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Dragons counting on Chen for solid season

by Jason Coskrey

The upcoming season figures to be an especially important one for Chunichi Dragons pitcher Chen Wei-yin, with many of his future options dependent upon his performance.

Chen has been linked to a move to the majors for the past couple of years but enters this spring with a new one-year deal which will allow him to choose his own path after the season.

The Dragons brass seem confident he’ll remain with the team — or they’re putting on a strong face for the fans through the media — while Chen has in the past expressed a desire to pitch in the major leagues.

MLB teams are always on the lookout for good left-handed pitching and the Dragons’ Taiwanese star would seem to fit the bill.

In four NPB seasons Chen is 28-20 (he also has one career save) with a 2.56 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 486 innings — it’s worth noting his home stadium, Nagoya Dome, is the most pitcher friendly in Japan.

Then again, despite the disparity between his home park and others, he has been fairly consistent in his ability to keep runs off the board. Since 2008, Chen is 15-14 with a 2.46 ERA on the road and 13-6 with a 2.43 ERA at home.

His barely above .500 record on the road can likely be attributed more to the Dragons’ inconsistent offense then Chen’s own performance.

For comparison’s sake, in 22 career games at Tokyo Dome — the NPB’s most hitter friendly park — against the high-powered Yomiuri Giants offense, Chen has a 3.23 ERA in 61 1/3 innings.

Chen is the Dragons’ top pitcher and returns after going 13-10 with a 2.87 ERA in 2010. He was the only pitcher in the NPB with an ERA under 3.30 and double-digit losses, another slight nod to the Dragons’ inconsistency at the plate.

The onus will be on him from the start this season with fellow top-line starter Kazuki Yoshimi expected to be sidelined at the start of the year due to elbow surgery.

Dragons fans would be wise to take a good long look this year, because it’s probably his last one this side of the Pacific.

Joining the club: Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe has his sights set on a 50-homer season, but he’ll join an exclusive group if he reaches 40.

Abe had 44 homers last season and has a chance to join NPB legend Katsuya Nomura and Koichi Tabuchi as the only catchers with more than one 40-homer season this year.

Nomura has five 40-homer seasons to his name — four of them coming consecutively from 1962-65 — with the Nankai Hawks. He is, of course, the greatest slugging catcher in Japanese history and second on Japan’s all-time home run list with 657.

Tabuchi produced a pair of 40-homer seasons for the Hanshin Tigers before being traded to the Seibu Lions, a deal that also made Akinobu Mayumi a Tiger. Tabuchi is probably best known for winning the home run race in 1975, breaking Sadaharu Oh’s string of 13 consecutive titles.

Looking up to him: Chunichi Dragons hurler Maximo Nelson will be the tallest pitcher in the NPB when the season starts, standing 204 cm. He’s followed by another pair of skyscrapers, Hiroshima Carp pitcher Mike Schultz (201) and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks reliever Brian Falkenborg (200).