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Eagles facing big challenges in bid to make playoffs

by Wayne Graczyk

Will this be the season the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles make it to the Pacific League Climax Series for the second time in their nine years of existence?

Hardline disciplinarian manager Senichi Hoshino got the team bumped up a notch in 2012, moving from fifth place to fourth and missing the playoff qualification line by just one game.

As always since they joined Japanese baseball in 2005, the Eagles will begin with the disadvantage of playing no home exhibition games because of the colder climate in Tohoku. Rakuten also will be playing night games (weather permitting) in Sendai as early as April 2 and 5. Hopefully there will not be snow on the ground, and no pitchers will ruin their arms throwing in freezing temperatures.

Ace right-handed hurler Masahiro Tanaka, having just signed a three-year contract, will be in the spotlight as he should be, coming into his prime and at the peak of his skills at age 25 and already in his seventh pro season.

Despite the three-year deal, the rumors of his posting for major league service will increase as the season goes along, and scouts from MLB clubs will no doubt have “Ma-kun” at the top of their lists of players to watch from Japan in 2013.

The Eagles’ most notable Japanese players this year, besides Tanaka, are expected to be outfielder and speedster Ryo Hijirisawa who led the Pa League with 54 stolen bases in 2012, veteran shortstop Kazuo Matsui and infielder Ginji Akaminai, the team’s leading hitter with a .280 average a year ago.

Rakuten’s foreign player register has undergone a big change offensively. Veteran infielder Jose Fernandez is gone, as are first basemen Brett Harper and Luis Garcia, outfielder Luis Terrero and pitcher Kelvin Jimenez.

New to the club’s hitting lineup this year are infielder Casey McGehee and the highly publicized former major league All-Star Andruw Jones.

American relief pitchers Darrell Rasner and Jim Heuser as well as starter Brandon Duckworth are back on the mound staff that will also include major league returnee bullpen man Takashi Saito, giving the game one last shot at age 43.

It appears, however, the Eagles’ 2013 results will depend heavily on the performances of Tanaka and Jones and, to some extent, McGehee.

Arm fatigue last season saw Tanaka’s number of starts drop from 27 in 2011 to 22, and his record dropped from 19-5 to 10-4 in his first year as the lone Rakuten “ace” after the departure of fellow right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma to the Seattle Mariners.

Hoshino has to get a full season of work out of Tanaka if the Eagles are going to cross that Climax Series entrance line this time around.

As for Jones, it looks to me to be a situation that could go either way. It would be nice to see him play the entire season, make a meaningful contribution and hit a lot of home runs, adding to his big league career total of 434, the most of any foreign player to ever come to Japan.

Will he go the way of other high-profile stars who came here and left quickly, or make the adjustment necessary to cope with the often tough-to-accept aspects of Japanese baseball?

History includes a long list of names of proud major leaguers whose careers in Japan were brief because they could not adapt. They include Joe Pepitone, Don Money, Kevin Mitchell, Mike Greenwell and, last year, Brad Penny who pitched his only game for the Softbank Hawks in Sendai on a cold April day, then went home.

Jones arrived in Japan last week, and his first days in Sendai are said to have gone well, as he, McGehee and Saito were introduced at a news conference on Tuesday.

They put on the Rakuten jersey for the first time and smiled broadly for the cameras.

But, will those smiles still be there in October?

Or even July?

A key test for any new foreigners coming to Japan is how well they can tolerate spring camp at a remote location, and the Eagles’ training site is one of the most isolated. Workouts began Friday on the outer Okinawan island of Kumejima, a 30-minute propeller plane hop from Naha and where the airport is about the size of a major league clubhouse.

I was there three years ago when Marty Brown was the Rakuten manager, and Kumejima is a great place to visit for a three-day vacation. However, it might be tough for a veteran big leaguer to take for a month. Ft. Lauderdale it is not.

In favor of Jones, McGehee and others in the middle of the Eagles lineup will be the fact their home ballpark will have slightly closer outfield fences for which to shoot — and I do mean slightly. The distance from home plate to the left — and right-field fences at the foul poles has been decreased from 101.5 meters to 101.1.

The fans in Sendai have good reason to be excited, and it remains to be seen if the 2013 season of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles will indeed be golden — or result in yet another second-division finish.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com