/

Giants, Hawks look like class of NPB as season begins

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

2014 NPB Preview
In order of predicted finish:

PACIFIC LEAGUE

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

Manager: Koji Akiyama
Last season: 73-69-2, fourth

It’s still somewhat amazing to consider that the Hawks didn’t win the pennant, or even make the playoffs, last season.

As a team they led Japan in batting average (.274), their 660 runs were 30 more than anyone else scored and their .747 on-base plus slugging percentage was also tops in Japan.

SoftBank’s offense might be even better this year with free agent Lee Dae-ho coming on board. Yuichi Honda is a capable hitter at the top of the order, and whatever combination of Seiichi Uchikawa, Lee, Nobuhiro Matsuda, Yuya Hasegawa and Yuki Yanagita comes later could be absolutely deadly for opposing teams — and there are more weapons on the bench.

What may have held SoftBank back last year is a pitching staff that aside from Tadashi Settsu, the only Hawk with double-digit wins or at least 100 innings pitched, underachieved.

In response, the team went on a spending spree in free agency, reeling in starters Kenichi Nakata, Jason Standridge and Brian Wolfe while adding relievers Dan Sarfate and Hideki Okajima to a bullpen that already has Masahiko Morifuku and fireballers Kodai Senga and Ryota Igarashi.

Outlook: The Hawks are the best team in the PL on paper. Then again, they were last year as well.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager: Senichi Hoshino
Last season: 82-59-3, first

To borrow from an infamous rant by then-Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, Masahiro Tanaka “is not walking through that door.”

That does not, however, mean Rakuten is bereft of talent.

For one, Takahiro Norimoto won 15 games with a 3.34 ERA as a rookie last season and could be even better with the experience of a championship run under his belt, while lefty Yuki Matsui, the top overall pick in the draft, tore through the spring like a man on a mission.

It’s undeniable that Tanaka, who made a highly publicized move to the New York Yankees in the offseason, leaves a void. Without him, the Eagles are counting on last season’s supporting cast to take on starring roles, especially Manabu Mima and Wataru Karashima, who were average during the 2013 regular season, but superb in the postseason. They’ll also hope for a good year out of new pitcher Travis Blackley, who was with the Texas Rangers in 2013.

The team also attempted to bolster the bullpen ranks by adding former SoftBank Hawks reliever Brian Falkenborg.

The Eagles’ biggest free-agent splash was infielder and three-time MLB All-Star Kevin Youkilis, a.k.a. ‘Euclis: The Greek God of Walks,’ as he was nicknamed in the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Youkilis will be asked to fill the considerable hole left by third baseman Casey McGehee’s much-less publicized move back to MLB.

Andruw Jones is the other big bat in the order and as long as Ginji Akaminai, Kazuya Fujita and the other quality bats in the lineup don’t falter after a strong 2013 campaign, the offense should be alright.

Outlook: The Eagles were more than Tanaka in 2013 and they get the chance to prove it this year.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager: Tsutomu Ito
Last season: 74-68-2, third

Let’s see. The Marines chose Seiya Inoue in the fifth round of the draft; the 114-kg infielder resembles former female professional wrestler “Aja Kong” so much so teammates past and present, and now fans and media, call him “Aja,” and during spring camp in Ishigaki, Okinakwa, he rode a cow.

That basically sums up the Lotte spring, which was pretty much been all about Aja, who hit .435 with a pair of homers, five doubles and six RBIs during the exhibition season but still has to prove himself in games that count.

Inoue aside, the Marines have a pair of veteran stalwarts in Tadahito Iguchi and Toshiaki Imae who are coming off strong seasons and will be vital to the team’s offensive output.

Katsuya Kakunaka is another guy who can get on base and, as usual, the Marines have more speedy outfielders than they know what to do with. A full year of Craig Brazell also gives the team a power threat.

Former Seibu Lions ace Hideaki Wakui signed on as a free agent in hopes of reviving his once-promising career as a starter. If he can, the Marines could be very good on the mound with Yoshihisa Naruse, Yuki Karakawa and Takuya Furuya already in the mix. An injury to Naoya Masuda may have thrown the closer’s spot in flux, but the team has replacements with experience in the role.

Outlook: The Marines should be able to manufacture runs. If the pitching pans out, Lotte could be a real contender.

Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager: Haruki Ihara
Last season: 74-66-4, second

As player after player left the Lions over the offseason, the Tokorozawa faithful must’ve only been calmed by the knowledge there was virtually no scenario in which Hideto Asamura wouldn’t be back.

Asamura hit .317, connected on 27 homers, drove in 110 runs, stole 14 bases and was arguably the best position player in the PL last year. Even if he fails to reproduce those exact numbers, coming close would be a coup for Seibu.

The Lions finished in the middle of the pride offensively, but would get a boost if slugger Takeya Nakamura can finally get himself healthy, and Shogo Akiyama trends upward.

Cody Ransom is stepping into big shoes at third, with Esteban German gone, and second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka will be missed as well.

The Lions have talent on the mound in starters Takayuki Kishi, Kazuhisa Makita and Yusei Kikichi, but the bullpen is full of question marks and is a place where not having Hideaki Wakui around anymore could come back to haunt Seibu.

Outlook: The Lions have talent, but they also have a lot of questions heading into the season.

Orix Buffaloes

Manager: Hiroshi Moriwaki
Last season: 66-73-5, fifth

Esteban German hit .319 for the Seibu Lions last season and finished second in Japan with 40 stolen bases and third with a .418 on-base percentage.

Orix signed German as a free agent over the offseason, then lost two of the main guys who would’ve driven him home.

Aarom Baldiris and Lee Dae-ho each drove in 91 runs (the team high) for Orix last season, and both will be wearing a different uniform this year.

In their place, the Buffaloes added former Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks slugger Wily Mo Pena, who is coming off a down year, and Yuniesky Betancourt, who they hope performs better than he did for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, when he hit .212 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs.

One known commodity the Buffs possess is Yoshio Itoi, a steady performer who can fill up a box score and hit .300 with 17 home runs, 61 RBIs and 33 stolen bases in 2013.

Returning 15-game winner Chihiro Kaneko is the headliner among a pitching staff that performed well in 2013 and also includes the talented Yuki Nishi. Beyond those two, it’ll be up to Kei Igawa, Brandon Dickson and Mamoru Kishda among others to keep the ship afloat.

Orix’s bullpen was one of the better units in the league last season, and reigning PL holds leader Tatsuya Sato and closer Yoshihiro Hirano form a formidable 1-2 punch a the back end.

Outlook: Orix might have the pitching to contend, but it won’t matter if they can’t produce at the plate.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
Last season: 64-78-2, sixth

It only took a year for the Fighters to go from the penthouse to the basement in the Pacific League, and it might take some time for the club to get back.

First the positives. The supremely talented Shohei Otani has a year’s experience and could develop into an effective weapon on the mound and at the plate.

The Fighters also have big bats in Michel Abreu and Sho Nakata, the latter of whom put up a .305 average (after not hitting higher than .239 the previous three seasons) to go along with 28 homers. Fans can also breathe easy at the top of the lineup, where the dynamic Daikan Yoh, who paired 47 stolen bases with 18 homers in 2013, will set the tone.

Otani may not only be one of the team’s best hitters, he might be its best pitcher as well.

Mitsuo Yoshikawa caught lightning in a bottle during his MVP year in 2012, but did nothing before or since to show he can maintain that level. Veterans Masaru Takeda and Hiroshi Kisanuki are solid but on the wrong side of their primes, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how Yuki Saito bounces back.

Outlook: The Fighters have some holes, but do have the talent to make a run if everything falls right in a league that may be bunched together.

 


CENTRAL LEAGUE

Yomiuri Giants

Manager: Tatsunori Hara
Last season: 84-53-7, first

So what does the team that already has everything add over the offseason? Apparently a few All-Star free agents and new powder blue away uniforms that look suspiciously like pajamas under the right lighting.

As they seem to do yearly, the Kyojin overlooked the stable-but-not-flashy second baseman they already had in favor of something new and shiny, in this case former Seibu Lions All-Star Yasuyuki Kataoka.

Kataoka may be a slightly better offensive option, and is a better base-stealer, than the players the Giants already had, but Yomiuri wasn’t going to be exactly lacking at the plate either way with a lineup that boasts seemingly perennial MVP candidate Shinnosuke Abe in addition to Shuichi Murata and Hisayoshi Chono, who both were on fire during the spring, and another well-rounded bat in Jose Lopez.

The few questions the Giants may have is Leslie Anderson’s transition into Japanese baseball, and if Hayato Sakamoto can bounce back from a down year in 2013 with new addition Hirokazu Ibata, a multiple-time All-Star with the Chunichi Dragons, though very much on the decline, pushing him.

If hurler Tomoyuki Sugano can sidestep the second-year jinx, the Giants will have one of Japan’s best young pitchers heading their rotation, and another group of high-level pitchers, former Carp hurler Kan Otake (yet another All-Star free-agent signing), Toshiya Sugiuchi and Tetsuya Utsumi alongside him.

The Kyojin also feature one of NPB’s best bullpens, headlined by the trio of Scott Mathieson, Tetsuya Yamaguchi and Kentaro Nishimura.

Outlook: The Giants may be the best team on paper, and could run away with the pennant if they live up to their potential.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Manager: Kenjiro Nomura
Last season: 69-72-3, third

Kila Ka’aihue joined the Carp in the middle of 2013 and in just 66 games finished second on the team with 14 home runs and 47 RBIs.

The Hawaiian should be around for the entire 2014 season, which gives Hiroshima a another power threat to go with Brad Eldred.

Improvements by Shota Dobayashi, Ryuhei Matsuyama and Ryusuke Kikuchi would further point the team’s fortunes in a positive direction at the plate.

Kenta Maeda is the breadwinner among the pitching staff and Bryan Bullington is a more than capable No. 2. What the Carp need this year is for someone to fill the void left by Kan Otake’s departure, which may fall to Yusuke Nomura or rookie Daiichi Osera.

Outlook: The Carp got a taste of the big time last season, and a little improvement might take them a little higher this year.

Hanshin Tigers

Manager: Yutaka Wada
Last season: 73-67-4, second

The Tigers were NPB’s worst power-hitting team last season, ranking last in home runs (at 82 they were the only club that didn’t reach 100) and team isolated power (.103). Matt Murton put up the best numbers, hitting .314, with 19 home runs and 85 RBIs, all team highs.

The Tigers are hoping Mauro Gomez adds something to the bottom line in his first year in Japan, and Kosuke Fukudome is back after being limited to 63 games last season. Hanshin has an on-base percentage machine in Takashi Toritani near the top of the order (Toritani was one of five NPB players to finish north of .400) and will need Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Yamato Maeda to help set the table. The Arai brothers, Takahiro and Ryota, will also have to step their game up further down the lineup.

Atsushi Nomi, Randy Messenger and Shintaro Fujinami give the Tigers a strong trio of starting pitchers, but there are questions after them with Jason Standridge now in Fukuoka and Daiki Enokida and Minoru Iwata coming off subpar seasons.

Outlook: The Tigers have good pitchers, but will need to support them with a more consistent offense if they hope to chase the pennant.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Manager: Junji Ogawa
Last season: 57-83-4, sixth

As bad as things were last year, it’s hard to judge the 2013 Swallows too harshly considering how often their players got hurt.

The injuries didn’t stop during the spring, with Shohei Tateyama having elbow concerns and Keizo Kawashima out for two months with a finger injury.

There have been no such concerns for Wladmir Balentien, who hit a single-season record 60 home runs last year, and was back to his slugging ways during the spring.

Lastings Milledge is back in the lineup after missing 48 games and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama can swing a heavy bat when he’s got it going.

The Swallows might have to work to scrape together runs, but they’ll score a lot more if there are runners on base for Balentien and Milledge.

Yakult could really use Tateyama, who missed virtually all of 2013, but until he’s healthy, it’ll again be on the shoulders of Masanori Ishikawa and reigning rookie of the year Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa.

Kyohei Muranaka has to nail down his consistency issues and Yakult is hoping Chris Narveson to have a smooth transition to Japan for a team that posted a 4.26 ERA last year and may have bullpen issues.

Outlook: The Birds might be able spread their wings and fly if they can keep the ambulances away.

Yokohama DeNA BayStars

Manager: Kiyoshi Nakahata
Last season: 64-79-1, fifth

At times it seemed like the Yokohama BayStars couldn’t settle on being very good or very bad.

On one hand they fielded a prolific offense. Led by Tony Blanco, who won the batting and RBI titles, the BayStars’ 630 runs scored were 33 more than any other CL team mustered.

On the other, manager Kiyoshi Nakahata trotted out the worst pitching staff in Japan, a group that combined for a 4.50 team ERA.

To make up for their shortcomings on the mound, the BayStars added Hisanori Takahashi and Yasutomo Kubo to join 41-year-old Daisuke Miura. That would’ve been a good trio in 2009, but the present-day version is hardly enticing. They’ll be joined by young up-and-comer Kazuki Mishima, who has enough talent to have a breakout season.

Yokohama is primed to score a lot of runs, especially with free-agent signing Aarom Baldiris (a .274 hitter with 63 homers and 279 RBIs in six seasons in Japan) a candidate to see his numbers rise at hitter-friendly Yokohama Stadium.

Outlook: If Takayuki Kajitani, who hit .346 with 16 homers and 44 RBIs in 77 games, and Tatsuhiko Kinjo can keep producing and the rest of the lineup is at least steady, Yokohama could be a juggernaut at the plate again. Which might be enough to overcome their pitching staff.

Chunichi Dragons

Manager: Motonobu Tanishige
Last season: 64-77-3, fourth

The big offseason news surrounding Chunichi was the announcement that Motonobu Tanishige would manage the team while staying on as catcher.

He inherits a team that as usual might find it hard to score runs. Veteran Masahiko Morino turned in a solid year at the plate last year and 41-year-old outfielder Kazuhiro Wada hit .275 and drove in 76 runs, but neither is getting any younger.

On the bright side, Hector Luna is returning after his season was cut short by injury after 81 games (he was hitting .350 with nine homers and 51 RBIs at the time) and Chunichi will need to get more out of Yohei Oshima and Masahiro Araki than they did last year. Ryosuke Hirata also has to prove his worth as a cleanup hitter.

The Dragons are poised to be solid, but not spectacular, on the mound.

Yudai Ono and Daisuke Yamai might be the top returning players, with starter Kazuki Yoshimi and relief ace Takuya Asao both out until late spring/early summer while recovering from injury.

The Dragons are a mostly no-name bunch, aside from closer Hitoki Iwase, but they always seem to find a way to field an at-least average pitching staff, which keeps them in contention.

Outlook: The Dragons are always in the thick of things, but Father Time and injuries might lead to a fall this season.

  • Doc

    Rakuten…2nd…Not going to happen. Everyone is still high on them, but look for Rakuten to return to their regular form of B-class (4th-6th) this season when the offense cannot muster anything near last years results. Youkilis is 35, injury prone, bats about .220 and stikes out a lot – not really a like-for-like replacement for McGehee (.292 28HRs in 2013). Matsui is too old and Jones dosent run or field.