The Hiroshima Carp again failed to make the Central League Climax Series this time, but manager Kenjiro Nomura has been given another year — his fourth at the helm — to try to get the team into the postseason for the first time.
Compiling a 2012 record of 61-71-12, the Carp rose from fifth place to fourth with a slightly improved performance. This year, Hiroshima played .462 ball, up from 2011 when the Carp’s winning percentage was .441 after a 60-76-8 log.
Nomura had the club in playoff contention through late August, after which it faded and finished 6½ games behind the third-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
So, how can the Carp turn it up a notch and make the first division?
For sure, they need to get slugging first baseman Kenta Kurihara, injured this season, to return to productivity, and Nomura needs to sort out his foreign player roster in order to get the maximum benefit from the outside help.
The team is one of the most successful in Japan with regard to recruiting foreigners, relying on two Americans who previously played for the Carp to fulfill the role of “reverse scouts,” and they are doing a commendable job.
Former Hiroshima pitcher Erik Schullstrom and one-time Carp third baseman Scott McClain are the guys in charge of searching the North American rosters, looking for players who can achieve success in the Japanese leagues.
Schullstrom, an ex-major leaguer with the Minnesota Twins (1994-95), played for the Nippon Ham Fighters while that franchise was still in Tokyo, working as a starter and reliever in 1998-99. He pitched out of the bullpen for the Carp in 2001-02 and has been scouting for Hiroshima since 2003.
McClain, in the majors with Tampa Bay in 1998, played with the Seibu Lions in 2001-02 and the Carp in 2009 during the Marty Brown managerial era. He’s in his second year as a Hiroshima scout.
The two of them have been responsible in recent years for sending productive players to Hiroshima, including Colby Lewis, Mike Schultz, Bryan Bullington, Dennis Sarfate, Kam Mickolio and Brad Eldred.
Pitchers Bullington and Sarfate played in the 2011 Japanese All-Star Games, while first baseman Eldred, coming to the Carp in July of this year, turned in decent half-season stats with 11 home runs, 35 RBIs and a.262 batting average.
Eldred was able to make the adjustment in spite of coming in at the halfway point, but Schullstrom said, “It is very difficult right now to find hitters in the U.S. who might be good in Japan.”
He indicated there are currently a lot of pitchers available but very few position players in the pool of guys ready to go overseas.
Mentioning how important it is for a team such as the Carp to hire strong foreign players, Schullstrom said, “The Yomiuri Giants, for example, are so deep in Japanese talent, they don’t have to rely on foreigners, but we do.”
McClain lives in Sarasota, Florida, and covers the International League where most of the franchises are located in the Eastern half of the U.S. Schullstrom resides in the Oakland, California, area and takes care of the Pacific Coast League. They cross-check each other on the hitters and pitchers they feel might be possible candidates for Japanese baseball.
“I love coming back to Japan and seeing old teammates and friends,” said Schullstrom. He and McClain usually make two trips a year; once in February to visit the club’s spring training camp in Okinawa and again during the season to evaluate Hiroshima’s foreign player situation and attend staff meetings with the team’s international department personnel.
Schullstrom appreciates how he and McClain are treated by the team’s ownership and front office people. “They pretty much keep a hands-off approach,” he said. “As long as we are prepared to tell them who’s who at the end of the year, they leave us alone to do our jobs for the most part.”
He also indicated there is no question his experience of having played in Japan comes in handy when talking to players about going to Hiroshima, as he can tell them first-hand what to expect.
Asked how he likes his current work as compared to when he was a pitcher, Schullstrom said, “I enjoyed my playing time in Japan, but it was stressful, and I felt my job was on the line every day. I now have a pretty cool job, and I love it.”
So, how does it look for 2013?
Pitching-wise, the Carp should be in great shape, with ace Kenta Maeda (14-7 with a league-leading 1.53 ERA), Yusuke Nomura (9-11 but with a CL-second best 1.98 ERA as a rookie), Kan Otake (11-5, 2.36) and Bullington (7-14, 3.23 with little run support) forming a talented, albeit heavily right-handed, starting rotation.
Takeru Imamura (2-2, 1.89 with 26 holds) is one of the top setup men in Japan, and Mickolio (21 saves, 2.79) should be the closer again.
To make the postseason, Hiroshima needs to bolster its offense and score more runs, and decisions must be made regarding positions in the non-DH Central League.
If Kurihara comes back as the first baseman, where does that put Eldred — in right field?
Kurihara can also play third base, but rising star Shota Dobayashi is there.
Another question is what will happen to outfielder Nick Stavinoha, injured early in the season and replaced by Eldred. On top of all that, former San Francisco Giants outfielder Fred Lewis reached an agreement on a two-year deal with the team on Friday.
All things considered, though, there is much for which to be hopeful for the Carp and their fans next season.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com