Happy New Year, and 2010 may be a happy year for fans of the Yokohama BayStars, a team that deserves a lot of credit for a series of transactions during the offseason in an effort to improve the standing of the 2008 and 2009 Central League last-place team.
The deals include the appointment of a new manager, a couple of trades, the signing of new foreign players, a free agent acquisition and some promising draft choices.
Yokohama has brought in former Yakult Swallows pitcher Takao Obana to run the club on the field as its freshman manager, and it is obvious the team’s No. 1 priority is improving its mound staff. More recently, Obana served as pitching coach for championship teams such as the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Yomiuri Giants.
The BayStars also made two meaningful trades, one with the defending Pacific League champ Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, acquiring infielder Naoto Inada and pitchers Yataro Sakamoto and Suguru Matsuyama. The other, with the Chiba Lotte Marines, got them right-hander Naoyuki Shimizu, a key starter.
They also lured slugger Terrmel Sledge from Hokkaido Nippon Ham, signed free agent catcher Tasuku Hashimoto and picked up outfielder Daisuke Hayakawa from Lotte, and signed two new foreign players, infielder Jose Castillo and pitcher Chris Bootcheck.
It appears the Yokohama club will be keeping left-hander Stephen Randolph, who pitched some great games after joining the club in July last season, ending with a 5-2 record and a 1.96 ERA. His wins include a 15-strikeout effort in September in Niigata.
The key to getting the most out of the non-Japanese players is to stop the revolving door of foreigners and give these four guys a chance from Opening Day. Too many gaikokujin have been hired over the past several seasons, only to be relegated to the Shonan Searex farm team or released before they can make the adjustment to baseball and life in Japan.
A proposed 2010 Yokohama lineup has appeared in the Japanese sports papers, and some have suggested it may conjure up memories of the 1998 BayStars’ Japan Series-winning team starting members.
That awesome lineup from 12 years ago was known as the “Machine Gun Offense,” and second baseman Bobby Rose, the ’98 MGO cleanup hitter, said of that team, “We took the field every night knowing we were going to get 10 hits or more, guaranteed. That did not necessarily mean we were going to win but, more often than not, we won.”
This year’s anticipated batting order would include switch-hitting leadoff man Hayakawa in center field, Takehiro Ishikawa at shortstop and batting second, 2008 CL batting champ and 2009 runnerup Seiichi Uchikawa in left field hitting third, and slugger Shuichi Murata at third base in the cleanup slot.
Sledge would bat fifth and play first base, with right fielder Yuuki Yoshimura hitting sixth, Castillo at second base and batting seventh, and Hashimoto catching and occupying the eighth spot in the order.
The team would seem to have a halfway decent starting rotation led by ace Daisuke Miura, Shimizu and Randolph, but must shore up its middle relief corps. Bootcheck could solve the lack-of-a-closer problem; he saved 20 games at Indianapolis, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, in 2009.
Two wild cards could be rookie right-handers Shigeru Kaga and Takehiro Fukuda. The 25-year-old Kaga was Yokohama’s No. 2 draft choice and has college and industrial league experience. He’s been assigned uniform No. 16, a sign the BayStars expect him to make the varsity and contribute in his first year.
Fukuda, 27, was a No. 5 pick out of the draft and played in the Shikoku-Kyushu Island League. He will wear No. 49 and, judging by his age, he will also be counted on to get to the first team in a hurry.
Apparently the franchise got an infusion of cash from somewhere so they could pay Hammer (Sledge), and the ‘Stars have two of the highest paid Japanese pitchers, according to the Chunichi Sports newspaper. Shimizu is at No. 7 on the list with a 2010 salary of ¥280 million, while Miura is the fourth-highest paid at ¥300 million.
However, the increased player payroll can be easily justified if the club gets off to a good start and can stay in the pennant race — at least for the Climax Series — late into the schedule.
At the end of September last year, Yokohama was the only CL team eliminated from postseason play, and the attendance at games in the Port City often stayed below five figures.
Yogi Berra might say, “The difference between 10,000 and 30,000 is 20,000,” and if you figure the average price of a ticket to be ¥3,000, filling those extra 20,000 seats brings in an extra ¥60 million per game in ticket sales revenue alone. That is the difference between winning and losing.
Then you make more money on souvenir sales and, even if the team may not earn more on food and drinks, Yokohama Stadium benefits from those sales, as does Japan Railways and the city subway authority with more riders going to the BayStars games. The economy of the entire area gets a boost.
It remains to be seen how far the Yokohama BayStars can advance in 2010 but, based on the preparations and changes made during the past two months, you cannot say they are not trying.
Preseason camp opens in 22 days.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com