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Giants favored in Central League

by Jason Coskrey

Capsules in order of predicted finish

Yomiuri Giants

Manager: Tatsunori Hara

Last season: 71-62-11 (Third)

Rather than carpet-bombing the market with cash as usual, the Giants spent wisely.

Lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi and righty D.J. Houlton should improve a pitching staff that was already strong with 18-game winner

Tetsuya Utsumi (pictured above, right) and CL Rookie of the Year Hirokazu Sawamura already on board. If Shun Tono gets over last year’s yips, the rotation could be Japan’s best.

Offensively the biggest change, the only change really, was jettisoning Alex Ramirez and replacing him with slugger Shuichi Murata, who will find having Shinnosuke Abe and Hisayoshi Chono in the lineup makes life easier than it was in Yokohama.

Hayato Sakamoto needs get over a subpar season and Michihiro Ogasawara and Yoshinobu Takahashi need to stay healthy.

While the Kyojin have generally had a great eye for other teams’ foreign talent, they haven’t had much luck on their own.

The last time a foreign player with no NPB experience made an impact with the team was back in 1996, when volatile pitcher Balvino Galvez arrived from the Chinese Professional Baseball League and went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA. The team and its fans are hoping to strike gold again with reliever Scott Mathieson and infielder John Bowker.

How they’ll do: They play the games for a reason, but on paper at least, everyone else is playing for second.


Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Manager: Junji Ogawa

Last season: 70-59-15 (Second)

The Birds had the pennant in their grasp before fading to a 6-11 mark in October.

They return led by a rotation that could be good, but has some unanswered questions. The biggest concern is health. Shohei Tateyama is a top-line starter and Yoshinori Sato is a star with electric stuff to match, the problem is keeping them healthy.

Masanori Ishikawa is more durable and is a good No. 2 option. Kyohei Muranaka has the talent to reach that level, but is still searching for the consistency.

Offensively, Yakult added the mercurial Lastings Milledge, a move that could pay off in a big way, but is a gamble.

Kazuhiro Hatekeyama and CL home run leader Wladimir Balentien have good power, but the team will need to monitor their stamina.

Shinya Miyamoto turned back the clock to hit .302 last year but, at age 41, he will slow down eventually.

How they’ll do: The Swallows have a good team and despite 2011′s late swoon, the glass still looks half full.


Chunichi Dragons

Manager: Morimichi Takagi

Last season: 75-59-10 (First)

Most teams get younger. Chunichi found a way to get older.

The Dragons have two 40-somethings (43-year-old slugger Takeshi Yamasaki and 41-year-old catcher Motonobu Tanishige) who will see considerable action and another (46-year-old pitcher Masa Yamamoto) who will make more sporadic appearances. Just for good measure, starting left fielder Kazuhiro Wada is 39 and their new manager is 70.

The good news for the Dragons is they still pitch in Nagoya Dome, a pitcher’s haven which helped the team post a CL-low 2.46 ERA a year ago. With Kazuki Yoshimi leading the rotation, and CL MVP Takuya Asao and Hitoki Iwase in the bullpen, expect more of the same. They’ll be even better if Kenshin Kawakami rebounds after two subpar MLB seasons.

The downside to playing in a pitcher’s park is that your offense has to hit there. Chunichi’s hitters struggled in 2011, registering the fewest runs (419) and lowest batting average (.228) of any NPB team.

Yamasaki still has something left, but not enough to carry the load alone. He’ll battle Tony Blanco, who carried the team last October, albeit after six so-so months, for playing time.

Wada and Masahiko Morino are also coming off down seasons. The good news is young players Ryosuke Hirata and Yohei Oshima are still improving and Masahiro Araki and Hirokzau Ibata still know how to come through.

How they’ll do: The Dragons always pitch well, so they should be competitive. If they hit well on top of that, they’ll be dangerous.


Hanshin Tigers

Manager: Yutaka Wada

Last season: 68-70-6 (Fourth)

Change is in the air in Kansai, as the Tigers prepare to break in their second manager since 2009.

Where Hanshin needs to take big strides is at the plate. Matt Murton is among Japan’s top hitters and Hanshin may get a boost out of putting Takashi Toritani in the leadoff spot.

The Tigers didn’t have much power last year, Takahiro Arai led the team with 17 home runs, so they will need Arai and Craig Brazell to crank their production up a notch this year.

Another issue is the state of Kenji Johjima, who was injured for much of the 2011 season. He probably won’t be able to catch much, and will either platoon with Brazell at first base, or force him into left field.

If Yuya Ando is healthy the Tigers will have a solid rotation.

Atsushi Nomi is a good No. 1 and Jason Standridge, Minoru Iwata, Randy Messenger, Yasutomo Kubo form a good supporting cast.

Leaving Daiki Enokida in the bullpen with famed closer Kyuji Fujikawa helps out in that area, though a 3.42 ERA for Tigers relievers in 2011 is a cause for concern.

How they’ll fare: The Tigers have things to figure out, but their pitching can buy them time to work the kinks out.


Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Manager: Kenjiro Nomura

Last season: 60-76-8 (Fifth)

The Carp haven’t played a postseason game since 1991, but are pointed in the right direction.

Hiroshima has an ace in Kenta Maeda and another top-level hurler in Bryan Bullington. The rest depends on a group of young pitchers who will either fuel what could be a very good rotation, or pull the team down.

Yuya Fukui had a good rookie season and first-round draft pick Yusuke Nomura may be able to contribute early. Yuki Saito is healthy again and the team is counting on Junpei Shinoda, while also hoping Kan Otake can pick up where he left off two years ago.

Hiroshima’s starters would do well to pitch deep into games, avoiding a shaky bullpen as much as possible in order to get the ball to All-Star closer Dan Sarfate.

Still, offense has to come from somewhere. Kenta Kurihara can put up good power numbers and the team will need Nick Stavinoha, who hit 28 homers and drove in 109 runs for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A squad, to do his part.

Jun Hirose is healthy again, another positive sign, and Brian Barden gets the chance to finish what he started as a midseason pickup last year. It’s still hard to see where the bulk of the runs come from however.

How they’ll fare: The Carp can reach the Climax Series if everything goes right, but are probably still a season or two away.

* * *

Yokohama DeNA BayStars

Manager: Kiyoshi Nakahata

Last season: 47-86-11 (Sixth)

If nothing else, a dismal atmosphere should improve with eternal rays of sunshine Nakahata and Alex Ramirez in the clubhouse.

If Ramirez is his usual potent self at the plate, then Shuichi Murata won’t be missed. If young slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is ready for the primetime, neither will Terrmel Sledge or Brett Harper. Yokohama also has a decent player in Takahiro Ishikawa along with a solid contributor in Naoto Watanabe.

Pitching is the where the biggest gains need to be made.

The BayStars had an overall 3.88 ERA (last in the CL) and their starters posted league-worsts in ERA (4.34) and innings per start (5.40).

The question is, who steps up? Daisuke Miura’s best years are behind him and Kentaro Takasaki didn’t inspire much confidence last season. A big step forward from Yuki Kuniyoshi in his second year would be a huge asset, and the team would do well to start getting its money’s worth from Naoyuki Shimizu.

The BayStars signed catcher Kazunari Tsuruoka over the offseason, and he could help reel in staff that has potential.

How they’ll fare: Change takes time, and a quick fix doesn’t look to be in the cards.