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Tigers aim for return to respectability after two woeful seasons

by Wayne Graczyk

The 2013 season will surely be a pivotal one for the Hanshin Tigers and their fans as the team attempts to halt a downward slide that has seen the club finish in the Central League’s second division the past two seasons. Hanshin dropped from fourth place in 2011 to fifth last year.

A series of player personnel changes has given the popular team a new look this year, leaving the Tigers with a revamped batting attack to support an excellent starting pitching rotation, but two weaknesses remain. They need to find a closer to replace Kyuji Fujikawa and a catcher who can provide some offense.

Free agent Fujikawa has left for the glory of the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs, and injured former All-Star backstop Kenji Johjima has retired, along with fan favorite outfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto.

Also gone is Keiichi Hirano, the valuable defensive man who can play second base or center field and was a .350 hitter in 2010. As a free agent, he also parted ways after five years with Hanshin and rejoins his old club, the Orix Buffaloes.

The Tigers cut U.S. first baseman Craig Brazell, a 47-home run hitter three years ago when the ball was alive.

Joining though are MLB returnees Kosuke Fukudome and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Former All-Stars in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons and Chiba Lotte Marines respectively, Fukudome and Nishioka are being counted on to return to the form that won them batting titles before they left for the U.S. where they did next-to-nothing over the past two seasons.

Fukudome will patrol the Tigers outfield along with most likely Ryota Arai and American Matt Murton, and the potential for great offensive production is there. It depends on how well Fukudome readjusts to playing at home, whether or not Arai can continue the improvement he made last year, and if Murton can re-establish himself as a .300 hitter.

Murton is back for a fourth season after a great year, a good year and (for him) a lousy year. After breaking Ichiro Suzuki’s single-season hit record with 214 while batting .349 in 2010, Murton dropped to .311 in 2011, then plummeted to .260 last year.

Moreover, Murton somehow managed to get into trouble — not once, but twice — during the 2012 season. There was a language mistranslation when his sarcasm was misunderstood as fact and later open criticism of his defensive play by a Tigers coach. Incidents such as these must be avoided if team harmony is to be restored.

Nishioka will most likely play second base, forming a double play combo with shortstop Takashi Toritani, one who could have also gone elsewhere as a free agent but decided to stay.

At the corners, the Hanshin infield would probably see veteran Takahiro Arai (brother of Ryota) at first base and newcomer Brooks Conrad at third. Conrad, the “ambidextrous batter” (switch hitter) will be a wild card as are most first-year foreign players as they try to catch on to the ways of Japanese baseball.

A veteran catcher has also been added in the person of Takeshi Hidaka, a free agent coming from Orix, but he batted only .239 in 2012 with just one homer. Except for this position, it would appear manager Yutaka Wada can assemble a pretty good hitting lineup.

That should excite the starting pitchers rotation consisting of Japanese lefties Atsushi Nohmi and Minoru Iwata and American right-handers Jason Standridge and Randy Messenger. The quartet compiled a combined great 2.77 earned run average a year ago, but their composite won-lost record was 35-47. None had a winning record, as there was just too little run support.

Hanshin’s bullpen is not bad with middle relievers and setup men including Daiki Enokida, Kazuya Tsutsui, Naoto Tsuru, Tomoyuki Kubota and Shinobu Fukuhara, but which one will take up the closer’s role from Fujikawa who accounted for 24 of the Tigers’ team 29 saves in 2012?

My bet is Fukuhara has the best chance to become the Tigers’ regular game-ender.

Hanshin’s 2013 catch phrase is the same this year, “Go For the Top.” That’s fine to aim for first place, but perhaps a more meaningful slogan, emphasizing a renewal of the team’s efforts after two years out of the Climax Series playoffs, would have been more appropriate.

A fast start could be a key to the Tigers fortunes during the coming season, but they will have a disadvantage as usual, playing their first nine games outside the home Koshien Stadium.

They open against the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo March 29-31, then will serve as “home team” for the April 2-4 series against the Chunichi Dragons at Osaka Dome, while the national high school spring tournament wraps up at Koshien. Hanshin will visit the Carp in Hiroshima April 5-7 before finally opening at Koshien against the arch-rival Yomiuri Giants April 9-11.

Diamond Dust: The Chunichi Dragons will be joining in the colored jersey giveaway promotion this year. The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants have successfully used the gimmick in recent seasons to attract sellout crowds to otherwise lower attended games. Chunichi’s third uniform will feature a red jersey, and the free shirt dates will be announced.

Give ‘em away, and they will come.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk: at Wayne@JapanBall.com