacific League: 1) Nippon Ham, 2) SoftBank, 3) Lotte, 4) Seibu, 5) Orix, 6) Rakuten.