While Hokkaido Nippon Ham rookie Sho Nakata continues to turn heads at the plate during the exhibition season it may be a pair of rookie hurlers that make the biggest difference this year.
Tohoku Rakuten’s Kohei Hasebe was impressive in his open-sen debut against the Chiba Lotte Marines, making his case for a spot in Katsuya Nomura’s rotation by retiring the first 10 batters he faced and striking out five, last weekend in Nagasaki.
Hasebe was one of the most sought after players in the Industrial/College draft with Rakuten winning a four-team lottery for the right to negotiate the Aichi Kyodo University product.
The only amateur player on Japan’s Asian Championship squad, Hasebe goes to a Rakuten team, that exceeded expectations with a fourth-place finish last year.
He’ll be looking to make an immediate impact with the Eagles, much like last year’s rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka.
Granted Tanaka finished 11-7 and was the Pacific League Rookie of the Year so expecting Hasebe to have that type of season might be a bit much.
But if he can have a similar impact in his first year the 23-year-old left hander would join right-handers Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma on a staff that, provided Iwakuma can stay healthy, and could give the Eagles a chance to be even more competitive than they were in 2007.
Of course the most high profile rookie hurler going into 2008 is probably Softbank’s Shota Oba, who manager Sadaharu Oh says could have an immediate impact in ’08.
Oba set Tohto University Baseball League records with 14 straight wins and 410 strikeouts while at Toyo University.
In July Oba struck out eight in a five-hit complete-game victory against a U.S collegiate all-star team in Durham, North Carolina that clinched Japan’s first collegiate all-star series win on U.S. soil in 19 years. In August he struck out 10 over five scoreless innings, but did not factor into the decision, as Japan beat France to reach the final of a four-nation tournament in Beijing.
The right-hander, with the blistering fastball, was highly sought after with the Hawks winning a six-team lottery for the rights to negotiate with him.
“I had butterflies in my stomach while waiting for the result. I’m filled with happiness,” Oba said after the draft. “Softbank has a strong pitching staff. I would like to aim for double-digit wins and the Rookie of the Year award.”
If Oba lives up to his own expectations it would give Oh another option in a deep pitching staff that already features Kazumi Saitoh (who will miss the start of the season with an injury, Toshiya Sugiuchi (15-6, 2.46 ERA in ’07) and Tsuyoshi Wada (12-10, 2.82) as well as Nagisa Arakaki, newly acquired veteran Jeremy Powell and closer Takahiro Mahara, who saved 38 games last season.
Nakata’s impact at the plate will be closely followed, but good pitching could make or break a team’s playoff and championship hopes.
If Hasebe and Oba can make immediate contributions to teams that already feature established pitchers, that added depth could make all the difference.