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Major roster overhaul raises outlook for Hawks

by Wayne Graczyk

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have been one of the most active among the Japanese pro baseball teams in making preparations for big improvement in 2014. It is clear the team management is viewing its fourth-place finish in 2013 as unacceptable and, judging by its wheeling-and-dealing this off-season, the front office is doing all it can to make sure the second-division Pacific League finish is not repeated.

After all, SoftBank led the Pa League in attendance, drawing 2,408,993 fans to home games at Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome. The figure is down by 1.6 percent from 2012, but still by far the best in the PL and third overall in Japan behind the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers.

So, team officials have rolled up their sleeves and gone to work acquiring a slew of new players that will give the club a fresh look when spring camp opens in seven weeks.

The Hawks have welcomed two Japanese free agents in right-handed pitcher Kenichi Nakata from the Chunichi Dragons and catcher Shinya Tsuruoka, late of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Both are Kyushu natives, with Nakata hailing from Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture and Tsuruoka from Kagoshima Prefecture, and the desire to play closer to home most likely factored into the decision of both players to join SoftBank.

Nakata has won 61 games in his Central League career, while Tsuruoka caught in 114 games and batted .295 in 2013. SoftBank has not really had a decent steady catcher since Kenji Johjima left for the Seattle Mariners in 2006.

Next, while the Hawks selected only four amateur players at the October draft meeting, three are pitchers past the age of 20 and with seasoning in the Japanese corporate leagues. The trio includes right-hander Ken Kajiya, 22, another home island boy who hails from Miyazaki and played for JR Kyushu.

The other two are 21-year-old righties Yuito Mori, coming from the Mitsubishi Motors squad, and Ken Okamoto, who played for Shinnitetsu. Obviously, by drafting older pitchers with experience and foregoing the selection of high school kids, SoftBank is hoping at least one of them can become an immediate star and a golden rookie in 2014.

Further, the Hawks are revamping the foreign player roster, dropping slugger Wily Mo Pena (signed last week by the Orix Buffaloes) and three pitchers, including Japan five-year veteran reliever Brian Falkenborg. First baseman-DH Bryan LaHair has been retained, and SoftBank has signed the highly touted Cuban slugger Barbaro Canizares.

While not yet official, it is likely Fukuoka will also obtain three high-profile foreigners with Japan experience. Local sports newspapers are predicting the signing by the Hawks of Korean first baseman Lee Dae-ho and pitchers Jason Standridge and Dennis Sarfate.

Lee hit 24 home runs and drove in 91 runs for Orix in both 2012 and 2013, when he hit .303. Standridge began his Japan career with SoftBank in 2007 and last season had the third-best ERA (2.74) in the Central League while a starter with the Hanshin Tigers. Set-up reliever and closer Sarfate was 9-1 with 10 saves and a 1.87 ERA with the Saitama Seibu Lions.

For whatever value he may still have, Hideki Okajima, a 37-year-old former Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics situational lefty, is back on the Hawks roster. He pitched for SoftBank in 2012 between his major league stints.

Add to all this a core of star players that includes second baseman Yuichi Honda, third sacker Nobuhiro Matsuda, .300-hitting outfielders Seiichi Uchikawa, Yuya Hasegawa and Akira Nakamura and ace starting pitcher Tadashi Settsu, and anyone can see this should be a pennant-contending club.

Uchikawa was the 2011 Pacific League MVP and batting title winner, Hasegawa the 2013 PL batting champ, and Settsu has won 32 games over the past two seasons.

The Hawks have lost a lot of key free agent players to the major leagues and other Japanese teams over the past decade. These include former All-Stars Johjima (now retired), infielders Tadahito Iguchi (now with the Chiba Lotte Marines) and Munenori Kawasaki and pitchers Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi (now with the Yomiuri Giants) and D.J. Houlton.

Curiously, Kawasaki and Wada have been recently released by American League teams and, in hindsight, they probably should never have left Fukuoka in the first place. Kawasaki became known more as a comedian than a ballplayer in two years with Seattle and Toronto. Wada came down with arm trouble and never actually pitched for the Baltimore Orioles during two years in the U.S. where he underwent Tommy John surgery.

Houlton, a 19-game winner for Fukuoka in 2011, is also free after two seasons with Yomiuri, and you have to wonder if SoftBank might want any of the three back in the fold, though Wada has reportedly received minor league offers in North America.

In any event, the era of star players leaving the Hawks has been reversed, and the 2014 SoftBank club will be stacked with talented performers entering the team this off-season.

Something will have to go terribly wrong for Fukuoka to be left out of the postseason again next year.

Finally this week, the Baseball Bullet-In wishes all its readers a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.

*** Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com