The following is first of a two-part preview for the upcoming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Team-by-team previews of the six Central League clubs are listed in order of predicted finish.
Last season: First
The mighty Kyojin look primed for another run at the Japan Series crown after losing to the Seibu Lions in Game 7 of the title series last season.
Reigning MVP Alex Ramirez (.319, 45 home runs, 125 RBIs in ’08) will again be the centerpiece of what should be the most feared lineup in the CL. Michihiro Ogasawara (.310, 36 home runs, 96 RBIs) will also get his fair share of hits batting third and the team found a viable leadoff threat in Takahiro Suzuki last season.
The big questions at the plate are how 20-year-old Hayato Sakamoto continues to develop and whether Yoshiyuki Kamei can build upon an impressive showing in 2008. Giants fans are also anxious to see the impact new addition Edgardo Alfonzo, who has a career .284 average in 12 major league seasons, has with the team.
Lee Seung Yeop has had a good spring and a return to form by the Korean slugger would be just another boost for manager Tatsunori Hara’s high-octane attack.
The Giants have a strong 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation again behind left hander Tetsuya Utsumi (12-8, 2.73 ERA) and righty Seth Greisinger (17-9, 3.06). Hisanori Takahashi is a solid third option, or better if he’s healthy.
Shun Tohno and Hiroshi Kisanuki are each vying for a spot in the starting rotation but the season will come down to production at the plate for the Giants.
Last season: Second
The Tigers were the CL’s best team before injuries to Takahiro Arai and an improbable collapse robbed them of a 13-game lead over the Giants late in the season.
If Arai can stay healthy and put up his usual numbers (Arai is a career .281 hitter with 202 home runs and 633 RBIs in 10 seasons), the Tigers will again have a potent attack capable of challenging Yomiuri’s hold on the league title.
Tomoaki Kanemoto, who turns 41 on Opening Day, returns after batting .307 with 108 RBIs last season and Hanshin hopes to have even more firepower at the plate with new addition Kevin Mench.
Speedster Norihiro Akahoshi will again be the table-setter and good seasons from Kentaro Sekimoto and Takashi Toritani could have the Tigers roaring by season’s end.
Yuya Ando figures to be the main event on the mound after going 13-9 with a 3.20 ERA last season.
Hanshin also has a potentially exciting young arm in Minoru Iwata, and 40-year-old Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi should have another quality season left in him.
The Tigers missed out on a chance to strengthen the rotation when Daisuke Muira opted to stay in Yokohama. His rebuff means the back-end of the rotation will depend on improved performances from their other starting options.
HIROSHIMA TOYO CARP
Last season: Fourth
The Carp lost their top hitter (Takahiro Arai) and pitcher (Hiroki Kuroda) to begin 2008 yet Kenta Kurihara and company were in the thick of the playoff hunt until late in the season.
Kurihara (.332, 23 home runs and 103 RBIs) will again be the star at the plate while the Carp hope for more production out of Scott Seabol and another steady season from Yoshiyuki Ishihara.
The top of the order has the makings of something big if Akihiro Higashide and Masato Akamatsu can effectively set the table for Kurihara. The Carp will also depend on the bat of veteran Takuro Ishii, who was added in the offseason.
Outfielders Soichiro Amaya and veteran Shigenobu Shima also have the ability to make the first season at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium a memorable one.
Colby Lewis (15-8, 2.68 ERA) was one of the top pitchers in Japanese baseball last season and manager Marty Brown will have three solid right-handers if veteran Kan Otake and youngster Kenta Maeda turn in big seasons.
Much of the focus will be on whether the 20-year-old Maeda can replicate his surprising 2008 season (9-2 with a 3.20 ERA).
TOKYO YAKULT SWALLOWS
Last season: Fifth
The Swallows’ future should be in good hands with pitchers Yoshinori Sato and Masanori Ishikawa. As for the present, Yakult is going to need a lot of people to step up.
Shohei Tateyama (12-3. 2.99) will need another good season and a better year from Ryo Kawashima (7-9, 4.20) will be the key on the mound at Jingu Stadium this year.
Yakult also needs second-year hurler Sato, who has impressed during spring training, to grow up fast.
At the plate, Norichika Aoki may again have to carry the load. Aoki batted .347 and led the team with 14 homers and 64 RBIs. Yakult also added catcher Ryoji Aikawa, brought back Aaron Guiel and can also turn to 60-plus RBI players Yasushi Iihara and Kazuki Fukuchi.
Help may be on the way as a healthy Guiel had five homers during the spring and new addition Jamie D’Antona had four, which could take the pressure off Aoki to drive in runs.
On paper the Swallows were above average in terms of run production — only the Giants scored more runs in the CL — but will need to find a way to translate that into wins this season.
Last season: Third
The Dragons lost their top two offensive players and their best pitcher over the offseason and have haven’t done much to replace them.
Tyrone Woods (.276, 35 home runs and 77 RBIs) wasn’t brought back and Norihiro Nakamura (.274, 24 home runs and 74 RBIs) moved to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, leaving Chunichi without many run-scoring options.
So even if Hirokazu Ibata (.277, five home runs, 23 RBIs) and Masahiro Araki (.243, four home runs, 28 RBIs) bounce back from sub-par seasons at the top of the order, finding someone to drive them in could prove problematic.
The offensive exodus puts the pressure on Masahiko Morino and Kazuhiro Wada to step up this season.
Morino batted .321 last season but will need to regain the form of his 97-RBI 2007 season. Wada (.302, 16 RBIs, 74 RBIs) was a good complement to Woods and Nakamura at the plate but has to shoulder more of the load this season.
Tony Blanco went deep five times during the spring and the first-year Dragon will need to keep it up for Hiromitsu Ochiai in the cleanup role Woods used to occupy between Morino and Wada.
Things are in disarray on the mound as well after the departure of Kenshin Kawakami to the major leagues.
Lefty Masa Yamamoto led the team with 11 wins last season but age is a factor with the 43-year-old.
Kazuki Yoshimi is a solid young 24-year-old right hander but the pressure will be on Kenichi Nakata, Takashi Ogasawara and Kenta Asakura unless the Dragons can produce at the plate.
Last season: Sixth
The BayStars were the picture of futility in 2008 and are off to a rocky start before the first pitch of 2009.
Yokohama lost home run champion Shuichi Murata to injury during the World Baseball Classic, leaving Akihiko Oya’s team without its top offense threat to start the year.
The BayStars also lost catcher Ryoji Aikawa to Yakult and veteran shortstop Takuro Ishii to the Carp during the offseason.
The good news is batting champion Seiichi Uchikawa is back in the lineup and the team also added first baseman Dan Johnson (.307, 25 homers and 83 RBIs for Triple-A Durham Bulls last season) to the fold.
Yuki Yoshimura (.260, 34 home runs, 91 RBIs) joins Uchikawa in the outfield and will need to fill Murata’s shoes to start the season.
Yokohama will have to better a Japan-worst 4.74 team ERA in order to escape the CL cellar. The rotation got a boost when Daisuke Miura spurned Hanshin over the winter and the BayStars are counting on Hayato Terahara and the newly acquired Ryan Glynn to put them in position to win games.