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2013 Central League Preview

by Jason Coskrey

In order of predicted finish:

Yomiuri Giants

Manager: Tatsunori Hara

2012: 86-43-15, 1st

The Giants led the CL in runs, home runs and stolen bases last season, and there’s more where that came from.

Reigning MVP Shinnosuke Abe is unlikely to replicate a monster 2012 — .340 average, 27 home runs, 104 RBIs and .994 OPS — but the Giants catcher should still reside among the upper echelon of Japanese hitters. Co-CL hits leaders Hayato Sakamoto and Hisayoshi Chono are all-around talents and still getting better, and Shuichi Murata gives manager Tatsunori Hara another big bat in a lineup that shouldn’t struggle to score runs. John Bowker is back after a good showing in the Japan Series and the Kyojin added infielder Jose Lopez, who played 81 games in the majors last season.

Yomiuri should be solid on the mound with lefties Tetsuya Utsumi and Toshiya Sugiuchi, and right-hander D.J. Houlton leading the way. The Kyojin also have a youth movement on their hands with Hirokazu Sawamura, Ryosuke Miyaguni and rookie Tomoyuki Sugano likely to log significant innings. Sugano’s transition to NPB should be especially interesting with the 23-year-old having taken 2012 off after being drafted by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and not his preferred team, Yomiuri, in 2011. The Kyojin could again have one of the CL’s better bullpens with the newly well-paid Tetsuya Yamaguchi getting out of jams and preserving leads alongside Scott Mathieson, Kentaro Nishimura and Yasunari Takagi.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Manager: Junji Ogawa

2012 record: 68-65-11, 3rd

The Swallows very quietly led the CL with a .260 batting average and were second to the Giants with 499 runs scored and 90 home runs last season. Wladimir Balentien is coming off back-to-back campaigns with 31 home runs and was much more productive in his second NPB season, which also bodes well for Lastings Milledge, who is entering his second year in Japan after hitting .300 with 21 home runs and 65 RBIs in 125 games in 2012. Kazuhiro Hatakeyama can hit for some power and Hiroyasu Tanaka is a major cog in the team’s run-manufacturing apparatus. The aging Shinya Miyamoto can still be productive, and manager Junji Ogawa will be happy with whatever else he gets.

Pitching is a question mark coming off a 3.35 team ERA in 2012. Shohei Tateyama always seems to find a way to produce, while Masanori Ishikawa is a candidate to bounce back from an 8-11, 3.60 ERA campaign. Kyohei Muranaka is a talent but needs to be more consistent, Orlando Roman could also use a crash course in consistency, while Yakult would benefit greatly from Katsuki Akagawa and Masato Nakazawa putting things together. There is also the specter of the injured Yoshinori Sato’s possible return off in the horizon. The bullpen needs work, but on most nights should be able to deliver the ball to Tony Barnette with a lead still intact.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Manager: Kenjiro Nomura

2012 record: 61-71-12, 4th

A glass-half-full type of person could easily envision the Carp finishing in the A-Class based on a solid rotation that will be carried by World Baseball Classic All-Tournament selection Kenta Maeda, Kan Otake and Bryan Bullington. The Carp’s pitching will border on great if Chunichi Dragons translpant Yuichi Hisaoto thrives, Yuya Fukui bounces back from a rough second season and Yusuke Nomura avoids the sophomore pitfalls that befell Fukui. Whomever starts might be taxed with going deep into games with a bullpen that might take a step back.

The problem with seeing the glass as half-full is that others will invariably see it as half-empty, namely due to a lack of offense. Among the few potential positives will be getting a full season out of midseason pickup Brad Eldred, who finished second on the team with 11 home runs despite playing just 65 games, and Kenta Kurihara’s eventual return from a slight hip injury after an elbow injury limited him to 21 games in 2012. Second-year infielder Shota Dobayashi showed promise by hitting 14 homers and driving in 45 runs, but has to display more patience than he did while striking out 150 times last season. The middle infield is a question mark with second baseman Akihiro Higashide lost for the season due to an ACL injury, though shortstop Eishin Soyogi is coming off a decent year.

Hanshin Tigers

Manager: Yutaka Wada

2012 record: 55-75-14, 5th

The Hanshin pitching staff deserved better than the mediocre support it received from an offense that ranked last in runs scored (411) and second-to-last with a .236 team batting average in 2012.

Much of the hope in Osaka centers around expectations of the successful repatriation of Kosuke Fukudome and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, former NPB All-Stars who spent the last few years in the majors, and resurgent years from Takashi Toritani and Matt Murton. The Tigers had just two players, Ryota Arai and Craig Brazell, who hit more than 10 home runs, and it was the normally hard-slugging Brazell who got his walking papers. In his place comes Brooks Conrad, who hit .331 with 14 home runs and 40 RBIs in 46 games in Triple-A last season and, in a lineup with Fukudome, Arai and Takahiro Arai, could be the solution to the team’s power outage.

The Tigers pitched well last season, racking up the most quality starts in the CL with 95. Randy Messenger and Jason Standridge out-pitched their win-loss records and Atsushi Nomi can keep runs off the board. Minoru Iwata needs to have a better season, but most eyes will be on rookie Shintaro Fujinami, who will have an early chance to make his presence felt. The Tigers had a strong bullpen last year, but have to replace closer Kyuji Fujikawa. Yasutomo Kubo probably gets the first shot at the role, with Yuya Ando and Shinobu Fukuhara setting up.

Yokohama DeNA BayStars

Manager: Kiyoshi Nakahata

2012 record: 46-85-13, 6th

“Dragons East” made a number of moves over the offseason, including signing former Chunichi Dragons Tony Blanco, Jorge Sosa and Enyelbert Soto.

Blanco should enjoy hitting at Yokohama Stadium after four seasons at dreary Nagoya Dome, a pitcher’s park where he still managed to hit 43 home runs in 256 games — Blanco hit 111 homers overall for the Dragons. Former Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Nyjer Morgan was Yokohama’s other big acquisition — or acquisitions if you consider his alter ego Tony Plush. Yokohama also features veterans Alex Ramirez, Norihiro Nakamura and Hitoshi Tamura, back after six years with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, an up-and-coming outfielder in Sho Aranami and young power hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a decent mix on paper.

For all the upgrades at the plate, NPB’s worst statistical pitching staff returns curiously intact. Daisuke Miura may well defy age for a 22nd season, but what Yokohama, which has another serviceable veteran in Shugo Fujii, really needs is for Kentaro Takasaki and Yuki Kuniyoshi to finally live up to their promise. Sosa may or may not improve a bullpen that’s sorely in need of stability but has fireballer Shun Yamaguchi at the back end.

Chunichi Dragons

Manager: Morimichi Takagi

2012 record: 75-53-16, 2nd

Every year seems like the season the Dragons will finally fall off their pedestal, and every year the naysayers are proven wrong.

The doubters have more ammunition now with Tony Blanco taking up residence in Yokohama and the skills of 40-something trio Kazuhiro Wada, Takeshi Yamasaki and Motonobu Tanishige in decline. Yohei Oshima is a rising star at the top of the order and World Baseball Classic hero Hirokazu Ibata is still productive at 37, but the Dragons could struggle to score, as is usually the case. Chunichi didn’t stand pat after Blanco left, signing Hector Luna and Matt Clark. Masahiko Morino is due for a good season, and Ryosuke Hirata is a solid player. Fortune smiled on the Dragons last season as they were 26-15 in one-run games, close calls that could easily go the other way this year.

Chunichi should field a good rotation if Kazuki Yoshimi is healthy, and a decent one if he isn’t. Soma Yamauchi and Yudai Ono are solid options and Daniel Cabrera was added from the majors over the offseason. The looming questions in the bullpen are the health and effectiveness of Takuya Asao and whether or not age finally catches up with NPB’s all-time saves leader Hitoki Iwase.