The following is the second of a two-part NPB preview (here is the first part) concluding with the 2016 Pacific League:
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
2015 Finish: 90-49-4 (1st)
The Hawks have been an offensive juggernaut the last two years and there’s a good chance that continues.
Center fielder Yuki Yanagita is one of the finest players in Japan. He hit .363 with 34 homers and 32 stolen bases last year, and is surrounded by quality players in Nobuhiro Matsuda, who rode the new cozier dimensions at Yafuoku Dome to a 35-homer season, Seiichi Uchikawa and the often overlooked but consistent Akira Nakamura.
The one lingering question is how best to fill the void left by slugger Lee Dae-ho, who is with the Seattle Mariners this spring. That absence could open the door for Barbaro Canizares, who posted three straight 20-plus homer seasons (2011-2013) in Mexico, but has only played 22 games since moving to Japan in 2014.
The best pitching staff in NPB returns mostly intact. Shota Takeda and Rick van den Hurk are coming off very nice seasons and Tadashi Settsu is a quality pitcher. Lefty Tsuyoshi Wada is back after four seasons in the U.S., and hitters may see more of Kodai Senga’s nasty forkball. The Hawks also have depth, including Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kenji Otonari, when their regulars need a breather.
The bullpen, led by Yuito Mori, Ryota Igarashi and closer Dennis Sarfate, is also the best in Japan.
Outlook: If they stay healthy, the question isn’t whether the two-time defending PL champions can pull off a three-peat, but rather, who can stop them?
Hokkaido Nippon Ham
2015: 79-62-2 (2nd)
Shohei Otani leads the pitching staff, but he can’t go every day. Meaning the other hurlers will have to pull their weight. Luis Mendoza is a good No. 2 and Mitsuo Yoshikawa last year seemed to find the happy medium between his whirlwind 2012 season and his actual skill level.
Former major leaguer Masato Yoshii returns to the club for another stint as a pitching coach and will try to help get more out of second-year pitcher Kohei Arihara, who was better than his bloated 4.79 ERA (his FIP was 3.96) suggested. The Fighters are also hoping to get more out of Hiroshi Urano and Naoyuki Uwasawa, and added a new arm in foreign player Anthony Bass.
The staff’s depth will be tested early with Uwasawa expected to miss eight weeks after elbow surgery, possibly throwing Yuki Saito or Masaru Nakamura into the mix.
There are nice pieces in the bullpen, including Naoki Miyanishi, Akihiro Hakumura and closer Hirotoshi Masui.
The Fighters could have a decent offense with Brandon Laird, who hit 34 homers last season, and Sho Nakata (who had 30) fueling production.
Kensuke Kondo has to prove hitting .326 with 60 RBIs wasn’t a fluke, and outfielder Daikan Yoh should be back to his full powers after being hampered by injuries.
Two-way sensation Otani said he feels like he can have a better year at the plate, and the outlook is rosier if Hiromi Oka has a better showing after slashing .236/.299/.336 and a few others step up.
Outlook: Outside of when Otani pitches the Fighters aren’t overwhelming in any one area, but with their pieces working in concert with each other, especially if the back of the rotation has a big year, they have a legit shot at the pennant.
Saitama Seibu Lions
2015: 69-69-5 (4th)
The Lions already had a powerful lineup and if Hotake Yamakawa carries a productive spring into the season, it’ll be that much better. Seibu might be a little feast or famine, but the feasts will be grand with mashers like Takeya Nakamura (37 homers in 2015), Ernesto Mejia (27) Tomoya Mori (17) and Hideto Asamura (13) around.
Takumi Kuriyama is another solid player, and Shogo Akiyama, who had 14 homers himself, may not fall too far from the historic heights he reached last season, when he hit .359 and set a single-season mark with 216 hits.
Takayuki Kishi is the team’s top pitcher, while lefty Yusei Kikuchi has No. 1 talent and would be an ace if he tapped into it consistently. Kazuhisa Makita is a step down but good. The big questions are whether Andy Van Hekken can bring his winning ways with him from South Korea, and if the team gets solid production from Ken Togame and Ryoma Nogami.
The bullpen is average, but has to avoid being a hindrance like it was at times last season.
Outlook: The Lions could slug their way into contention as long as their pitching and defense prevent a few more runs as well.
2015: 61-80-2 (5th)
Orix was one of the worst-hitting teams in the league, finishing fifth in runs scored (519), OPS (.675) and team batting average (.249).
The Buffaloes didn’t make many changes, so they’ll hope Hiroyuki Nakajima has worked out the kinks and Yoshio Itoi and Tony Blanco can stay healthy.
Takahiro Okada is a solid hitter, but unless newcomer Brian Bogusevic also delivers, there might not be much here.
What Orix might have is pitching.
Chihiro Kaneko should be back to full strength after being slowed by injuries last season. Yuki Nishi and Brandon Dickson are solid options, and Daiki Tomei is young, but up and coming.
The bullpen may be better with Tatsuya Sato and Yoshihisa Hirano healthy.
Outlook: Orix should have good pitching, and could make a run for the postseason with a little more offensive output.
Chiba Lotte Marines
2015: 73-69-1 (3rd)
The Marines could see their offense improve with Alfredo Despaigne around for the entire year and Ikuhiro Kiyota emerging as a decent hitter. They’ll add more firepower once Yamaico Navarro finishes serving his suspension, which stems from his February arrest for carrying bullets in his bag at Naha airport. Navarro, who should return in April, comes to NPB after hitting 79 homers over the past two seasons in South Korea.
While Lotte might be better at the plate, unless some other players step up, the gains might not be substantial enough to matter.
On the mound, the Marines need Hideaki Wakui to repeat his 2015 performance and Ayumu Ishikawa, a very good pitcher, to continue to improve. The addition of Jason Standridge adds depth, and Yuta Omine finding some consistency would go a long way for a staff that could be pretty good if everything goes well. Kota Futaki will also get a chance to shine in the top-team rotation. Lotte can deploy a pretty good bullpen, with the very talented Yuji Nishino closing things out.
Outlook: The Marines were average to below average in most areas last season. It’ll take more than that if they hope to replicate 2015’s playoff run.
2015: 57-83-3 (6th)
The Eagles’ offseason was busy, but bland, before the signing of Jonny Gomes right after camp.
Gomes hit four home runs in 35 at-bats during the spring, and if that performance carries over into the season, the Eagles will have their first real power threat since Andruw Jones left in 2014. Former Chiba Lotte Marines star and two-time Japan Series MVP Toshiaki Imae is another quality addition.
Rookie Louis Okoye is the player fans are most excited about. The uber-talented, raw young outfielder will begin the year on the first-team bench, but may have chances to make an impact here and there.
Zelous Wheeler and the ageless Kazuo Matsui could be nice pieces as well.
The Rakuten pitching staff is little more than Takahiro Norimoto, and a cause for concern. Norimoto is an ace and closer Yuki Matsui is a major talent, but the arms in between don’t look great on paper.
Yoshinao Kamata would be a big addition if he can get on the mound, and Manabu Mima is capable of having a decent season.
Wataru Karashima and Takahiro Shiomi are two others who have shown flashes but haven’t been great for prolonged periods.
Outlook: The Eagles may yet defy expectations, but things don’t look so great now.