The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2016 Central League:
In order of predicted finish:
Last season: 75-67-1 (2nd)
The Kyojin’s eternal search for a second baseman landed a quality player in Luis Cruz, who won a Golden Glove with the Chiba Lotte Marines last season and is versatile enough to do everything in the infield except pitch and catch. Cruz may also help address the need for offense, having hit 16 home runs each of the past two years in the Pacific League, with more a possibility with games in cozy Tokyo Dome, Jingu Stadium and Yokohama Stadium on tap.
The team’s other big acquisition, Garrett Jones, was also made to spur an offense that ranked fourth in runs scored (489) and home runs (98) last season. Jones posted double-digit homers in MLB in four of the last five seasons.
Hayato Sakamoto is one of the better players among the incumbents, and a lot of eyes will be on Shinnosuke Abe’s health and bat as he reverts to catching full time. Hisayoshi Chono is a solid player and looking to bounce back from a down season, though he did hit 15 homers, and the Kyojin, as usual, have a decent corp of reserves.
The Giants feature a pitching staff that led the CL with a 2.78 team ERA in 2015, and may benefit from the return of pitching guru Takao Obana to the coaching staff.
Ace Tomoyuki Sugano is as good as they come in the league, and Miles Mikolas, who will get a late start because of an injury, was one of the best in the CL last season. Aaron Poreda figures to be a solid contributor as well.
The questions are whether Hayato Takagi can bounce back from a disastrous second half and if Tetsuya Utsumi can wipe his injury-hampered season out of the minds of Giants fans. The club may also be on to something with rookie righty Toshiki Sakurai.
The Kyojin are solid in the bullpen as Scott Mathieson, Tetsuya Yamaguchi and closer Hirokazu Sawamura again handle late-game duties.
Outlook: The Giants almost always contend. If the new pieces work out and the coaching staff gives rookie skipper Yoshinobu Takahashi ample support, expect them to do the same this season.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Last season: 76-65-2 (1st)
The Birds have had an interesting spring offensively. Wladimir Balentien, Shingo Kawabata and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama all missed time with health-related issues, though for Kawabata it was influenza and he’s since recovered.
Moreover, Mr. Triple 3, Tetsuto Yamada, who hit .329 with 38 home runs and 34 stolen bases, leading Japan with a 12.3 WAR, had a horrible preseason at the plate.
All four are veterans who can flip the switch once the season begins, and will be vital to keeping the league’s top offense humming.
As always, pitching is the lingering question for Yakult. Last year, the Swallows’ starters were fifth in the CL with a 3.68 ERA, while the bullpen was tops at 2.67 — the overall ERA was 3.31, fourth in the Central. Yakult’s top starter, Yasuhiro Ogawa, is very good, and veteran lefty Masanori Ishikawa is reliable and coming off his best season in years. If Shohei Tateyama is healthy, the Swallows have a nice trio and will also hope newcomer Kyle Davies and the rest of the rotation manage to hold their own.
Closer Tony Barnette left for the majors, and Logan Ondrusek, who had a 2.05 ERA over 70⅓ innings, could emerge as his successor. Kentaro Kyuko and Ryo Akiyoshi are coming off really good years and have to be good again to help fill the void Barnette left.
Outlook: The Swallows will find out how hard it is to repeat, but if their pitching holds up, the Birds might just fly to the top again.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Last season: 69-71-3 (4th)
The Carp no longer have Kenta Maeda, but if Kris Johnson approaches his 2015 performance (14-7, NPB-best 1.85 ERA and 2.60 FIP), the team still has a true No. 1 starter. If veteran Hiroki Kuroda continues to be solid, then the void Maeda leaves is a little smaller.
The onus to fill that void, however, will still fall on the shoulders of guys like Yuya Fukui and Yusuke Nomura, neither of whom have delivered returns comparable to their draft hype, and Daichi Osera, when he returns from a shoulder injury.
Not much will be expected of them without Maeda, which could be a positive since the pressure is off. Rookie Akitake Okada may also get a spin in the rotation.
Despite a few players taking a step back from the heights of two seasons ago, the Carp weren’t bad at the plate in 2015.
They’ve upgraded the lineup with the addition of Hector Luna, who is a downgrade in the field but is a .316 hitter in three seasons in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons. Luna may also see his power numbers improve outside Nagoya Dome, which played as the least homer-friendly park in Japan in 2015.
The team also added Jason Pridie, who can hit for some power and runs well, to go with slugger Brad Eldred and veteran Takahiro Arai. Yoshihiro Maru drew a lot of walks and tied for the team lead with 19 home runs, and would be a bigger threat if he improves his .249 average, while defensive dynamo Ryosuke Kikuchi also needs to give the team more on the offensive end.
Outlook: Even without Maeda, in a CL that might not have a runaway team, let alone three, the Carp could make a run at the Climax Series.
Last season: 70-71-2 (3rd)
Hanshin brought up the rear in runs scored (465) and made only minimal changes. Matt Hague, who hit .338 with 11 home runs in 136 games in Triple-A Buffalo (Blue Jays) last year is one, and impressive rookie left fielder Shun Takayama is the other.
Mostly, the Tigers will be hoping Kosuke Fukudome, coming off a 20-homer season, still has some fire in his bat during his age-39 season, and that Mauro Gomez remains a key home run threat. Takashi Toritani is a steady presence who knows how to get on base, but Hanshin is going to need its other players to improve at the plate.
Randy Messenger and Shintaro Fujinami are two of the best pitchers in any starting rotation, and veteran left-hander Atsushi Nomi knows his way around a mound. The Tigers also have a decent lefty in Minoru Iwata.
Kyuji Fujikawa, celebrated more as a closer during his first stint with the team, is back after three nondescript years in the majors and will be in the starting mix.
The starters will have to be good, because there isn’t much in the bullpen, where the team is also breaking in new closer Marcos Mateos, with last season’s NPB co-saves leader Oh Seung-hwan in the majors.
Outlook: The Tigers lived a charmed life in 2015. The rotation is good, but other areas have to improve if the team expects to roar in Tomoaki Kanemoto’s first year as manager.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Last season: 62-80-1 (6th)
The long-suffering BayStars have a new skipper (again) who hopes to bring a new attitude (again) to the club. On the bright side, the team has quality run producers in Jose Lopez and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, and is hoping Jamie Romak delivers in his first NPB season.
Manager Alex Ramirez also feels Takayuki Kajitani, already a solid all-around player, will make a big leap forward this season, which would only help invigorate a group that struggled with offense despite playing in an hitter-friendly environment.
While Ramirez was known for his bat as a player, he wants to pay special attention to pitching and catching in his managerial debut season.
Rookie Yasutaka Tobashira might don the catcher’s mask after a nice job during the spring. As far as the pitchers, there’s work to be done. There isn’t a standout starter, but Yokohama can get decent production from Shun Yamaguchi, Guillermo Moscoso, Shoichi Ino and Yasutomo Kubo. Impressive rookie Shota Imanaga will get a shot and veteran Daisuke Miura is usually good for a couple of nice turns. The one arm the team knows it can rely on is closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, but getting him the ball with the lead could be a chore.
Outlook: The front office has done extremely well at drawing big crowds to Yokohama Stadium. Now its up to the team to give the fans something to cheer about.
Last season: 62-77-4 (5th)
The Dragons had trouble scoring runs last season and then allowed third baseman Hector Luna to walk during the winter. That leaves Ryosuke Hirata, who hit 13 home runs in 2015, as the top offensive threat for what could be a light-hitting bunch — the Dragons’ 71 homers were the fewest in Japan. Anderson Hernandez can drive in a few runs, while Yohei Oshima and Atsushi Fuji are nice pieces.
The big question is if Dayan Viciedo finds the stroke that produced 21 homers for the Chicago White Sox in 2014 despite playing his home games in the hitter’s graveyard that is Nagoya Dome.
A weak offense is par for the course for Chunichi, which in the past could lean on a talented pitching staff. While the team took a step back in that department last season, there is cause for optimism. Yudai Ono and Shunta Wakamatsu are good pitchers and there is a chance Kazuki Yoshimi gets back to that level.
Raul Valdez and Drew Naylor should also contribute, while Katsuki Matayoshi is a gem out of the bullpen.
Outlook: Chunichi doesn’t look like a contender on paper, but if Motonobu Tanishige gets the team’s pitching on track at least, anything can happen.