Final installment of a two-part 2013 NPB Preview.
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
Manager: Koji Akiyama
2012 record: 67-65-12, 3rd
The sky is the limit for the Hawks, who will be looking to claim their third pennant in four seasons.
Softbank lost captain Hiroki Kokubo to retirement, but replaced him with Bryan LaHair, a 30-year-old infielder who was an All-Star last season for the Chicago Cubs. Second baseman Yuichi Honda gives the team a threat on the basepaths near the top of the order, and Seiichi Uchikawa and Nobuhiro Matsuda mix solid bats, with a little speed on the side, later down the line. Wily Mo Pena hit .280, with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs in his first NPB season and could be better with a year in Japan under his belt, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Pa. League.
Reigning Sawamura Award winner Tadashi Settsu and Kenji Otonari give the Hawks a lot to work with on the mound, where they’ll also hope to see improvement out of second-year starter Shota Takeda. Sho Iwasaki is another solid pitcher, and Softbank added free agents Hayato Terahara and Vincente Padilla in the winter. An already good bullpen may have gotten a boost, despite losing Hideki Okajima to the Oakland A’s, with the signing of hard-throwing Ryota Igarashi, who joins standouts Masahiko Morifuku and Brian Falkenborg in the relief corps.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
2012 record: 74-59-11, 1st
Everything about the Nippon Ham offseason has centered around super rookie Shohei Otani, who will have his cake and eat it too as both position player and pitcher, at least early on, though after a ho-hum spring it remains to be seen how effective he will be at either. Otani has grabbed the headlines, but the most important issue for the Fighters is replacing second baseman Kensuke Tanaka, now playing in the U.S., and right fielder Yoshio Itoi, who was traded to the Orix Buffaloes.
Their absences weaken the Fighters defensively and are big blows at the plate. Daikan Yoh was vastly improved in 2012, and perhaps the WBC experience has helped slugger Sho Nakata’s growth.
Atsunori Inaba can still be a steadying presence in the lineup, while Nippon Ham added shortstop Keiji Obiki — a slightly underrated player — in the Itoi deal, signed Michel Abreu, who hit 86 homers and drove in 344 runs over the past five seasons in Triple A, and brought back Micah Hoffpauir. Still, Itoi and Tanaka will be missed.
After all things Otani, the pressing issue on the mound is whether or not Mitsuo Yoshikawa’s breakout 2012 — 14-5, 1.71, PL MVP — was a sign of things to come or an aberration. Soft-tossing left-hander Masaru Takeda returns as dependable as ever, Brian Wolfe is coming off a solid season, and newcomer Hiroshi Kisanuki, also part of the Itoi deal, should benefit from having a capable defense behind him for once. Hirotoshi Masui and Naoki Miyanishi form the crux of a solid bullpen that also features Dustin Molleken, Yuya Ishii and All-Star closer Hisashi Takeda.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Manager: Senichi Hoshino
2012 record: 67-67-10, 4th
The Eagles brought up the rear in Japan with 52 home runs but now enter the fray with former MLB superstar Andruw Jones, owner of 434 homers in the majors, and Casey McGhee in the fold. Speedy Ryo Hijirisawa hit .270 and stole 54 bases in 2012 and will help set the table for the big hitters, while Kazuo Matsui gives manager Senichi Hoshino another veteran bat. Catcher Motohiro Shima won’t hit for much power, but he’s finished with an average of .290 or above in two of the last three seasons and is also solid behind the plate, while Ginji Akaminai is a nice young hitter who could be in line for a big year.
Ace Masahiro Tanaka should be able to shake off a lackluster performance during the World Baseball Classic. The question is how will the rest of the staff perform? Brandon Duckworth is a veteran and pitched well after joining the team in the middle of 2012, while Rakuten will attempt to cash in its chips on recent draftees Takahiro Norimoto (2012 draft, second round), Yoshinao Kamata (’11, second round), Manabu Mima (’10, second round) and Kenji Tomura (’09, first round). Rakuten’s starters posted a 2.94 ERA in 2012, and something similar coupled with any kind of offensive improvement could lead to big things, though the bullpen remains suspect.
Saitama Seibu Lions
Manager: Hisanobu Watanabe
2012 record: 72-63-9, 2nd
The Lions infield could be crowded even without former star Hiroyuki Nakajima, thanks to Kyohei Nagae’s strong spring at shortstop, second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka’s healthy return, and Esteban German and Hideto Asamura manning the corners. Notably absent is Takeya Nakamura, Seibu’s main power threat, who will miss the start of the season with an injury to his left knee.
Nakamura and Nakajima’s absences rob the Lions of their two main offensive weapons — the pair hit 40 of Seibu’s 78 home runs and drove in 153 runs — so a lot more will be asked of Takumi Kuriyama and Shogo Akiyama in terms of run production. Jose Ortiz can provide some power while Nakamura is on the shelf, but Hisanobu Watanabe’s Lions may rely on small-ball a little more than in recent seasons.
Offense won’t matter much if the additions of Brian Sikorski and Dennis Sarfate don’t patch a bullpen that was full of holes a year ago.
Fans will also hope for more out of the Lions’ rotation as well, with Hideaki Wakui rejoining Takayuki Kishi, Kazuhisa Makita and Kazuhisa Ishii. Seibu also has veteran Fumiya Nishiguchi to call upon, and Yusei Kikuchi may finally be ready to display some of the talent that nearly landed him in the U.S. straight out of high school.
Manager: Hiroshi Moriwaki
2012 record: 57-77-10
Orix made the move of the offseason by unloading a bunch of discount parts to land Yoshio Itoi, who hit .304, with nine home runs, 48 RBIs and 22 stolen bases for Nippon Ham in 2012, and .286 with a home run and seven RBIs for Japan during the WBC. Itoi enters a lineup that could be potent alongside slugger Lee Dae Ho, Aarom Baldiris , a healthy Tomotaka Sakaguchi, and Takahiro Okada. Things get even better if Mitsutaka Goto can reverse the downward slide he’s been on the past two seasons.
The Buffaloes could also field a very good pitching staff if, and only if, everything breaks right. Orix’s best pitcher, Chihiro Kaneko’s health is a question, but he’s back from the elbow injury that plagued him last season. Yuki Nishi and Alessandro Maestri will also figure into things, and Shun Tono arrives from the Yomiuri Giants looking to revive his career the way another former Giant, Hiroshi Kisanuki, did before him. Mamoru Kishida moves into the rotation from the bullpen, which is in good hands as long as the ball reaches Yoshihisa Hirano.
Chiba Lotte Marines
Manager: Tsutomu Ito
2012 record: 62-67-15
The Marines added a manager, but held firm in most other places despite finishing fifth in the PL. Lotte was more or less in the middle of the pack in terms of run production and will need to be creative again this year. Tadahito Iguchi was the only player to surpass 10 home runs, hitting 11, and Katsuya Kakunaka led the way with 61 RBIs. Josh Whitesell hit nine home runs in 63 games and might be the team’s best power threat. Toshiaki Imae will be looking to bounce back from a subpar year, while Marines fans will hope veteran Kazuya Fukuura has one last hurrah left in his bat. The Marines are overflowing with outfielders, though Yoshifumi Okada’s glove should keep him anchored in center field.
Elbow ailments have slowed Seth Greisinger and Yuki Karakawa during the spring, but Yoshihisa Naruse, the team’s best pitcher is a more than capable No. 1. Still, Lotte needs a good sophomore campaign from Takahiro Fujioka and anything worthwhile from Shunsuke Watanabe and the rest of its starters.