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Looking ahead at what 2014 may hold

by Wayne Graczyk

Happy New Year, and a reminder as we are in 2014, it was 10 years ago when Japanese baseball went into a crisis. There was a threat of contraction to 10 or even eight teams and a long hot summer of uncertainty as team owners and players negotiated and finally agreed to maintain the two-league, 12-team system.

The image of Japanese baseball was again tarnished somewhat in 2013 by the “secret ball-altering scandal” and, with that in mind, following are some questions about the coming season asked recently by fans, with my comments.

What, if any, changes will be made by new NPB commissioner Katsuhiko Kumazaki?

Hopefully, he won’t change the ball. Kumazaki succeeds the outgoing Ryozo Kato and officially became the Japanese baseball czar Wednesday. As a start, I will offer two suggestions I mentioned to Kato at a meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan a couple of years back.

First, change the initials of the game here from NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) to JMLB (Japan Major League Baseball), in order to further increase international recognition and status.

Second, once and for all, get rid of that ridiculous system of making up rained-out games at the end of the season. Work to make up weather-postponed games as the season goes along and have all 12 teams end their regular season on the same day in early October.

Will Wladimir Balentien, Tony Blanco or another player hit 60 home runs?

Maybe. The ball should continue to fly, and I can see both of these guys hitting 50 this year with the possibility of reaching 60 — or even more. Yakult Swallows outfielder Balentien hit 60 last year despite missing the season’s first two weeks, and Yokohama BayStars first baseman Blanco (winner of the 2013 Central League batting and RBI titles) loves to hit ‘em out of Yokohama Stadium.

I can see a couple of Japanese players joining the 50-HR club as well; thinking of Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe (the $6 million man) and Seibu Lions infielder Takeya Nakamura. Abe hit 44 in 2010, and Nakamura belted 48 in 2011 with the deadened ball. They need to stay healthy, though, and play a full season.

How well will the Cuban players adjust to Japanese baseball?

There are four of them signed so far for 2014. One is holdover and 2013 Pacific League home run king Michel Abreu of Nippon Ham, who will be joined on the Fighters by newcomer Juan Miranda. Barbaro Canizares will make his debut with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, and even the Giants have reached into the Cuban grab bag and snatched a player whose name may not sound Hispanic, but he’s Guantanamo-born Leslie Anderson.

If all four of these have great seasons, I could see the floodgates opening and a “Cuban invasion” of Japanese baseball in the coming years.

With the posting process under way, where does it look like Masahiro Tanaka will be playing?

The prediction here is Ma-kun going to the New York Yankees. Their pitching rotation features Hiroki Kuroda and C.C. Sabathia, but they need at least two more quality starters. A second year in a row finishing out of postseason play would be tough to swallow for fans of the Bronx Bombers.

New York held onto the salary money it did not pay free agent second baseman Robinson Cano and can afford to make a huge offer for Tanaka. I will be surprised if he goes elsewhere.

What kind of year will Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda have?

MLB team scouts will be watching Maeda in anticipation of him being the next big-name posted pitcher from Japan. The right-hander was 15-7 with a CL-leading 2.10 ERA in 2013. If he can put up similar or better numbers this year, we should be talking about him next off-season in the same way we’re speculating about Tanaka right now.

Will Japanese baseball follow MLB and ban home plate collisions?

The answer to that is probably. Japanese baseball has taken after the major leagues over the years by adopting the following: artificial turf, domed stadiums, retractable domed stadiums, the designated hitter rule (in one league but not the other), the four-man umpiring system, extended postseason playoffs, closing league offices, coaches wearing helmets when their team is at bat and instant replay for reviewing disputed home runs.

Yes, look for Japanese baseball to follow MLB with the protect-the-catcher rule and extended video looks on plays besides questionable home runs.

Spring camps open in Kyushu and Okinawa in just 27 days.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com