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Seibu aims for successful season

by Jason Coskrey

The following is first of a two-part preview for the upcoming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Team-by-team previews of the six Pacific League clubs are listed in order of predicted finish.

Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager: Hisanobu Watanabe
Last season: 70-70-4 (Fourth)

The last time the Lions finished outside the top three they bounced back by winning the Japan Series the next year. Manager Hisanobu Watanabe’s squad will be looking for a repeat performance this season.

The Lions will continue to roar at the plate as long as Takeya Nakamura, who has 94 homers over the past two years, keeps slugging away. Provided he recovers from injuries sustained to his face over the spring.

Seibu’s best all-around player Hiroyuki Nakajima (.309, 21 homers and 92 RBIs last season) and G.G. Sato (.291, 25, 83) also figure to play a large role in trying to lift the 2008 Japan Series champs back to the top of the PL mountain.

The team also has dependable hitters in Takumi Kuriyama (.267, 12, 57) and the sparingly used Yoshihito Ishii and Taketoshi Goto.

Leadoff man Yasuyuki Kataoka led Japanese baseball with 51 stolen bases and improving on a .260 average and .309 on-base percentage would only help create more run-scoring opportunities for an already formidable lineup.

The top of the rotation is strong with reigning Sawamura Award winner Hideaki Wakui (16-6, 2.30 ERA) and Takayuki Kishi (13-5, 3.26 ERA) leading the way. The Lions will also lean on Kazuyuki Hoashi to produce a few quality starts.

Veteran Kazuhisa Ishii is nearing the end of the line but still has something left in the tank, while golden oldie Fumiya Nishiguchi will vie to remain a piece of the puzzle.

All eyes will be on pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (when he makes it to the top team), the Lions’ most celebrated rookie since Daisuke Matsuzaka, but having Wakui, Kishi and veteran Kimyasu Kudo, will ease the transition.

Seibu strengthened the back of the bullpen by acquiring Brian Sikorski, who can step in as a closer or setup man, and are expecting Alex Graman back sometime during the first half of the season.

Keep an eye on: Yusei Kikuchi. After turning down the majors, Kikuchi steps into Daisuke Matsuzaka’s shadow as a high-schooler shouldering huge expectations.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager: Masataka Nashida
Last season: 82-60-2 (First)

Yu Darvish’s injury woes put the Fighters in a pinch late last year, a struggle the team hopes to avoid repeating as it vies for a fourth PL pennant in five years.

Darvish is Japan’s top pitcher and a 15-5, 1.73 ERA season capped by a heroic turn in Game 2 of the Japan Series helped hammer the point home.

The already power-starved Fighters lost some pop when Terrmel Sledge signed with the Yokohama BayStars over the winter.

Manager Masataka Nashida may now have to count on the mercurial Sho Nakata to help pick up some of the slack alongside reliable veteran Atsunori Inaba.

The Fighters’ offense thrived despite a relative lack of power outside of Sledge and Inaba last season and small ball may again be the weapon of choice.

Yoshio Itoi (.306 with 15 homers and 58 RBIs) helped lead the surprising offensive surge and Shinji Takahashi (.309, eight homers, 75 RBIs), Makoto Kaneko (.304, 14 homers, 66 RBIs) and Eiichi Koyano (.296, 11 homers, 82 RBIs) help fill out a lineup flush with good hitters.

Sledge leaves a big void to be filled at the plate. Which may have Nippon Ham leaning on its pitchers for support.

Darvish is the unquestioned leader of the pitching staff, but the onus is on his teammates to prevent the Fighters from being a one-man show.

Masaru Takeda likely returns as the second man in the rotation, after winning 10 games last season.

Nippon Ham will also have left-hander Tomoya Yagi (9-3, 2.88) to lean on.

Keisaku Itokazu and a healthy Kazuhito Tadano are also available with foreign newcomers Buddy Carlyle and Bobby Keppel fitting in somewhere as well.

Keep an eye on: Yu Darvish. The team ace has tweaked his approach to help ward off the injury problems he faced last season. Darvish is the Fighters’ most important player and how he returns from back and finger injuries will be closely monitored.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager: Marty Brown
Last season: 77-66-1 (Second)

The Eagles came within a few wins of reaching the Japan Series and the task falls to new manager Marty Brown to get them over the hump.

Rakuten may have the best 1-2 punch in Japanese baseball in top-line hurlers Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka.

That duo becomes a triple threat if fourth-year pitcher Satoshi Nagai can build upon a solid 2009 campaign that saw him go 13-7 with a 3.42 ERA. Eagles fans will also hope this is the year third-year hurler Kohei Hasebe turns the corner.

The team also attempted to shore up the back of the bullpen with the addition of hard-throwing right-hander Juan Morillo, who joins Kazuo Fukumori and Tsuyoshi Kawagishi.

Rakuten leaned on old-hand Takeshi Yamasaki (39 homers, 107 RBIs) for offense last season and he may have to do the heavy lifting again. He’ll have a little more help with the addition of former Hiroshima Carp Andy Phillips.

Teppei Tsuchiya is a fantastic hitter, leading the league with a .327 average, and is a danger with runners on. The Eagles can also count on capable bats in Fernando Seguignol, Daisuke Kusano and Naoto Watanabe to step up and generate a few runs.

Keep an eye on: Kohei Hasebe. The 24-year-old arrived to much fanfare two seasons ago but has thus far failed to deliver. The Eagles’ rotation could be the toast of the Pacific League if the youngster puts it all together this season.

Orix Buffaloes

Manager: Akinobu Okada
Last season: 56-82-2 (Sixth)

Staying healthy will be step one for a Buffaloes team that was ravaged by injuries a year ago.

The club let Tuffy Rhodes walk, placing the offense in the capable hands (if healthy) of Alex Cabrera, who hit .314 with 13 homers and 39 RBIs in an injury-plagued 65-game campaign. Greg LaRocca can also pull his weight at the plate when healthy.

Tomotaka Sakaguchi (.317, five homers, 50 RBIs, 16 stolen bases) may be the team’s best player and has gotten better in each of the last three years. There’s also a lot to like in newcomers Aarom Baldiris, who lit up the Western League last season and was acquired as a free agent, and Shogo Akada, brought in via a trade with Seibu.

The pitching staff was the worst in Japanese baseball as the Buffaloes’ young pitchers regressed and their veteran hurlers didn’t perform.

Chihiro Kaneko is the top dog here and the newly acquired Hiroshi Kisanuki provides an experienced presence. Satoshi Komatsu is capable of having a big year if he can put some consistency behind his considerable talents. Shogo Yamamoto also figures to play a role.

Keep an eye on: Aarom Baldiris. Left to rot on the Hanshin Tigers farm team, despite putting up big numbers there, Baldiris was thrown a lifeline by Okada.

What he does with the opportunity could be important for the Orix at the plate in tough spots this season.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager: Norifumi Nishimura
Last season: 62-77-5 (Fifth)

The Marines are hoping to add a bit more home run power with the addition of South Korean slugger Kim Tae Kyun. Kim was a force in the Korean Baseball Organization, batting .310 with 188 homers and 701 RBIs in nine seasons with the Hanwha Eagles.

Kim went .330, with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs last season.

If Kim approaches those numbers during his first season in Japan, he’ll be a nice addition to a team that had four players (Shoitsu Omatsu, Saburo Omura, Tadahito Iguchi and Toshiaki Imae) top 60 RBIs last season.

Catcher Tomoya Satozaki can also put up decent numbers. Keeping him healthy takes on added importance with trusted backup Tasuku Hashimoto now playing for the Yokohama BayStars.

Pitcher Hiroyuki Kobayashi’s two-year slump has landed him in the bullpen while Naoyuki Shimizu was traded to Yokohama, leaving Shunsuke Watanabe and Yoshihisa Naruse to pick up the pieces in the rotation.

Naruse is the best of the bunch, returning after going 11-5 with a 3.28 ERA, while Watanabe will be hoping to better a 3-13, 4.05 ERA campaign.

Lotte also has a pair of promising young arms in Yuki Karakawa, who has a major upside, and Yuta Omine, another youngster who could have a bright future. Veteran Shingo Ono can also be relied on for a few good starts.

There’s a lot to be desired in the bullpen with the departure of reliever Brian Sikorski but something will be mashed together with Yasuhiko Yabuta, Kobayashi and Tadahiro Ogino, among others to choose from.

Keep an eye on: Yuta Omine. Without Kobayashi and Shimizu in the rotation, how the 22-year-old develops alongside Naruse (25) and Karakawa (21) could have a big effect both this year and in the future.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Manager: Koji Akiyama
Last season: 74-65-5 (Third)

Injuries and age are starting to catch up to the Hawks, whose window may be closing fast.

Slugger Nobuhiko Matsunaka is getting on in years but can still get the job done when healthy. Matsunaka hit .279 last season with 23 homers and 80 RBIs.

The problem is keeping him fit. Injuries are starting to take their toll on the aging star, who will begin the year on the farm team for the first time since his rookie season.

Recovering from offseason knee and elbow surgery, Matsunaka hit .111 with no homers or RBIs in seven exhibition games.

Matsunaka’s condition puts more pressure on 38-year-old Hiroki Kokubo to step up his level of play.

Kokubo was the only Softbank player to appear in all 144 games last season, hitting .266 with 18 home runs and a team-high 81 RBIs.

Catcher Hidenori Tanoue packs a punch (26 homers and 80 RBIs in 2009) but a dismal average (.251) and a tendency to strike out (122) somewhat numbs his effectiveness.

Though the Hawks’ halfhearted attempts to woo former star Kenji Johjima suggest they’re pleased with Tanoue’s progress.

Jose Ortiz, Yuya Hasegawa and Hitoshi Tamura will hold their own but the offense could be in trouble if Matsunaka’s knees betray him.

Softbank added Lee Bum Ho over the offseason, another weapon at the plate who creates a logjam at third base with Nobuhiro Matsuda.

At the top of the lineup, Softbank needs better performances out of Yuichi Honda and Munenori Kawasaki, who both had subpar performances last season.

Ace Toshiya Sugiuchi was 15-5 with a 2.36 ERA last season and is the only sure thing in the rotation. Dennis Houlton (11-8, 2.89) was Softbank’s only other dependable pitcher last season, while Tsuyoshi Wada, if he stays healthy, presents another quality arm.

Setup man Tadashi Settsu (34 holds) and Takahiro Mahara (29 saves) are a formidable bullpen duo.

Keep an eye on: Kenji Otonari. The Hawks rotation would get a nice upgrade if Otonari (8-10, 4.59) can register a productive season after a troubling 2009 campaign.