New Hiroshima Carp manager Marty Brown is excited about his challenge and can’t wait for spring training to begin.

The former Carp player (1992-1994) will join Trey Hillman of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Bobby Valentine of the Japan and Asia Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines in a trio of Americans leading a quarter of the Japanese pro baseball teams when camps open on Feb. 1.

Brown said he first became aware of the possibility of being hired as the Carp skipper early in September while he was managing the Buffalo Bisons (Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians) in the U.S. minor league playoffs in Columbus, Ohio.

Bisons pitcher Kazuhito Tadano was reading a Japanese sports paper with the news Carp manager Koji Yamamoto would be retiring, and Marty was mentioned in the article as a possible successor.

The 42-year-old Brown described his initial reaction of the apparent rumor by saying, “I was surprised and really didn’t think it would materialize, but I was interested.”

Six weeks later, he was back in Nichinan, Miyazaki Prefecture, putting the team through its fall camp as its new kantoku.

Asked how it was to be back in Nichinan after 11 years, he said, “It felt good. It was almost as if nothing had changed. The field is the same, the people are real nice and friendly; the only difference is that now I’m the manager instead of a player, so I didn’t have to get out there to stretch and get ready for batting practice.”

While conducting the autumn workouts, Brown said he was able to get an idea of the skills of his players and on which areas he could zone in to improve the team which is coming off a last-place season and has finished in the Central League’s “B Class” (bottom three) every year since 1998.

His goal, he says, is to put together a championship team during the three-year term of his contract.

“We have some great players at the corners,” he pointed out, specifically mentioning his inter-changeable first and third basemen, Takahiro Arai (the 2005 CL home run champ with 43) and Kenta Kurihara, who hit .323 with 15 homers and 43 RBIs in only about a half-season worth of at bats.

Other heavy hitters are left-fielder Tomonori Maeda (.319, 32, 87) and right-fielder Shigenobu Shima who led the league in batting in 2004 with a .337 average, dropped to .288 this year but hit 27 homers.

Brown conceded the Carp need to strengthen their middle infield defense and improve range at second base and shortstop but, other than that, he says the club is strong.

“The offense is OK, and I like our catching corps,” he said. Pitching-wise, he noted, “We have some strong arms,” and he plans to train the mound staff in more of a Western style, so as not to allow the pitchers to get burned out by midseason.

“I need to find out more about the Japanese pitchers and know what it will take to keep them fresh for the entire 146-game season,” he said, indicating he hopes to use more of an Americanized workout system, integrating it with the best techniques of Japanese-style preparation.

“We need to concentrate on finding a happy medium,” he reasoned.

It was announced the Carp have released three American players, infielder Greg LaRocca and pitchers Tom Davey and Kenny Rayborn, moves that at first appeared puzzling, especially since LaRocca and Rayborn played for Brown at Buffalo, and he had a hand in sending them to Hiroshima in the first place.

LaRocca enjoyed a great season with the Carp in 2004, belting 40 home runs, driving in 101, and he was the runner-up to Shima in the CL batting race with a .328 average.

In 2005, he was injured, first with hamstring problems, then with a broken thumb, and his playing time was limited to 80 games. Still, he batted .303 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs, and those power stats would project to 33 HRs and 102 RBIs over a full season.

Brown said the decision to let go of LaRocca has to do with economics.

“Greg is a solid player and very productive offensively when healthy,” said the manager. “Being a small market club, we just weren’t sure if we could commit to the investment for two or three years with the kind of money Greg would expect to make. Maybe he will be able to catch on with another Japanese team.”

As for the two pitchers being dropped, Brown said he didn’t know that much about Davey, who came back from arm surgery to post a 6-6 mark with a neat 2.98 ERA. He knows Rayborn (3-5, 5.06), though, and it appears he is being pink-slipped because of inconsistency.

“Kenny played for me at Buffalo, and I think he could be a solid pitcher in Japan,” said the manager. “He threw some good games right after he came here in midseason, but then he had some control trouble. We need to put the ball in the (strike) zone.”

Currently, the Carp gaikokujin roster includes closer John Bale (2-1 with 24 saves and a 3.19 ERA) and newcomer Sean Douglass, a right-handed starting pitcher who was 5-5 with a 5.56 ERA in 16 games with the Detroit Tigers this season, but 9-1 with a 2.87 in 14 games at AAA Toledo.

“I think Sean will help stabilize our rotation,” said Brown. Hiroshima’s ace is righty Hiroki Kuroda, who led the CL with 15 wins and posted a CL second-best 3.17 ERA.

Another American right-hander, Mike Romano, may or may not return to the Carp, depending on contract agreement. He was 5-4 with a 4.54 ERA but went home in August to check on damage to his house in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Dominican infielder Esterlin Franco and pitcher Juan Feliciano are also on the club, and another Dominican hurler, Victor Marte who throws a knuckleball, was tested and looked especially impressive in camp.

“He throws 93 mph (149 kph) and has good command of his slider,” Brown said, indicating the team hopes to take advantage of its Dominican Academy and go with players from there, though he did not rule out getting additional players with major league experience.

(Part two of my interview with Marty Brown will run next week)

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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