Two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan has released its preliminary roster for the 2013 edition of the tournament, and as expected manager Koji Yamamoto will be relying on a young, domestic-based squad as he attempts to guide Samurai Japan to a third consecutive title.
Yomiuri Giants catcher and Central League MVP Shinnosuke Abe highlighted the list of 34 players that the manager announced on Tuesday at a Tokyo hotel.
“I’m appreciative of the players who accepted our invitation, Yamamoto said. “We have players who have experienced past WBCs and have those who will play on the international stage for the first time. We hope this experience will help shape these young players as well.
“When the WBC comes around in March, we would like to show Japan’s brand of baseball.”
Each of the 16 teams participating in the 2013 WBC will release their 28-man roster in mid-January.
Sitting alongside NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato, Yamamoto unveiled a roster that featured a number of young players — 20 of the 34 are under age 30 — and lacked a MLB presence. Yamamoto included 16 pitchers, three catchers, eight infielders and seven outfielders in his roster.
“A lot of young players’ names came up in our staff meetings,” Yamamoto said. “We considered their positions and spent a lot of time on that and carefully made our decision.”
WBC Inc. played up the MLB flavor of the participating nations’ rosters on its website Tuesday, but for Japan, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles shortstop Kazuo Matsui is the lone player with major league experience. Japan’s current crop of MLBers, including Ichiro Suzuki, Yu Darvish, Norichika Aoki and others declined invitations to play in order to focus on their preparations for the upcoming season with their respective clubs.
“We have to think about the condition of the players,” Yamamoto said. “Some of them actually told us they wanted to play. It was a tough decision, but we have to think about their careers next year and further on. So we made the decision to play with players from inside the country.”
With Darvish sitting out, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka takes over as the most high-profile pitcher on the Samurai Japan staff.
The Eagles fireballer was the 2007 Pacific League Rookie of the Year and is a four-time All-Star. The right-hander is 75-35 with a 2.50 ERA and 1,055 strikeouts in four NPB seasons. He was a member of Japan’s 2009 WBC team, making four appearances out of the bullpen and allowing one run on three hits in 2 1/3 innings.
Others who could be in line to be in Yamamoto’s starting rotation are Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Carp, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks’ Tadashi Settsu, this season’s Sawamura Award winner, and Yomiuri Giants lefties Tetsuya Utsumi, the 2012 Japan Series MVP, and Toshiya Sugiuchi.
Seibu Lions catcher Ginjiro Sumitani and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Ryoji Aikawa were named to the roster along side Abe.
Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto and third baseman Shuichi Murata were among the infield selections. Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters veteran Atsunori Inaba, the Hawks duo of second baseman Yuichi Honda and third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda, as well as Hanshin Tigers shortstop Takashi Toritani also made the cut.
Young stars Hisayoshi Chono of the Yomiuri Giants and Yohei Oshima of the Chunichi Dragons were among the headliners in the outfield, and the Hawks’ Seiichi Uchikawa and the Fighters’ Sho Nakata were also named.
The absence of Japan’s major-league contingent means Yamamoto may have to rely on a number of young players against the likes of Cuba and South Korea in the early rounds and possibly against a U.S. squad full of major leaguers in the semifinals or finals, should Japan make it that far.
Perhaps with that in mind, the former Hiroshima Carp manager included a smattering of veterans in the provisional squad such as 40-year-old Inaba, 37-year-old Matsui, Chunichi Dragons second baseman Hirokazu Ibata (37) and Aikawa (36).
“Our captain is Abe because he’s got the numbers and especially this year he had a big year,” Yamamoto said. “So we believe he can lead the team. We also have guys like Ibata and Inaba, who we think can support Abe. We think it’s important to keep the team unified since we have a lot of young players.”
Sixteen teams will compete for the WBC title when the tournament begins next year. The teams will be divided into four-team pools for the first-round, which will be held in a round-robin format.
Japan will be in Pool A, alongside China, Cuba, and Brazil. The defending champions will open their title defense on March 2, the opening day of the tournament, against Brazil at Fukuoka Dome. Japan will take on China on March 3 before wrapping up the first round against Cuba on March 6.
The winners and runners-up out of Pools A & B (which includes Australia, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and 2009 finalist South Korea) will face off in the modified double-elimination second round which takes place March 8-12 at Tokyo Dome. Teams from Pools C & D will compete in the second round at Marlins Park in Miami March 12-16.
The semifinals and final will be contested at AT&T Park, home of the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.
Pitchers:- Toshiya Sugiuchi (Yomiuri Giants), Tetsuya Utsumi (Yomiuri Giants), Tetsuya Yamaguchi (Yomiuri Giants), Hirokazu Sawamura (Yomiuri Giants), Daisuke Yamai (Chunichi Dragons), Kazuki Yoshimi (Chunichi Dragons), Takuya Asao (Chunichi Dragons), Kenta Maeda (Hiroshima Carp), Takeru Imamura (Hiroshima Carp), Atsushi Nomi (Hanshin Tigers), Kazuhisa Makita (Seibu Lions), Hideaki Wakui (Seibu Lions), Tadashi Settsu (Softbank Hawks), Kenji Otonari (Softbank Hawks), Masahiko Morifuku (Softbank Hawks), Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Eagles)
Catchers: Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants), Ryoji Aikawa (Yakult Swallows), Ginjiro Sumitani (Seibu Lions)
Infielders: Shuichi Murata (Yomiuri Giants), Hayato Sakamoto (Yomiuri Giants), Hirokazu Ibata (Chunichi Dragons), Takashi Toritani (Hanshin Tigers), Atsunori Inaba (Nippon Ham Fighters), Nobuhiro Matsuda (Softbank Hawks), Yuichi Honda (Softbank Hawks), Kazuo Matsui (Rakuten Eagles)
Outfielders: Hisayoshi Chono (Yomiuri Giants), Yohei Oshima (Chunichi Dragons), Yoshio Itoi (Nippon Ham Fighters), Sho Nakata (Nippon Ham Fighters), Seiichi Uchikawa (Softbank Hawks), Ryo Hijirisawa (Rakuten Eagles), Katsuya Kakunaka (Lotte Marines)