For the next couple of weeks, the prevailing narrative of most Hanshin Tigers games will be the impending retirement of star outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto.
Fans will fawn, opponents will reflect and the media will pay tribute to a career more than worthy of high praise.
In a way, it’s Kanemoto’s final big hit for Hanshin. Because while ‘Aniki’ will be missed, the star outfielder’s decision makes the rest of Hanshin’s year a farewell tour, instead of the slow, desolate march to nowhere it was.
The bigger picture is Kanemoto’s retirement signals the end of a decently successful era (2003-2012) in Tigers history that saw the team finish in the top three six times and capture a pair of Central League pennants.
Closer Kyuji Fujikawa will probably follow Kanemoto out the door, likely headed for the majors, and Takashi Toritani may decide to head to the States as well. So Hanshin could be losing three major pieces, not to mention that signs are not looking good for Craig Brazell’s return after the team took him off the active roster Sunday.
Hanshin will enter a period of transition this winter. At the forefront will be new general manager Katsuhiro Nakamura, whose first order of business will be to figure out how many zeros it will take to entice Fujikawa and/or Toritani to stick around a few more seasons.
The new GM also has to decide if manager Yutaka Wada warrants a second season after the way the team has underperformed during his first year in the dugout. On the bright side, history bodes well for the former Tigers star. Each of the last three Hanshin managers finished outside the top three in their first seasons in charge. Two won the pennant the very next year, with the other finishing second.
If Wada remains and the above-mentioned players depart, the Tigers will have a chance to build the type of roster that fits the small-ball style Wada seems to want to play at times.
Identifying who fits into Wada’s style may be the catalyst to jump-starting an offense that’s sputtered for the past two seasons.
At the same time, the team has a chance to get younger in a few places, though to do that, the front office needs to resist the urge to chase the high-priced major leaguers they’re rumored to be tracking.
The exception to that would be if the Tigers were able to lure Tsuyoshi Nishioka back to Japan.
The Minnesota Twins infielder is an Osaka native, and his speed would make him an ideal fit with Keiichi Hirano at the top of the order — provided of course the Tigers get the Nishioka who hit .346 with 11 home runs and 59 RBIs for the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2010, and not the version who has batted .215 with no homers and 20 RBIs in 71 games across two MLB seasons.
Upgrading the offense will be vital, though the team could do with one more solid arm in the rotation to join Jason Standridge, Randy Messenger, Atsushi Nomi and Minoru Iwata, who have all pitched better than their records suggest but have been weighed down by the Tigers’ offensive struggles.
Hanshin has a number of problems, and Nakamura will have to be smart, as opposed to tossing money around in a reactionary fashion, in order to get the Tigers roaring again.
The shine of Kanemoto’s victory tour will cover up some of the warts the rest of the way, but once he’s out the door, the pressure to build a winner for the team’s rabid supporters will mount very quickly.