A couple of teams expected to be pennant contenders in Japanese baseball this season will have to patch up some holes after the loss of a key player due to injury and another who may have to play out of position.
The defending champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks have been dealt a blow with the loss of closer Takahiro Mahara. He has undergone shoulder surgery and may be out for the season. This after three pitchers from the Softbank starting rotation left the club as free agents.
Hawks manager Koji Akiyama will likely call on setup man Brian Falkenborg to take over the closer’s role as he did in 2011, when Mahara went out with an injury. In fact, Falkenborg notched 19 saves (same total as Mahara) and was listed among the Pacific League-leading closers, rather than in the setup category.
Akiyama could also opt to go with the Japanese concept of twin closers, the right-hander Falkenborg and young lefty Masahiko Morifuku who worked most effectively in the seventh inning ahead of Falkenborg and Mahara as a setup for the setup.
Another who might be thrown into that mix is former Boston Red Sox southpaw reliever Hideki Okajima, who became a free agent after signing a minor league contract with the New York Yankees, then failing a physical which triggered his release by the Yanks.
Japanese sports papers reported the Hawks were close to signing Okajima as of Thursday, and Internet sources indicated he had already agreed to terms with Softbank on Feb. 26.
Falkenborg said last year he can go either way, but he looks at the two jobs differently.
“If I go in the game in the eighth inning (as a setup man), and I have a three-run lead, I have to finish the inning with a three-run lead. But if I’m the closer and enter in the ninth inning, I just want to win the game,” he said.
In other words, as the setup man, it’s his responsibility to maintain the three-run cushion and not put any additional pressure on the closer. But, if he’s the closer and comes in with the three-run advantage, it’s OK to give up a run or two — as long as he doesn’t blow the save and comes off the field shaking hands with teammates after the victory.
In the Central League, the Hanshin Tigers will have a serious problem if catcher Kenji Johjima cannot play that position this season. It was reported the veteran backstop, after missing much of the 2011 campaign with a knee injury, still cannot crouch comfortably.
If new Tigers manager Yutaka Wada wants Jo’s bat in the lineup, he’ll have to play him somewhere else on the field.
Johjima began the exhibition season last month playing first base, but that’s the position of slugger Craig Brazell, and Johjima may be headed for left field during the regular season. Having him out there at an unfamiliar position naturally weakens the Tigers defensively but also takes away from the offense because the Hanshin backup catchers have not hit well.
Veteran Akihito Fujii ably filled in behind the plate for Johjima last season, but hit only .223 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 99 games. Moreover, Fujii hit eighth in the order ahead of the pitcher and, even when the sixth and seventh batters set the table by getting on base with no outs, there was not much hope for a rally with two probable outs to follow.
Finally this week, congratulations to Aaron Guiel on his new job with the Kansas City Royals. The British Columbia native has retired as an active player after five seasons in Japan with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Guiel wrote in an e-mail, “I have accepted an offer to go to spring camp with the Royals on a player-coach contract because there is a limited number of coaches allowed by MLB.
“After the teams start their season, I will probably stay at extended spring camp and work with all the young prospects in Arizona. This way I have a flexible schedule to spend time with my family. After 19 years, I need a little breather, but this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
Guiel, 39, was one of the easiest to get along with foreign players here. He never took the game and life in Tokyo too seriously and enjoyed his time playing in the Central League. The Swallows fans loved him, and the Yakult cheering section always played its version of “O Canada,” the Canadian national anthem, whenever A.G. came to bat.
Guiel established himself as a slugger during his first season with the Swallows in 2007, hitting 35 home runs. He also belted 27 out of the park in 2009, but injuries limited his play in 2008 and 2010, and back troubles in 2011 kept him out for all but 11 games.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com