The following is the second of a two-part preview for the upcoming NPB season. Team-by-team previews of the six Central League clubs are in order of predicted finish.
Manager: Akinobu Mayumi
Last season: 78-63-3 (2nd)
Hanshin lit up the scoreboard to the tune of an NPB-high 733 runs last year and came within a game of winning the pennant.
The Tigers will probably take a step back at the plate, but just approaching their 2010 totals will make this a lineup to be reckoned with.
Takashi Toritani and Keiichi Hirano played well above what their career numbers would’ve suggested last year, both catching lightning in a bottle. Toritani’s improvement wasn’t as drastic as Hirano’s and he very well could hover around his 2010 production (.301, 104 RBIs).
The core of the lineup, Matt Murton, Craig Brazell and Takahiro Arai all return intact and should produce.
Injuries to Kenji Johjima and Tomoaki Kanemoto looked serious when spring camp broke, but the nearly monthlong delay in starting the season has given both time to get much farther down the road to recovery.
On the mound, Yasutomo Kubo won a career-high 14 games last year, but he also threw 208 1/3 innings, including the postseason, after never before topping 151 1/3. So the Tigers will have to monitor his condition while hoping 2010 was a sign of things to come.
Atsushi Nomi is healthy again and will head the rotation after a good, but brief, 2010 season. Jason Standridge has proven he could be a solid piece of the puzzle, while manager Akinobu Mayumi will hope Randy Messenger and Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi produce at the back end.
The bullpen was upgraded with the addition of free-agent Hiroyuki Kobyashi, who will form a nice tandem with Tomoyuki Kubota with Kyuji Fujikawa closing things out.
Manager: Hiromitsu Ochiai
Last season: 79-62-3 (1st)
Both of manager Hiromitsu Ochiai’s previous pennant-winning squads (2004 and 2006) finished in the runnerup spot the season following their triumph.
So the newly minted Hall of Famer is sure to be hungry to finally break through and win back-to-back titles.
Despite nearly winning the Japan Series, the Dragons fielded one of the worst offenses in Japan (only the Yokohama BayStars were worse) owing the majority of their success to being the best at preventing runs.
That offense will be mostly unchanged, with the notable exceptions of new addition Joel Guzman and second-year player Yohei Oshima, who follows up an impressive Japan Series with a spot on the Opening Day roster.
So Chunichi will again depend on Masahiko Morino, Tony Blanco and reigning CL MVP Kazuhiro Wada for the bulk of their run production.
On the mound, no group of NPB starters had a lower ERA than Chunichi’s 3.42 and only the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ bullpen ERA (2.84) was lower than the 3.02 Dragons relievers recorded.
Chunichi’s top two hurlers, Chen Wei-yin and Kazuki Yoshimi, may miss time early on with injuries, but the Dragons have a capable supporting cast.
Kenichi Nakata and Maximo Nelson put together decent spring performances, while a rebound by Kenta Asakura would go a long way. Daisuke Yamai and Yudai Kawai offer another pair of decent arms.
Closer Hitoki Iwase should become the NPB’s all-time saves leader during the season and has a stingy setup duo ahead of him in Takuya Asao and Akifumi Takahashi.
Manager: Tatsunori Hara
Last season: 79-64-1 (3rd)
For the first time in three seasons the Giants enter a season as something other than the defending Central League champions.
As usual, they’re loaded on offense and will be the class of the league as long as Alex Ramirez and Michihiro Ogasawara continue to defy the aging process.
The grizzled veterans will be joined in the lineup by youngsters Hayato Sakamoto and Hisayoshi Chono.
Sakamoto went from 18 homers in 2009 to 31 last season to become a full-fledged offensive star and Chono may not be far behind.
Catcher Shinnosuke Abe probably hit his career ceiling in 2010 (hitting .281 with a .976 OPS, 44 homers and 92 RBIs) but should be effective once he returns from a calf injury suffered near the close of spring training.
The Giants have the horses to cover for Abe’s bat, but his presence will be missed behind the plate.
Second generation foreign player Rusty Ryal joins the fold this year, his arrival at third base paving the way for Ogasawara to make a body-conserving move across the diamond to first.
Tetsuya Utsumi and Shun Tono are the top returning pitchers, but both will have to be more consistent.
Dicky Gonzalez is coming off a horrible year and Seth Greisinger is working his way back into form.
Touted rookie Hirokazu Sawamura squeezed his way into the rotation — partly due to talent, partly due to necessity — while Hideki Asai is a steady option.
Lefty Tetsuya Yamaguchi slides into the closer’s role with Marc Kroon not retained by the team.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Manager: Junji Ogawa
Last year: 72-68-4 (4th)
Ogawa took over for Shigeru Takada on May 26 and hit the ground running, guiding the Swallows to a 59-36-3 mark. The hardest thing for a manager who finds success after taking over midseason, however, is carrying that momentum into a new campaign.
One thing the Swallows did under Ogawa was hit, batting .283 in his 98 games at the helm. The Yakult offense as a whole wasn’t too bad last year, finishing third in the league with 619 runs.
A major positive for the Swallows is getting a full season from Josh Whitesell, who was acquired during the 2010 season. Whitesell, like Ogawa, paid immediate dividends, hitting .309 with 15 homers and 53 RBis in 68 games.
Norichika Aoki should also again put up big numbers, but someone else in the Yakult lineup will have to step up among a supporting cast that can be offensively challenged.
Shortstop Shingo Kawabata has the makings of a good player at the plate and in the field and may surprise some this year while Wladimir Balentien joins the team this season and could add a bit more pop to the lineup.
The Yakult pitching staff is solid starting at the top with Masanori Ishikawa and Shohei Tateyama.
Yoshinori Sato has gotten better as his young career has progressed and the 21-year-old could be in line for a breakout season.
Kyohei Muranaka is another who could make an impact and Tony Barnette, Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi and Masato Nakazawa will compete for time in the rotation.
Lim Chang Yong returns despite attracting a number of suitors and will close out games for the 2011 season.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Manager: Kenjiro Nomura
Last season: 58-84-2 (5th)
In his first season as a manager, Kenjiro Nomura saw firsthand how much work it’s going to take to return the Aka Heru (Red Helmets) to the success the franchise enjoyed during his playing days.
Kenta Kurihara was the only Carp player to reach 60 RBIs (just two others got past 50) and he’ll again be asked to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
Jun Hirose returns after a solid season and Eishin Soyogi is another good player, having driven in 56 runs and recorded a career-high 50 extra-base hits last year.
Speedster Masato Akamatsu can also help manufacture runs.
Nomura will be looking for more out of Akihiro Higashide this year while Soichiro Amaya earns his keep in the field but needs to be more potent at the plate.
The team shed ineffective foreign hitters Justin Huber and Jeff Fiorentino, replacing them with MLB veteran Chad Tracy, who they hope can break the cycle and be productive.
Hiroshima was statistically among Japan’s top defensive teams but a pitching staff that was among Japan’s worst largely negated their efforts.
If not for a brilliant season from Kenta Maeda, who went 15-8 with a 2.21 ERA and won the Sawamura Award, the Carp may have fielded the worst rotation in Japan.
Maeda may enjoy another good year, but the rest of the rotation has to do its part. Giancarlo Alvarado pitched better than his 8-8 record and with a heavier workload could improve while Yuki Saito is young with potential.
Among the new players, Yuya Fukui and Bryan Bullington will be pressed to contribute.
Manager: Takao Obana
Last year: 48-95-1 (6th)
Conventional wisdom says when you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere left to go but up. Well the BayStars put up one heck of a challenge to that theory in 2010 — finishing last in the NPB regular season, interleague, and open-sen standings — and the outlook for 2011 isn’t exactly rosy either.
A full season with Brett Harper in the lineup should help with run production for a lineup that scored an NPB-low 521 runs last season.
Still, Harper’s impact is somewhat dependent upon someone getting on base ahead of him and potent sluggers Termel Sledge and Shuichi Murata.
Seiichi Uchikawa bolted for greener pastures, but he was quickly replaced by colorful free agent Hichori Morimoto.
The former Hokkaido Nippon Ham outfielder has been slowed by injuries in recent years, but he’s a solid addition if he can stay healthy. Tatsuya Shimozono broke his fibula in a spring game on March 11 and will miss significant time, a setback for a lineup that could get a lot of solo homers from spots 3-5 in the lineup but may struggle to score enough. As bad as the Yokohama batters were, its pitchers were worse.
BayStars starters had a jaw-dropping 5.27 ERA with opponents hitting .303 against them. The bullpen was better, but not by much, with a 4.28 ERA and .272 opponents’ batting average.
Manager Takao Obana, somewhat of a pitching guru, got a new charge in Shogo Yamamoto, but had to trade away Hayato Terahara to do it.
Still, what he really needs is for the incumbents in the rotation to step up.