We are three weeks from the Feb. 1 opening of the Central and Pacific League ballclubs spring training camps in Shikoku, Okinawa and southern Kyushu—and for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Arizona with the San Diego Padres. Following are some questions to be answered during the 2016 season in Japanese baseball.
Will Alex Ramirez succeed as manager of the Yokohama DeNA Baystars?
“I am excited and can’t wait for the season to start,” Ramirez said last week. “The team has really been good to me and helped me a lot,” he mentioned in a phone call last week.
“Ramichan” takes over a lastplace team that has never made the postseason Climax Series, and his task will be to get the players to perform to their optimum abilities for the entire season—not just half the year as they did in 2015. He said the club will revolve around stars Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Takayuki Kajitani.
The BayStars have signed one new foreign player, Canadian infielderoutfielder Jamie Romak who hit .284 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs in 2015 at Reno, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Ramirez is looking to manage longterm. He is married to a Japanese woman, has spent the last 15 years in Japan and has said he is considering becoming a Japanese citizen himself.
How many games can Kenta Maeda win in his first year in the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The prediction here is, barring injury and presuming he can make the adjustment from a six-day to a four-day rest rotation, “Maeken” should be able to chalk up about 15 victories in his first season bleeding Dodger blue. It is expected the righthander will get a maximum of starting opportunities, since the Los Angeles staff is heavy with lefthanders.
It will be interesting to see how the L.A. fans react to the “Maeda Taiso,” his trademark arm-flapping warmup routine. Maybe they will even give it a nickname as they did with Hideo Nomo’s “Tornado” windup in 1995 when that Japanese pitcher opened the door to the majors for his fellow countrymen.
What’s with the big turnover of foreign players in Japanese baseball this coming season?
As of Jan. 7, the 12 Japanese teams have signed at least 22 foreigners who will be playing their first season in country. The list includes Romak at Yokohama, former New York Yankees outfielder Garrett Jones with the Yomiuri Giants, infielder Matt Hague with
the Hanshin Tigers and a 135-kg (listed by media sources as 311 lbs. or 141 kgs) Mexican star, Japhet Amador, who belted 41 homers, marked 117 RBIs and batted .346 for the Mexico City Reds last season.
So far, no Japanese team has picked up six-year Hanshin veteran Matt Murton, but three other foreigners will return to Japan with different teams in 2016. Right-handed pitcher Jason Standridge will join the Chiba Lotte Marines after four campaigns each with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Hanshin.
Infielder Luis Cruz, a Pacific League All-Star in 2015 with Chiba Lotte, will move to the Central League with Yomiuri, and third baseman Hector Luna, let go by the Chunichi Dragons, will play for Hiroshima this coming season.
At 37, Standridge is coming off a 10-7, 3.74 ERA year with the Japan Series champion Hawks. “I was really happy in Fukuoka, and I did not want to play for another team,” he said. “The Hawks do a great job of taking care of their foreign players. I’ve been fortunate to have played for two great organizations in Japan. Hanshin was really good to me too.”
But he’s looking forward to extending his career with the Marines and being treated just as well. Standridge and his wife Joy adopted a Japanese baby two years ago and would like to stay in the country as long as they can.
Can Tony Barnette find success with the Texas Rangers?
It is always a gamble when a foreign player leaves the relative security of Japanese baseball after several years of success for another chance to make it in the major leagues. Barnette has never played for an MLB team, so he cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the opportunity to pitch for Texas.
If he throws for the Rangers like he did in 2015 as the closer for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows when he led Japan with 41 saves, he should have no problem, but what will be his role will be on the Texas staff?
Can Kenta Kurihara resurrect his career with the Rakuten Eagles?
Kurihara was the cleanup hitter for the Hiroshima Carp in 2007. At age 25, the first baseman banged out 25 home runs, drove in 92 and hit .310 while playing in all 144 games. A year later, his stats were 23, 103, .332, and he remained one of the top hitters in the Central League through 2011.
An injury limited his play to just 21 games in 2012 when he hit just .211 with no homers and five RBIs. He never recovered and spent most of the last three seasons on the Carp’s Western League farm team, and he couldn’t even hit well there. In 2015, he played only 30 games, hitting a pathetic .132.
Hiroshima released him, and the Eagles signed the Tohoku native from Yamagata.
Now 34, Kurihara will see his last chance for a comeback, perhaps competing with the hefty Amador to become the regular Rakuten first baseman or designated hitter.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com