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Central League’s bottom three out to shake up status quo

by Jason Coskrey

The Central League race was mostly a bore last season.

The Yomiuri Giants ran away with the pennant while the Chunichi Dragons finished second with a comfortable 10-game cushion over the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

The only real competition was for third, where the Swallows edged the Hanshin Tigers by 2 1/2 games.

The gap between the haves and have-nots was wide in 2009, leading to a flurry of activity from last year’s bottom three over the offseason.

The Tigers, Hiroshima Carp and Yokohama BayStars enter the year having added a number of pieces, in hoping challenge the Giants for league supremacy.

Which may inject some much-needed spice into the CL standings.

The Tigers went for quality over quantity, but still made the biggest splash by reeling in free-agent Kenji Johjima.

The former Seattle Mariners backstop surprised many by opting out of the final two years of his MLB contract, wanting to end his career in Japan.

Johjima’s premature exit is a big boost for the Tigers, who obtain his services while there’s still something left in the tank.

Hanshin figures to be better with Johjima behind the plate, where the Tigers get a bump offensively and defensively over incumbent Keisuke Kano.

The team also has a new look in center field with the addition of Matt Murton, who hit .324 with 12 homers, 79 RBIs and 12 stolen bases for Triple-A Colorado Springs (Colorado Rockies) last year.

With Tomoaki Kanemoto, Craig Brazell, Takahiro Arai and Takashi Toritani already on board, the Tigers didn’t need much, but potentially got great value out of their moves.

The team also added pitchers Randy Messenger and Casey Fossum to a staff that already featured solid starters in Atsushi Nomi, Yuya Ando and Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi and a superstar closer in Kyuji Fujikawa.

The Carp also opted not to stand on ceremony after a fifth-place finish, bringing in Jeff Fiorentino, who hit .312 with 12 homers, 67 RBIs and 13 stolen bases in 102 games at Triple-A Norfolk (Baltimore Orioles).

Hiroshima also added former Minnesota Twin Justin Huber and pitchers Giancarlo Alvarado, John Bale and welcomed back Ken Takahashi.

The sixth-placed BayStars cleaned house after another horrible campaign then brought in 12 new players.

Among the highlights were big hitters Terrmel Sledge and Jose Castillo, who could both play a major role at cozy Yokohama Stadium.

The BayStars also signed former Chiba Lotte Marines backup catcher Tasuku Hashimoto, traded for his Lotte teammate Daisuke Hayakawa and also also traded for former Hokkaido Nippon Ham infielder Naoto Inada.

Another former Marine, Naoyuki Shimizu, was brought in to help shore up the rotation and Chris Bootcheck and Takayuki Shinohara add arms to the bullpen.

The Giants, Dragons and Swallows each did a bit of housekeeping to solidify their positions, but if the Carp and BayStars can rectify their status as CL pushovers, the race for the A-Class could be wildly entertaining.

Of last season’s bottom three, the Tigers are likely the only club in position to entertain thoughts of the regular-season pennant.

All three, however, should at least have an eye on trying to dethrone third-place finisher Yakult to earn a spot in the Climax Series, where anything can happen.