With spring training under way, fans in Osaka and Fukuoka are watching closely as their teams undergo a change.
In addition to the usual offseason shuffling, the Hanshin Tigers and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks are busy breaking in new managers before the start of the 2009 season.
Hanshin great Akinobu Mayumi takes the reigns for the Tigers this season while Koji Akiyama tries to follow in the footsteps of Sadaharu Oh for the Hawks.
That seems to be where the similarities end, as they take over clubs that ended 2008 heading in different directions.
Mayumi inherits a team that was the Central League’s best for much of last season but collapsed late.
The Tigers opened spring training with a lot of optimism, mainly because Takahiro Arai is healthier and working himself back into form.
Arai’s absence due to injuries was a main part of Hanshin’s failure to win the CL (though they did finish second) and his value to the club cannot be understated. Arai hit .306 and drove in 59 runs in 94 games last season.
While the Tigers failed to lure pitcher Daisuke Miura away from Yokohama, they made a few changes, notably adding outfielder Kevin Mench, who played with the Toronto Blue Jays last year, in the offseason.
Despite missing out on Miura, the Tigers still have capable starters and a strong bullpen.
At the plate, if 40-year-old Tomoaki Kanemoto’s numbers begin to dip, Hanshin is banking on Arai and Mench to help take up the slack.
All told Mayumi should be skippering a team that is a real threat to end the Yomiuri Giants’ reign atop the league.
Things could be a little dicier for Akiyama in Fukuoka.
Fukuoka had problems both scoring and preventing runs last season, which led to a humbling 64-77 finish.
In the PL, only the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters scored fewer runs than Softbank in 2008. The Fighters, however, offset their shortcomings at the plate with the league’s lowest ERA (3.54) which helped them reach the Climax Series.
Fukuoka meanwhile, finished second to last in ERA (4.05) and runs allowed (641) while finishing in last place.
New additions Justin Germano and Kameron Loe were brought aboard over the offseason to help restore order on the mound while more will be expected of returning young hurler Kenji Otonari and stalwarts Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tsuyoshi Wada.
Nobuhiko Matsunaka again led the team in home runs (25) and RBIs (92) in ’08, but there was a severe dropoff behind the former MVP. The team tried to address the issue by bringing in Akihito Muramatsu, acquired via trade with Orix, who finished with 82 total bases last season.
But Softbank also watched as the teams ahead of them in the standings also made moves to get better (on paper at least). Meaning the road back to contention may be a long one in the first year of Akiyama’s reign.
Guest appearance: Among the former greats out and about at spring training this week was former Tokyo Yakult Swallows catcher and manager Atsuya Furuta, who stopped by the Seibu Lions’ camp on Wednesday.
The former Swallows star was decked out in his familiar blue and red catcher’s mask, chest protector and course glasses as he caught balls from Lions ace Hideaki Wakui and Japan Series MVP Takayuki Kishi.
Furuta also made the rounds with the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles and the Swallows last week.
Furuta, who retired from the game in 2007, was one of the best catchers in Japanese baseball during his heyday. The Hyogo native was a two-time regular season MVP and was twice Japan Series MVP during his career with the Sallows. He retired with a career average of. 294 and 1,009 RBIs.
His role as the leader of the Japanese Baseball Players Union from 1998-2005 also made him one of the most prominent figures in Japanese baseball. Furuta later became the NPB’s most recent player-manager when he took the Swallows job in 2006 while still catching for the team.
Retirement hasn’t taken Furuta out of the limelight, he now hosts his own monthly sports show called “Furuta no Hoteishiki” (Furuta’s equation) among other media-related ventures.