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Buffaloes, Hawks best in PL

by

Staff Writer

The second of a two-part NPB Preview.
2015 Pacific League
In order of predicted finish:

Orix Buffaloes

Manager: Hiroshi Moriwaki
Last season: 80-62-2, 2nd

The Buffaloes just missed winning the pennant last season — Orix finished with two more wins than the champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, but the Hawks had the superior winning percentage, .565 to .563 — and should be in the thick of things again.

The Buffaloes already had perhaps the best all-around position player in Japan, outfielder Yoshio Itoi (.331, 19 home runs, 81 RBIs, 31 stolen bases in 2014) and may have bolstered their lineup with the additions of Hiroyuki Nakajima and Tony Blanco. Nakajima, back from two years in the U.S. minor leagues, may not be a great upgrade over second baseman Keiichi Hirano in the field but is much more dangerous with a bat. Blanco, if healthy, lessens the blow of jettisoning big-hitting Wily Mo Pena.

The team also added a backup utility man in Eiichi Koyano and should have the depth to deal with injuries or poor performance at most spots in the infield. Takahiro Okada showed last year that he can be a solid performer, Esteban German is a good player at third base, and while Ryoichi Adachi was a wiz defensively at shortstop, he needs to pick up his performance at the plate.

The questions in the outfield are whether Shunta Goto’s good 2014 was an aberration or the new normal, and if it’s time to move on from veteran Tomotaka Sakaguchi.

Chihiro Kaneko, the reigning Sawamura Award winner and PL MVP, could again be one of the best pitchers in Japan if he remains healthy. Consistency is the key word for the rest of the rotation, beginning with Brandon Dickson and Yuki Nishi. Dickson and Nishi started 2014 strong, combining for a 13-4 record and 1.64 ERA over the first two months of the season before losing their mojo and going a combined 8-16 with a 4.45 ERA, the rest of the way.

Orix added depth to the rotation with the addition of former Hiroshima Carp hurler Bryan Bullington, taking some of the pressure off young pitchers Takahiro Matsuba and Kazumasa Yoshida.

A good bullpen returns mostly intact, with middle reliever Motoki Higa setting the stage for Tatsuya Sato and closer Yoshihisa Hirano.

Outlook: The Buffaloes didn’t shine in one-run games (19-25) and were 11-12-1 against the Hawks last season. They’re still a good team and have more depth now, but need to find ways to win tough games if they hope to dethrone the behemoth in Fukuoka.


Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Manager: Kimiyasu Kudo
2014: 78-60-6, 1st

The defending Japan Series champions return pretty much intact on the field, with no impact losses, and the high-profile (in terms of media hype) addition of Daisuke Matsuzaka and low-profile pickup of pitcher Rick VandenHurk.

The biggest change comes in the dugout, where Kimiyasu Kudo, with no prior experience as a manager or coach, replaces Koji Akiyama, who led the Hawks to three Pacific League pennants and a pair of Japan Series titles during his six seasons in charge.

The only thing the Hawks didn’t do offensively last year was hit home runs, finishing fifth in the league with 95. So naturally the PL leaders in runs scored had the fences at Yafuoku Dome moved in about six meters in left- and right-center and the wall lowered from 6 meters to 4.2, which might make them even tougher to play there (Softbank was 43-21-3 in their dome last year).

The middle of the Softbank lineup could be the stuff of nightmares with Seiichi Uchikawa, Lee Dae-ho, Yuki Yanagita and Nobuhiro Matsuda, who each had at least a .300 average and 15 home runs last season, all lying in wait. Then there’s Yuya Hasegawa and Yuki Honda, two more good hitters. Kenta Imamiya is a worry offensively at shortstop but so good in the field the team will live with it.

Matsuzaka’s return will generate headlines, the question is will they be good or bad? Tadashi Settsu had an off-year in 2014 by his standards but is the ace of the staff, while Jason Standridge is a reliable No. 2. Shota Takeda has breakout potential, and Kenji Otonari is a quality left-hander when healthy while, Kenichi Nakata is another solid arm. The bullpen was the best by the numbers in Japan and setup man Ryota Igarashi and closer Dennis Sarfate figure to be a handful again.

Outlook: The Hawks are loaded on the field. If things go perfectly, they’ll be thinking pennant. But things rarely go perfectly for any team, and Kudo is the X-factor. He was handed the keys to a ready-made championship team, and his decision-making and the way he handles his players, as well as how they respond to his methods, might make the difference.


Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager: Norio Tanabe
Last season: 63-77-4, 5th

The Lions were 20-33, in last place, and well on their way to being the worst team in the league on June 4, 2014, when manager Haruki Ihara decided that was all the writing on the wall he needed and stepped down.

His interim replacement, Norio Tanabe, stepped in, repealed some of Ihara’s suffocating rules, and kept the Lions respectable the rest of the way, guiding them to a 43-44-4 mark the rest of the way.

Now at the helm full-time, Tanabe begins the year with perhaps the hardest slugging duo in Japanese baseball at his disposal in Ernesto Mejia and Takeya Nakamura, who tied each other for the PL lead with 34 homers in 2014. Their power display was awesome, with both shattering the .122 PL average (according to Data Stadium) for isolated power (a measure of a batter’s power and ability to hit for extra bases), with Nakamura at .322 and Mejia at .290.

Seibu also has good all-around talents in Hideto Asamura, Takumi Kuriyama and Shogo Akiyama, a trio who can all hit for a little power and run well.

The pitching staff doesn’t seem to have quite as much potential. Takayuki Kishi is an ace and Kazuhisa Makita is a serviceable No. 2, but there are questions after that. Wade LeBlanc is new to Japan, and one wonders if this is the year Yusei Kikuchi finally lives up to his potential. Ryoma Nogami was bad last year and his being at least average would also be a boon for the Lions’ prospects. Rookie Kona Takahashi may also have a role to play before long.

Outlook: The Lions can’t count on simply slugging their way to the top. Kishi is a great pitcher, but a little more help on the mound could make a hard-hitting team tough to deal with.


Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
Last season: 73-68-3, 3rd

Hideki Kuriyama did as fine a job as any manager last season in leading a young team to a third-place finish and a spot in the final stage of the PL Climax Series.

Shohei Otani made big strides as a hitter (.274, 10 home runs and 31 RBIs) and even more so on the mound (11-4, 2.61 ERA in 155⅓ innings) in 2014, and the scary thing is the 20-year old is still getting better.

Otani will mostly DH when he’s not pitching and joins two All-Stars, slugger Sho Nakata and Daikan Yoh, in the Nippon Ham lineup. Kensuke Tanaka is back in the fold after two years in the U.S. and brought infielder Brandon Laird and outfielder/DH Jeremy Hermida with him.

Otani is already the best pitcher and still has the most upside. Luis Mendoza is back for his second year in Japan, and the Fighters will look for further improvement out of Hiroshi Urano and Takayuki Uwasawa.

The team also has a trio that should be highly motivated with a lot to prove in former PL MVP Mitsuo Yoshikawa, Masaru Nakamura and former top draft choice Yuki Saito.

Outlook: The Fighters may have beaten the odds a little last year, but are a solid team. There’s enough talent present for Kuriyama to coax another postseason run out of Nippon Ham.


Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager: Hiromoto Okubo
Last season: 64-80, 6th

The Eagles sank like a bag of bricks with Casey McGehee and Masahiro Tanaka, two key members of the 2013 Japan Series team, playing in MLB.

Without McGehee, opposing pitchers could walk Andruw Jones, also gone after leading the light-hitting club with 24 of its 78 home runs last season, and go on their merry way when runners were on base.

Overall, the Eagles were decent at getting hits, their .255 team average was third in the PL, but aside from Jones, were bad at turning them into runs, ranking last with a .260 average with runners in scoring position.

The Eagles first addressed their shortcomings by signing Gaby Sanchez and Zelous Wheeler, then snagged a proven NPB commodity in Wily Mo Pena, who hit 32 home runs and drove in 90 runs for Orix last season. Ginji Akaminai is reliable in all areas except power and Motohiro Shima is one of the better hitting catchers in Japan. It’s also possible Kazuo Matsui, now an outfielder, has something left in the tank, but it’ll be foreign muscle that will need to carry this bunch.

The Rakuten pitching staff might be the “Michael and the Jordanaires” of Japanese baseball. When Tanaka was helping pitch the Eagles to the pennant and Japan Series in 2013, Takahiro Norimoto was also around to make life tough for opposing lineups.

Now Norimoto, a 14-game winner in 2014 and the clear ace, is all that’s left.

Sixth-year pitcher Wataru Karashima has promised at least a 10-win season, which would be his first, and Yoshinao Kamata, who looked good in 2012, may be able to make a comeback from elbow surgery.

Yuki Matsui is likely heading to the bullpen, where he’ll really have to contain his wild ways, and everyone will be watching what the Eagles do with top draft pick Tomohiro Anraku.

Outlook: If the Eagles can hit, it’ll go a long way toward getting them out of the PL cellar, but Rakuten has to have more from it’s pitchers to really exceed expectations.


Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager: Tsutomu Ito
Last season: 66-76-2, 4th

The Pacific League was top-heavy last season and the Marines were the “best” of the three B-Class teams. They were also very good at winning one-run games, going 24-16, which helped make their final record better than it could’ve been.

As bad as the team’s offense was, Lotte ranked fifth in runs scored (556) and batting average (.251), and fourth in home runs (96), fans can take heart in knowing Alfredo Despaigne, who is finishing his season in Cuba, is on the way. Despaigne was the team’s best offensive player, hitting .311 with 12 home runs in 45 games after joining the club midseason.

The Marines just didn’t hit many home runs, get on base much, or steal many bases and also drew the fewest walks in the league a year ago. It’ll take improvement in a lot of areas, from a lot of players, such as Tadahito Iguchi, Toshiaki Imae and Katsuya Kakunaka, to lift the offense.

Among the returning pitchers, Ayumu Ishikawa (10-8, 3.43) is the only pitcher with an ERA below 4.00 and over 100 innings pitched in 2014. Hideaki Wakui is the most accomplished hurler, but stringing together effective outings has been a challenge of late.

Yuki Karakawa is better than a horrible 2014 showed and Takahiro Fujioka might also be better than his results, but they have to show it. New additions Rhee Dae-eun, acquired from the Chicago Cubs, and Chen Kuan-yu should also have chances to show what they can do.

Outlook: If everything falls right, they could make some noise, but it might be a long year at QVC Marine Field.