In 2008, Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown will be entering his third season as skipper of the Central League club without his two best players.
But he remains upbeat and optimistic he can lead the team into next year’s postseason Climax Series despite missing his ace pitcher and cleanup hitter.
The No. 1 starter, free agent right-hander Hiroki Kuroda, appears headed for a major league career, most likely with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels or Seattle Mariners.
Slugging third baseman Takahiro Arai, also a free agent, agreed on Nov. 21 to join the CL rival Hanshin Tigers. While it is a tough pill to swallow, Brown says the loss of Kuroda and Arai does not mark the end of the world, and it is not all that much of a surprise.
“There’s not a lot we can do (about them leaving), and we can’t dwell on it,” Brown said. “It was anticipated by the front office long before I got here. Kuroda and Arai know how I feel about them; they are friends, and they told me they are not leaving because of me. It’s just a time in their careers to move on.
“They want to win and apparently felt they have a better chance somewhere else.”
Asked if he expects to replace the pair with foreign players, Brown indicated he thought that would be the logical way to go.
Having just completed the Carp’s fall camp, Brown surmised, “We can’t replace them from within, although our pitching is getting better, and we have some good young hitters coming up. If you look at the market here, you can see it is very difficult for us to attract free agents and make meaningful trades.”
One consolation is that the Carp can get 80 percent of Arai’s 2007 salary from Hanshin as compensation for a free agent jumping to another Japanese team. That should be about ¥98.4 million, because Arai’s pay this past season was said to have been ¥123 million.
Hiroshima won’t get anything for Kuroda if he goes to the majors, but they save his salary, listed this year as ¥300 million. The Carp also save the dough they don’t have to shell out for a new Arai contract, and the whole package adds up to more than $4.5 million the team could use to attract some foreign talent.
Despite the fact he’s an American, Brown says the Carp front office is taking the lead in hiring imports, and he maintains the team will not sign non-Japanese players just to get bodies.
“We’ve got to get the right guy,” he said.
The team finished the 2007 campaign with Alex Ochoa (who batted .300 with seven home runs and 31 RBIs in half a season) in center field, knuckleball pitcher Jared Fernandez (3-8, 6.04 ERA), and two Dominican hurlers, Victor Marte (0-1, 8.31) and Esmailin Caridad, who only made two varsity appearances and threw just two-thirds of an inning.
Another American right-hander, Sean Douglass, has a third-year option in his contract but missed the entire 2007 season with arm trouble after winning nine games in the first half of 2006 before going on the disabled list.
So far, Brown said, none of the above have been officially released, and no new foreign players have been hired.
However, it has been reported by the Nikkan Sports that Hiroshima has offered Ochoa a contract for 2008.
Another way to quickly improve your team here is through quality draft choices — and some luck later on. Brown likes the guys the Carp picked up at the Nov. 19 selection meeting and thinks a couple are mature enough to maybe make significant contributions as rookies, and take some of the sting out of losing Kuroda and Arai.
The Carp’s No. 1 pick is 22-year-old lefty pitcher Junpei Shinada. Brown describes him as “a conventional thrower,” out of Kanagawa Prefecture.
Hiroshima also got shortstop Tetsuya Kokubo, 22, from Nara-ken and, no, he’s not related to Fukuoka Softbank Hawks third baseman Hiroki Kokubo; their names are different when written in kanji characters.
Besides the outlook for his own team, Brown also commented on the future prospects for a fellow American manager and the building progress of the new Hiroshima Stadium.
Brown expressed best wishes to rival skipper Trey Hillman, leaving the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to take on the job as manager of the Kansas City Royals.
“It’s a great opportunity for Trey, and I am so happy for him. He’s a hard worker and a good baseball man. He’s going to a young team, and he’s committed, so he should do just fine,” said Brown.
“Our new ballpark is coming along OK,” he said. “I’m going to the site this week along with our owner for a ceremony.” The stadium is scheduled to open in time for the Carp to begin the 2009 season.
Following consecutive fifth-place finishes during his two years leading the Carp, Brown was asked if he feels pressure to make the playoffs in 2008 — or face probable dismissal, along with his handpicked bench coach, Jeff Livesey.
“My deal is for three years,” he responded. “I learned something about how things work here. I love my job, I love Hiroshima, and the ownership will let me know. I think they like the job Jeff and I have done.”
Brown will remain in Japan for a few more weeks before heading home in mid-December to the U.S. to spend the Christmas and New Year holidays with his family. He’ll be back in Hiroshima around Jan. 10 to prepare for the pivotal 2008 campaign.
Spring camp for the Carp will start in Okinawa on Feb. 1 and move to Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture, in southern Kyushu, later that month.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com