Now that the calendar has flipped to 2010, Japanese baseball teams will soon begin preparing for the upcoming season.
Before spring training begins, here are a few players worth keeping an eye on:
There might be better hitters and more established stars, but in 2009 there was no one you wanted at the plate late in a game more than Yoshiyuki Kamei.
The Yomiuri outfielder drove in either a go-ahead or game-tying run a total of 18 times last season. Eight of those instances came in the sixth inning or later, including three sayonara home runs during the regular season.
Kamei also bailed out the Giants when they had trouble finding a steady first baseman, manning the position during 50 games last season.
Kamei hit .290 with 25 homers, 71 RBIs, a .354 slugging percentage, .510 on base percentage and 12 stolen bases.
He also posted career highs in doubles (25) triples (4) homers and RBIs.
Kamei has improved in each of the past three seasons and at 27 is a star on the rise.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Playing in the shadow of a pair of superstars, Nagai came into his own during a breakout season in 2009.
The 25-year-old pitcher put up career numbers in wins (13), ERA (3.42) and strikeouts (144) last season.
Nagai’s breakout year gave the Eagles a big boost, especially with ace Hisashi Iwakuma missing time due to injuries.
With Nagai playing at a high level, the Eagles had a viable third option in the rotation behind Iwakuma and fireballer Masahiro Tanaka which helped propel the team into its first-ever foray into the postseason.
With Nagai firmly slotted in behind Iwakuma and Tanaka, the Eagles head into the new year with a trio that combined to go 41-19 last season.
If Nagai can continue his development in the upcoming season, the sky is the limit for both the hurler and his teammates.
The Chunichi Dragons hurler has attracted the attention of major league scouts for years and another big season would only stoke the flames.
Chen didn’t dazzle in the win-loss column (going 8-4) but showed excellent control at times and ended 2009 with a 1.54 ERA, the lowest in Japanese baseball in 40 years. Since 1970, only Hanshin Tigers pitcher Minoru Murayama had a lower single-season ERA, posting a 0.98 ERA that season.
Chen held opposing batters to a .193 average, struck out 146 and ended the year with a K/9 of 8.01.
Chen’s one weakness was playing against the Yomiuri Giants, against whom he was 1-3 with a 2.91 ERA. He’ll have to improve on those numbers to help the Dragons knock off the three-time defending CL champions.
A blistering fastball and devastating slider have completed his recent transformation into one of Japan’s best pitchers.
Playing in the pitcher-friendly Nagoya Dome should only serve to add to his value as he attempts to continue his rapid rise.
Making his return to Japanese baseball after four years in the majors, a lot of eyes will be on Johjima’s performance at Koshien next season.
His bat adds some pop to a lineup which should also feature ironman Tomoaki Kanemoto, Takahiro Arai and Craig Brazell.
Johjima’s value isn’t just at the plate, however, it’s behind it as well. The way he works with the Tigers’ pitching staff should go a long way into helping Hanshin improve on a year during which they led the Central League with 431 walks and hit 61 batters.
One of the most highly sought after prospects in years, Kikuchi had suitors from both sides of the Pacific trying to attain his services.
His first press conference with the Lions drew 232 reporters and the team is expecting crowds to be massive during the spring as fans try to get early glimpses of the team’s future.
The Lions organization should be familiar with the hoopla surrounding Kikuchi, having also dealt with a media circus after drafting Daisuke Matsuzaka 1998.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
The right-hander with the big arm will be entering his third year as a professional and hoping 2010 can be his breakout season.
Sato was a first round draft pick and led the ni-gun squad with eight victories in 2008. Sato made 22 appearances with the ichi-gun squad last season, going 5-10 with a 3.52 ERA.
Blisters on his right hand hindered his performance late in the season but the young hurler is making adjustments that he hopes will solve the problem.
Sato is planning to switch to a new glove, working on a curve and is toying with other improvements in order to put more notches in the win column.