Yakult looking to get back on top of CL


HANSHIN TIGERS — The Tigers seem to be taking turns finishing in fourth and first place every other year. Fourth in 2002 and 2004, first in 2003 and 2005, and if not careful, they could drop to the second division in 2006.

Manager Akinobu Okada’s club will be starting this season not as good as it was this time last year.

News photoTokyo Yakult Swallows player-manager Atsuya Furuta talks to his players during spring training camp in Okinawa. With an influx of power and pitching,
the Swallows are expected to contend for the Central League title this season.

Andy Sheets (19 home runs, 85 RBIs, .289) is back as the first baseman, and Takashi Toritani (9, 52, .278) is a fixture at shortstop. The third sacker is Makoto Imaoka (29, 147, .279), and it is unlikely he will match that RBI total in what was a career year. Atsushi Fujimoto (1, 36, .249) and Kentaro Sekimoto (0, 24, .297) will probably be platooned at second.

The left fielder is last year’s CL MVP Tomoaki Kanemoto (40, 125, .327) who will turn 38 this year, as will all-star catcher Akihiro Yano (19, 71, .271), but the center fielder is a still young (30) Norihiro Akahoshi (1, 38, .316 with a country-leading 60 stolen bases). Last season, Okada alternated right fielders with Shinjiro Hiyama (8, 40, .278) and Shane Spencer (9, 33, .243), but Spencer may miss the beginning of this year with an injury.

Pitchingwise, the ace is lefty Kei Igawa (13-9, 3.86) who is not all that happy because he wants to be posted for major league duty, but so far the Tigers have refused. Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi (15-3, 2.99) led the CL in victories but will also turn 38 this year. Other starters are Yuya Ando (11-5, 3.39) and Shinobu Fukuhara (8-14, 3.51) who led the league in losses. They will be joined by first-year Australian southpaw Chris Oxspring (12-6, 4.03 with Triple-A Portland).

CHUNICHI DRAGONS – Skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai’s Dragons dropped from first to second last year and made very few changes during the winter. The infield again has slugger Tyrone Woods (38, 103, .306) at first base, Masahiro Araki (2, 41, .291) at second, Hirokazu Ibata (6, 63, .323) at shortstop and Kazuyoshi Tatsunami (9, 56, .253) at third.

Center and right field are set again with, respectively, Alex Ochoa (18, 78, .269) and WBC hero Kosuke Fukudome (28, 103, .328), while left field is a platoon position where Ochiai will most likely alternate lefty-hitting Kazuki Inoue (10, 38, .302) and the right-handed Hidenori Kuramoto (0, 5, .077). The catcher is Motonobu Tanishige (14, 65, .234).

The Dragons’ mound staff is led by 2004 CL MVP Kenshin Kawakami (11-8, 3.74 in 2005), and others in the starting rotation are the veteran lefty Masahiro Yamamoto (7-8, 4.89), Dominican southpaw Luis Martinez (8-4, 3.38), Kenichi Nakata (8-3, 3.63) and Kenta Asakura (5-7, 3.94).

Two other Dominicans are on the staff and might provide some help: Domingo Guzman, whose 2005 season was limited to three games because of injury, and newcomer Claudio Galva.

Chunichi’s bullpen is strong with middle relievers and setup guys such as Masafumi Hirai (4-4, 3.83 in 55 games), Shinya Okamoto (10-3, 3.14 in 60 appearances) and Yoshihiro Suzuki (5-3, 3.56 in 47 calls). Closer Hitoki Iwase (1-2, 1.88) set the single-season save record with 46 in 60 games in 2005.

YOKOHAMA BAYSTARS — Kazuhiko Ushijima should have been Manager of the Year in the Central League in 2005. He took the BayStars to third place after other managers had led Yokohama to three consecutive last place finishes. Now, the question is, can he improve the team even more?

For some inexplicable reason, the ‘Stars will not use foreign position players, and I think that is keeping them from pennant contention. The lineup seems set with first baseman Takahiro Saeki (19, 88, .272), second baseman Hitoshi Taneda (9, 61, .310), shortstop and leadoff man Takuro Ishii (8, 40, .255) and third sacker Shuichi Murata (24, 82, .252).

The outfield has Masaaki Koike (20, 53, .243) in left and WBC team members Hitoshi Tamura (31, 79, .304) in center and Tatsuhiko Kinjo (12, 87, .324) in right. Ryoji Aikawa (8, 46, .259), also a Team Japan guy, is the catcher.

Ushijima has some capable starting pitchers on whom to rely. There are Daisuke Miura (12-9, 2.52), who had the lowest ERA in the CL, Ken Kadokura (11-8, 3.37) and lefty sidewinder Yoshihiro Doi (10-11, 3.83), the old Tuffy Rhodes nemesis. Atsushi Kizuka (6-5, 2.44 in 56 games) is the No. 1 setup man.

The pitching staff is where the Americans are too. Jason Beverlin, the former Yakult Swallows hurler, is back after sitting out a year following Tommy John surgery. Another right-hander, first-year man Shawn Sonnier, was just signed from the Kansas City Royals organization. Speedballer Marc Kroon is the closer.

TOKYO YAKULT SWALLOWS – The now Tokyo Swallows have a new name, new manager, new uniforms, some new and returning players, and I have new hopes for their success this season.

Atsuya Furuta (5, 33, .258), a popular personality because of his work with the Japan Pro Baseball Players Union, will be the first player-manager in Japan since 1977, and it will be interesting to see how many games he will catch this season at age 40.

He’s got a power-packed lineup about which I have written often, starting with first baseman Adam Riggs (14, 44, .306) and 2B Greg LaRocca (18, 56, .303 with Hiroshima). Neither played the full season last year. The left side of the infield has WBC players Shinya Miyamoto (7, 47, .265) at shortstop and Akinori Iwamura (30, 102, .319) at the hot corner.

In the outfield are six-year veteran Alex Ramirez (32, 104, .282) in left, defending batting champ and leadoff man Norichika Aoki (3, 28, .344 and 29 steals) in center and probably platoon players Mitsuru Manaka (5, 28, .302 and a lefty) and Ryuji Miyade (8, 46, .320, a right-hander) in right.

The pitching rotation has southpaws Shugo Fujii (10-12, 3.43) and Masanori Ishikawa (10-8, 4.87) and right-handers Shohei Tateyama (10-6, 3.95) and foreigners Rick Guttormson (8-5, 4.18) and Dicky Gonzalez (4-6, 5.07). Furuta has an excellent setup man in fireballer Ryota Igarashi (3-2, 3.49 in 49 games) and closer, lefty Hirotoshi Ishii (4-3, 1.95, 37 saves in 61 mound trips).

Back after stints in the majors are southpaw starter Kaz Ishii (3-9, 5.14 with the Mets) and submarine reliever Shingo Takatsu (1-2, 5.97 with the White Sox and 1-0, 2.35 with the Mets).

YOMIURI GIANTS — Last year’s disaster is behind the Giants, and manager Tatsunori Hara is back.

Tuffy Rhodes, Brian Sikorski, Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Akira Eto are gone, and the Kyojin are counting on a new wave of players acquired from other teams such as Lee Seung Yeop, Makoto Kosaka, Kiyoshi Toyoda and Jeremy Powell.

Hara, who led the Giants to the 2002 Japan Series title, has an infield alignment of Lee (30, 82, .260 with Lotte) at first base, Toshihisa Nishi (11, 45, .269) or Kosaka (4, 31, .283 with the Marines) at second, Tomohiro Nioka (16, 58, .301) or Kosaka at shortstop and Hiroki Kokubo (34, 87, .281) at third.

Looks like Takayuki Shimizu (15, 50, .300) in left field again, and Hara apparently plans to move the often-injured Yoshinobu Takahashi (17, 41, .298) from right to center, a move that failed in 2003 when Takahashi had back trouble from all the running. In right field, it appears two young players will be platooned: right-handed hitting Kenji Yano (7, 14, .281) and lefty-swinging Yoshiyuki Kamei (0, 1, .143 but a .320 hitter on the farm team).

Shinnosuke Abe (26, 86, .300) finished the 2005 season at first base but is back behind the plate, and the key to his season will be avoiding injury. He’ll be handling a pitching staff led by another WBC standout, Koji Uehara (9-12, 3.31) and Powell (14-12, 3.51 with Orix).

Also in the rotation are expected to be lefties Hisanori Takahashi (8-12, 4.47) and 43-year-old, 25-year veteran Kimiyasu Kudo (11-9, 4.70). Gary Glover (5-4, 5.57 with the Milwaukee Brewers), a right-hander, could also be used as a starter or a middle reliever. Yuya Kubo (7-4, 3.43 in 64 games) is the best set-up man out of the bullpen, and the likely closer is Toyoda (3-1, 3.97, 19 saves with Seibu).

The Giants need to do three things: 1) Avoid long-term serious injuries to key players, 2) clearly define the roles of the players, especially the pitchers, 3) get off to a good start.

HIROSHIMA CARP — American manager Marty Brown takes over a last-place team, but one with a lot of potential. So far, he’s going with an all-Japanese lineup, and the most exciting players are his interchangeable first and third basemen, CL home run king Takahiro Arai (43, 94, .305) and Kenta Kurihara (15, 43, .323 in only 77 games). If any player is ready to burst into stardom this season, it’s Kurihara.

It appears Brown’s double play combination will consist of touted 26-year-old rookie Eishin Soyogi and Koji Yamasaki (1, 9, .255), and they are also switchable between second base and shortstop.

The outfield lineup has veterans Tomonari Maeda in left and Koichi Ogata in center. The rightfielder is Shigenobu Shima, the 2004 CL batting champ. Utility man Takuya Kimura can fill in at second base or in the outfield when needed. Hiroshima’s best catcher is Yoshikazu Kura (4, 22, .210).

The ace of the mound staff is righty Hiroki Kuroda, and others in the starting rotation would be Kan Otake, Yasuhiro Oyamada and Americans Mike Romano and newbie Sean Douglass.

Katsuhiro Nagakawa (3-5, 3.13 in 57 games) comes in for middle relief or as a setup man for southpaw closer John Bale (2-1, 3.19, 24 saves in 51 appearances).

Central League predicted order of finish: 1) Swallows, 2) Giants, 3) Tigers, 4) Carp, 5) BayStars, 6) Dragons.

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