/

Hawks poised to take flight in ’11

by Jason Coskrey

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

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Manager: Koji Akiyama

Last season: 76-63-5 (1st)

The Hawks followed their first league pennant since 2003 with an offseason shopping spree aimed at getting back to the Japan Series for the first time in seven seasons.

The big news in Kyushu over the winter was the acquisitions of prized free agent Seiichi Uchikawa and offensive juggernaut Alex Cabrera.

Uchikawa, who spent years starring for a bad Yokohama team, has a .313 career average and his defensive versatility will come in handy in case of injury or when someone needs a breather.

Cabrera, meanwhile, adds some punch to the lineup though health is a concern for the Venezuelan slugger.

Those two joining the fold alongside Munenori Kawasaki, Yuichi Honda, Hitoshi Tamura and Hiroki Kokubo should drive up run production for a squad that finished fourth in the league in runs.

Naoyuki Matsuda, Jose Ortiz, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Yuya Hasegawa will also contribute.

Softbank also signed free agent catcher Toru Hosokawa, who, while valued more for his glove than his bat, is still a upgrade from Hidenori Tanoue at the plate.

On the mound, reigning PL MVP Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi were arguably the top duo in the NPB. But Softbank’s starters still posted a 4.53 ERA.

Tadashi Settsu is a starter after a pair of excellent years in the bullpen and could help solidify the rotation if his transition is smooth and Keiji Otonari, Hiroki Yamada and D.J. Houlton are better this season.

The Softbank bullpen was the best in Japan, posting a 2.84 ERA, but could take a step back without Settsu.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager: Masataka Nashida

Last season: 74-67-3 (4th)

A Chiba Lotte Marines victory on the last day of the season kept the Fighters out of the 2010 Climax Series. They’re aiming higher this year, and contrary to rumors spread following the season, pitcher Yu Darvish is back to lead the quest to capture the PL pennant.

The delay in starting the season helped the Fighters get two of their top hitters, Kensuke Tanaka, coming off a career year, and Eiichi Koyano back from spring injuries.

Yoshio Itoi has been a pleasant surprise in the lineup for the past two seasons and Atsunori Inaba is getting on in age but swings a consistent bat.

How Sho Nakata and Micah Hoffpauir do this year could have an impact for the normally power-starved Fighters.

Nakata showed flashes of the power stroke the team so desperately needs during the spring, but needs it translate to the regular season.

Hoffpauir joins after hitting .283 with 22 homers and 95 RBI for Triple-A Iowa (Chi. Cubs) and Nashida is looking for him to deliver in his first season.

Despite their offensive trouble, the Fighters are usually among the top teams in terms of preventing runs with a solid defense and good pitching.

Led by Darvish, the Fighters’ starters posted a PL-low 3.61 ERA last season. Masaru Takeda and Bobby Keppel should again turn in solid campaigns with Brian Wolfe, Tomoya Yagi and possibly Keisaku Itokazu in the mix.

The Yuki Saito Experience has been at full-tilt since draft-day and every Fighters fan is waiting with baited breath to see how the Prince fares in his new kingdom and whether or not he can start to live up to the enormous hype.

Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager: Hisanobu Watanabe

Last year: 78-65-1 (2nd)

The Lions were the PL’s top team last year before a late swoon cost them the pennant.

Seibu won’t look much different at the plate from the outfit that drove in 680 runs last season. A full, healthy year out of slugger Takeya Nakamura could be a game-changer in the pennant race and a bounceback season out of Dee Brown would also go a long way.

Midseason pickup Jose Fernandez was impressive in his brief return to Tokorozawa, hitting .339 with 11 homers, 45 RBIs and a .925 OPS in 59 games, and is back this year.

Hiroyuki Nakajima didn’t get posted, so the Lions will have their best hitter around for another year at least and the delay to start the season gave Yasuyuki Kataoka and Takumi Kuriyama a chance to heal nagging injuries.

The bullpen situation is up in the air with closer Brian Sikorski not yet back after having left the country.

Alex Graman is back, but not yet ready to pitch for the top team, opening up a couple slots in the bullpen for last year’s top draft pick, Yusei Kikuchi, and this year’s top pick, Tatsuya Oishi. Watanabe thanked his lucky stars after winning two draft lotteries in order to draft them, now he gets to see what they can do.

Luckily there are no such issues among the starters with the slightly richer Hideaki Wakui and Kazuyuki Hoashi back to lead the rotation alongside Kazuhisa Ishii and Takayuki Kishi.

The back end of the rotation could be a hindrance but bringing Sikorski back, or finding a suitable replacement, will be important in the early going.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager: Senichi Hoshino

Last season: 62-79-3 (6th)

The Eagles have to be the sentimental choice of many to make a run at a pennant and give the Tohoku region something to cheer about.

The Eagles were busy over the winter, putting Senichi Hoshino in the dugout and signing former major leaguers Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura.

Hoshino has a track record for improving squads in his first year (and taking them to the Japan Series in his second for that matter) so hopes are high in Sendai.

Matsui and Iwamura are an upgrade at the plate and in the field, but the team will depend on Takeshi Yamasaki for power numbers.

Yamasaki won’t hit for average, but he had 23 homers and drove in 93 runs last season and can still get it done. He’s not getting any younger, however, and Father Time will catch up sooner rather than later.

Motohiro Shima will be expected to build upon a breakout 2010 and Teppei Tsuchiya keeping up his high level of play would be big.

Ryo Hijirisawa is a good young player and Randy Ruiz could take a lot of the burden off Yamasaki with a good season.

Hisashi Iwakuma’s failed posting will keep the veteran pitcher in Sendai for another season and he’ll team with young fireballer Masahiro Tanaka to form a formidable 1-2 punch for Hoshino, a former star pitcher himself.

Darrell Rasner and Satoshi Nagai will have to pitch better behind them for the Eagles to mount a real challenge, although as usual, the team has bullpen issues.

Settling on a player to close out games will be important for the Eagles as they hope to make their way out of the PL cellar.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager: Norifumi Nishimura

Last season: 75-67-2 (3rd)

After losing its best player and top reliever, Norifumi Nishimura’s club faces an uphill battle to defend its Japan Series title.

Second-year player Takashi Ogino has been tabbed to replace Tsuyoshi Nishioka, arguably the PL’s top player last season, and is moving from the outfield to shortstop.

Ogino was motoring along last year (hitting .346 with 17 RBIs and 25 stolen bases) when a knee injury stopped him cold after 46 games. Healthy again, he should hit above .300 and be among the PL leaders in stolen bases, which will help produce runs.

Tadahito Iguchi and Kim Tae Kyun are the big hitters and Shoitsu Omatsu can pull his weight when healthy.

Saburo Omura should produce another good year at the plate and youngsters Yoshifumi Okada, last seen doing backflips after the Japan Series, and Ikuhiro Kiyota will battle it out for at-bats and the starting spot in center field.

Yoshihisa Naruse will get the ball on Opening Day and returns as the team’s best pitcher. Bill Murphy, Shunsuke Watanabe and Yuki Karakawa will do their part, but there has to be some concern at the back end of the rotation.

The team signed Carlos Rosa late in the spring with an eye on him as a closer with Hiroyuki Kobayashi’s free agent odyssey landing him with the Hanshin Tigers. Yoshihiro Ito, Tadahiro Ogino and Tatsuya Uchi, when healthy, are also capable relievers.

Lotte’s bullpen recorded 96 holds last season and could be decent again, but replacing Kobayashi is job No. 1.

Orix Buffaloes

Manager: Akinobu Okada

Last season: 69-71-4 (5th)

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ failings spared the Buffaloes from a last-place finish in 2010. If gambles on some key contributors don’t pay off, they could find themselves in the cellar this year.

Only the Chiba Lotte Marines and Seibu Lions scored more than Orix’s 644 runs last year. Takahiro Okada hit .284 and led the league with 33 homers last season, showing manager Akinobu Okada enough to allow slugger Alex Cabrera to walk as a free agent.

Lee Seung Yeop arrives in Kobe trying to rediscover his glory days and Mitsutaka Goto may be the next top threat at the plate.

Aarom Baldiris can drive in his fair share of runs, and since the manager has always displayed an affection for him, at-bats should be there. Tomotaka Sakaguchi returns after a decent season and has all eyes on him at the top of the order.

Cabrera’s absence will loom large if “T-Okada” turns out to be a one-hit wonder and Lee fails to rekindle the flame.

The Buffaloes made two big additions on the mound, signing Park Chan Ho, a 100-game winner in the major leagues, and trading for Hayato Terahara.

Hiroshi Kisanuki returns, but the rotation took a huge hit during the spring when ace Chihiro Kaneko suffered an elbow injury that required surgery.

Orix’s starters carried a bloated 4.32 ERA with opponents hitting .282 against them, but the Buffs won over 70 percent of the time when they scored first, due in large part to a bullpen that statistically was the second best in the league with a 3.29 ERA.

So it stands to reason that the Buffaloes could make some noise if their starters do a better job of keeping runs off the board early in the game, provided the bullpen lives up to last season’s levels.