Baseball is a funny sport sometimes in that no one ever seems content to live in the present.
The history of the game is revered and harkened back to on an almost daily basis, while scouts constantly patrol dusty high-school fields in search of the player who will be the star of the future.
It’s this convergence of past and future that is presently threatening to wash away Masataka Nashida’s tenure with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Reports surfaced last week that the team was planning to look for a manager more willing to play younger players when Nashida’s contract is up this season. Reportedly, the team wants to be aggressive in the development of their younger players and feel some new blood is needed in the dugout.
Granted, with 39-year-old Atsunori Inaba and 35-year-old Makoto Kaneko still playing nearly every day, the Fighters aren’t getting any younger. Even so, a change at the top is going a little overboard.
Nashida has been pretty successful in his current post, at least enough not to be pushed aside for an unproven commodity. He took over after Trey Hillman’s departure in 2007, and since then the Fighters are the only Pacific League team with a winning record in each of the three subsequent seasons.
He also took the team to the Pacific League pennant and Pacific League Climax Series in 2009, when ace Yu Darvish was limited to 23 appearances due to injuries.
So, while the Fighters do need to think about getting younger, they don’t have to put their present success in peril.
Gradually bringing younger players along could implement change while keeping the Fighters competitive in the PL.
The aging, more injury-prone Kaneko could be the first to go with infielder Kenji Sugiya tearing it up on the farm for the Kamagaya Fighters, hitting.336 with 28 RBIs, 11 doubles and 11 stolen bases.
Failing that, the team can shift second baseman Kensuke Tanaka to shortstop and bring back the productive Bobby Scales, who has been a breath of fresh air since being acquired midseason, next year to man second base and give Sugiya more time while planting Inaba at first base or DH. That would render another aging 35-year-old, Tomohiro Nioka, expendable.
Nashida has already deployed recent draft picks (catcher) Shota Ono, and pitchers Ryo Sakakibara and Naoki Miyanishi in important roles to good results.
The team’s two most high-profile kids, slugger Sho Nakata and pitcher Yuki Saito are also firmly in the fold.
It’s cheaper to field a young team, but young players experience growing pains and aren’t always ready when the organization wants them to be. Money could certainly be a motive, but the Fighters aren’t exactly in Yomiuri Giants territory with their payroll as it is.
Nippon Ham has been at or near the top of the PL since 2006, having made it to the Japan Series three times — 2006 and 2007 came under Hillman — and winning the crown once over that span.
Nashida’s done the job and pushed the buttons that have helped maintain the standard Hillman helped set.
While the club does need to get its younger players on the field and see what they can do, development often begins on the farm. Making it equally important the staff in the minors prepares players who can adequately fill in when starters are injured and eventually challenge for or steal a starting job.
Winning is supposed to be the ultimate goal and right now Nashida is winning. The Fighters may need to change their thinking in regards to young players, but a change at the top isn’t needed just yet.