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Dragons ready to rain fire on rivals

by Jason Coskrey

The following is the second 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.

Chunichi Dragons

Manager: Hiromitsu Ochiai

Last season: 81-62-1 (Second)

Having finished as the CL runnersup three straight years, the Dragons are looking to get over the hump this season.

Chunichi is taking a gamble in the field by having shortstop Hirokazu Ibata and second baseman Masahiro Araki switch places.

The plan there is to reap the rewards of a fresher, less banged-up Ibata both in the field and at the plate.

Ironically, Araki will miss the start of the season with an injury.

Araki’s woes open the door for rookie Yohei Oshima to man the leadoff position.

The meat of the lineup is as fearsome as any with Masahiko Morino (.289, 23 homers, 109 RBIs), Tony Blanco (.275, 39, 110) and Kazuhiro Wada (.302, 29, 87), coming off big years.

The Dragons can score in bunches if need be, but their bread and butter at Nagoya Dome will be pitching and defense.

Chunichi has a pair of first-class hurlers in Chen Wei-yin and Kazuki Yoshimi at the head of the rotation.

Lefty Chen (8-4) was one of the top pitchers in Japan last season, leading the CL with a 1.54 ERA, while righty Yoshimi was 16-7 with a 2.00 ERA.

More of the same from the duo could go a long way toward trying to dethrone the Yomiuri Giants.

Yudai Kawai is coming off a 10-win season, and Kenta Asakura (10-8, 4.04 ERA) remains a viable option.

Daisuke Yamai, Kenichi Nakata and Takashi Ogaswara will also jockey for position.

Another year of experience could see setup man Takuya Asao (33 holds, six saves , 3.49 ERA in 67 appearances) reach new heights, while saves leader Hitoki Iwase (41) will again be waiting to close things out.

Keep an eye on: Pinch hitters. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami hit .290 in pinch-hit situations last season, while the rest of the team combined to bat .165.

Tatsunami retired at the end of the year. Meaning someone else needs to step up in key situations.

Yomiuri Giants

Manager: Tatsunori Hara

Last Season: 89-46-9 (First)

The Kyojin dominated the Central League last season and it’s hard not to expect more of the same if they get their pitching situation worked out.

The Giants pounced on opponents early last year, scoring 109 first-inning runs, in part due to the effectiveness of leadoff duo Hayato Sakamoto and Tetsuya Matsumoto at setting the table for three-hole hitter Michihiro Ogasawara and cleanup maestro Alex Ramirez.

Ogasawara (.309, 31 homers, 107 RBIs) and Ramirez (.322, 31 homers, 103 RBIs) continue to be the highlights of what could be an obscenely loaded attack, with Yoshiyuki Kamei (.290, 25 homers and 71 RBIs) lurking around the five-hole.

The team also welcomes back a rejuvenated Yoshinobu Takahashi and has reliable catcher Shinnosuke Abe to lean on as well.

That’s all without talented rookie Hisayoshi Chono, who could very well earn himself a starting job by season’s end.

One of Yomiuri’s few questions at the plate is first baseman Lee Seung Yeop, but with Kamei and Takahashi able to fill in at first, his days a starter may be numbered.

Dicky Gonzalez returns as the team’s best pitcher after winning 15 games, but the situation is murky behind him.

New pitching coach Masaki Saito threw down the gauntlet to probable Opening Day starter Tetsuya Utsumi (9-11, 2.96) and Shun Tohno (8-8, 3.17) during the offseason, demanding a 15-win season out of each.

Health concerns with Seth Greisinger make it even more important that the two hurlers step up in the rotation.

Last season’s surprise package Wirfin Obisbo (6-1, 2.45 ) may be called upon to help out in the rotation and former reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi will begin the year as a starter for the first time.

Keep an eye on: Tetsuya Yamaguchi. Yomiuri is messing with success by converting the lefty into a starting pitcher. The move creates a huge void in the bullpen with no guarantee Yamaguchi will thrive in his new role.

Hanshin Tigers

Manager: Akinobu Mayumi

Last season: 67-73-4 (Fourth)

The Chinese calendar says 2010 is the year of the tiger and returning hero Kenji Johjima is aiming to help Hanshin make good on that.

Acquiring Johjima doesn’t make the aging Tigers much younger, but he should settle in nicely with Tomoaki Kanemoto, Takahiro Arai and Craig Brazell.

Ironman Kanemoto is to be feared at the plate, but his age (41) and the dropoff he suffered after last season’s scorching April suggest a few chinks in the armor.

Arai and Takashi Toritani take some of the pressure off, but a full season out of Brazell and the addition of Johjima may spark a return to the postseason.

Added after the start of the 2009 season, Brazell hit .291, with 16 homers and 49 RBIs in 82 games.

Johjima returns to Japan after hitting .268 with 48 homers in four major league seasons with the Seattle Mariners.

He should also be an upgrade defensively and helps provide a stabilizing presence for a pitching staff that led Japanese baseball in wild pitches.

Among those Johjima will be working with is Atsushi Nomi, Hanshin’s top starter with a 13-9 record and 2.62 ERA last season. Nomi was also a road warrior, going 9-3 with 101 strikeouts and a 1.76 ERA away from home.

Minoru Iwata showed improvement in enough areas to suggest a breakout season is possible, while newcomer Randy Messenger is a positive addition.

Manager Akinobu Mayumi will also be counting on a better season from Yuya Ando (8-12, 3.90).

There area few holes in the middle relief corps, but closer Kyuji Fujikawa will be waiting if the Tigers can deliver a lead in the ninth.

Keep an eye on: Kenji Johjima. The former major leaguer brings a wealth of experience, but a lot changes in four years away and he may be playing catch-up at the plate early on.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Manager: Shigeru Takada

Last season: 71-72-1 (Third)

Yakult enters the year looking to build upon the momentum of a surprising playoff run last season.

The Swallows figure to have a decent attack at the plate between big hitters Aaron Guiel and Jamie D’Antona and all-around threats Norichika Aoki and Kazuki Fukuchi.

Aoki hit .303 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs last year, a slightly off-season by his recent standards. The Yakult star has switched numbers (from No. 23 to No. 1) and has his sights set on producing the second 200-hit season of his career.

Yakult would also benefit from a rebound by second baseman Hiroyasu Tanaka, who slumped to a .258 average with four homers and 35 RBIs.

There’s trouble at shortstop with Keizo Kawashima undergoing elbow surgery earlier this month.

Shingo Kawabata is a capable fill-in and youngster Takahiro Araki has a shot at making an impact.

Catcher Ryo Aikawa is healthy again and plays an important role in trying to keep the pitching staff on track in his second year with the team.

Shohei Tateyama (16-6, 3.39 ERA) and Masanori Ishikawa (13-7, 3.54) are proven commodities on the mound and provide a bit of comfort for manager Shigeru Takada.

Another foray into the postseason, however, may depend on Ryo Kawashima (5-6, 4.81) improving on a subpar year and young pitchers Yoshinori Sato (5-10, 3.50) and Kyohei Muranaka (1-6, 7.12) producing breakthrough seasons.

Waiting in the bullpen is closer Lim Chang Yong, who produced 28 saves for the team last season.

Keep an eye on: Kyohei Muranaka. Muranaka made nine starts last season and managed to give up fewer than two runs just twice.

The Swallows may need another good season out of their pitching staff to compete in an improved Central League. Muranaka is a key part of that, putting the onus on him to put it all together this season.

Yokohama BayStars

Manager: Takeo Obana

Last season: 51-93 (Sixth)

The BayStars brought in a lot of new faces who they hope will help them avoid the same old results.

Yokohama went back to the drawing board after last year’s horrendous showing, hiring a new manager and acquiring 12 players.

At the plate, Yokohama added some firepower with the addition of Terrmel Sledge (.266, 27 homers, 88 RBIs) from Hokkaido Nippon Ham. The team also went out and got Jose Castillo and acquired former Chiba Lotte Marines catcher Tasuku Hashimoto.

The new additions join Seiichi Uchikawa, one of the few returning gems (.318, 17 homers, 66 RBIs) and a healthy Shuichi Murata.

The hiring of former Daiei Hawks and Yomiuri Giants pitching coach Takeo Obana as manager should be a big boon for the pitching staff.

On the mound, the main addition was former Marines starter Naoyuki Shimizu, who was acquired via a trade.

Shimizu was brought in to add stability to a pitching staff that was the worst in the Central League with a 4.34 ERA.

Stability won’t come easy with mainstay Daisuke Miura starting the year on the farm after a rough spring.

“Hama no Bancho” has been Yokohama’s ace for a number of years and the team will need him to be effective upon his return.

Obana announced he was moving closer Shun Yamaguchi into the rotation then backed off a few weeks later. Yamaguchi, who had 18 saves with a 3.27 ERA, is still in the pipeline to start but will likely begin the season in the bullpen.

Stephen Randolph was a breath of fresh air late last season, going 5-2, 1.96 ERA from Aug. 16. More of the same from him would do wonders with Hayato Terahara also in the mix.

Keep an eye on: Yuki Yoshimura. The outfielder put up nice numbers in 2007 and 2008 before regressing badly last year. A return to form could be helpful alongside Sledge, Uchikawa and Murata.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Manager: Kenjiro Nomura

Last season: 65-75-4 (Fifth)

Former Carp star Kenjiro Nomura takes the reins in hopes of ushering in a return to glory.

First on the list would be to uncover some production at the plate after fielding a unit statistically (.245 team average, 528 runs, both second-lowest in Japanese baseball) superior to only the Yokohama BayStars last season.

Third baseman Kenta Kurihara’s bat was conspicuous by its absence, with the All-Star slumping to a .257 average and 79 RBIs.

The Carp have good hitters like Akihiro Higashide, but run producers are lacking on a team that only had one player (Kurihara) surpass 60 RBIs.

Soichiro Amaya, did decent work in a limited role last season and was the top player coming out of the spring.

New addition Jeff Fiorentino also joins the mix after hitting .312 with 12 homers and 67 RBIs for Triple-A Norfolk (Baltimore Orioles) in 2009.

The Carp’s modest offensive totals in their first year at Mazda Stadium suggests Nomura will be leaning heavily on his pitching staff to keep the team competitive.

On the mound, the Carp hope to get a better year out of young hurler Kenta Maeda, who suffered through a slight sophomore slump during an 8-14 campaign last season.

Kan Otake returns after a solid season (10-8, 2.81 ERA) on the mound and Yuki Saito (9-11, 3.99) will be out to put a few more notches in the win column.

The team also added former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Giancarlo Alvarado over the offseason, adding a bit more depth to the ranks.

Keep an eye on: Kenta Kurihara. The slugger experienced severe dropoffs in batting average, RBIs, slugging percentage and on base percentage in his first year away from the friendly confines of Hiroshima Stadium.

A Carp revival starts with a bounce-back year at the plate by the Hiroshima star.