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Lions set to roar in ’12


Capsules in order of predicted finish

Saitama Seibu Lions

Manager: Hisanobu Watanabe

Last Year: 68-67-9 (Third)

The Lions missed out on a payday when Hiroyuki Nakajima’s posting fell through, but things on the field are better off with the star shortstop still around.

Nakajima drove in 100 runs last year and is Seibu’s best all-around player, but Takeya Nakamura, who led Japan with 48 home runs, is the biggest offensive threat. Takumi Kuriyama is another consistent performer and the team has high hopes for Hideto Asamura.

A big question mark is the health of Yasuyuki Kataoka, though the speedy Esteban German could end up being a more than capable replacement.

New addition Chris Carter, however, will begin the year on the disabled list with a knee injury.

Hideaki Wakui is probably the most known commodity in the pitching staff. Fumiya Nishiguchi was the team’s top hurler last year, but at age 39 how much longer can he pitch at a high level deep into the season?

There are injury concerns with Takayuki Kishi and Kazuhisa Ishii, and reigning PL Rookie of the Year Kazuhisa Makita (pictured) will pitch in the rotation.

Lions fans are also wondering if this is the year Yusei Kikuchi makes a major contribution.

New addition Enrique Gonzalez was a candidate for the rotation, but he may be more valuable as the team’s closer. Seibu also added relievers Randy Williams and Micheal Nakamura.

How they’ll fare: The Lions have the bats to rise through the ranks, but capturing the pennant may depend on their pitchers.

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

Manager: Koji Akiyama

Last year: 88-46-10 (First)

The Hawks celebrated last season’s Japan Series title by losing their top players.

The pitching staff was hit hardest by the defections, with the top three spots in last year’s rotation now playing elsewhere. If that wasn’t enough, closer Takahiro Mahara was injured and won’t be back until late in the season.

Tadashi Settsu probably steps in as the top pitcher, but young hurlers Hiroki Yamada and Sho Iwasaki are battle-tested. Left-hander Kenji Otanari’s solid spring is a good sign and Kazuyuki Hoashi was a great free-agent signing.

Softbank looked to MLB in a search for depth, adding Brad Penny to the rotation and Hideki Okajima to the bullpen. In Mahara’s absence, look for Brian Falkenborg and Masahiko Morifuku to step up.

The offense returns mostly intact.

Yuichi Honda is coming off a good season in which he stole 60 bases and SoftBank knows what to expect out of reigning MVP Seiichi Uchikawa.

Pair that with decent power-hitting third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda and the dependable Yuya Hasegawa, and scoring may not be a problem most nights.

The addition of Wily Mo Pena could add more firepower to the lineup and Hiroki Kokubo, who should reach 2,000 hits this year, is still a viable option. The question is how much the team gets from aging sluggers Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Alex Cabrera, and how the loss of Munenori Kawasaki’s infectious energy affects things.

How they’ll fare: The Hawks won the PL by 17½ games last year. They lost a tremendous amount of talent, but that just brought them back to the pack.

Orix Buffaloes

Manager: Akinobu Okada

Last Year: 69-68-7 (Fourth)

It’d be hard to find a team that’s gotten in its own way more than the Buffaloes.

They start the year with high expectations with both the Hawks and Fighters incurring heavy losses.

This season’s major addition was Korean slugger Lee Dae Ho, who hit .357, with 27 homers and 113 RBIs last season for the Lotte Giants to win the Triple Crown in the Korean Baseball Organization. Lee is a career .309 hitter in the KBO with 225 home runs and 809 RBIs in 11 seasons. He could take some of the pressure off slugger Takahiro Okada who, regressed last season.

Tomotaka Sakaguchi and Mitsutaka Goto also return to what may be a decent lineup.

On the mound, Orix’s 3.33 ERA was the second highest in the PL.

This year the Buffaloes benefit from having Chihiro Kaneko, injured to begin last season, around from the start this time. Hayato Terahara is a solid No. 2 option and Shinya Nakayama and Alfredo Figaro have the potential to play big roles. Yuki Nishi is another talented young arm with a lot of promise who the Buffaloes need to step up. If not, one of their younger hurlers, such as Tomoyuki Kaida, could contribute.

The team is lacking in middle relief, but Yoshihisa Hirano is as good a setup man as any in Japan and Mamoru Kishida is a decent closing option.

How they’ll fare: The Buffaloes have the pieces to put together a good season. All that’s left is to go out and produce.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Manager: Hideki Kuriyama

Last year: 72-65-7 (Second)

This year is the Fighters’ chance to show they’re more than just Yu Darvish.

Losing Darvish is a big blow, but not a crippling one. Masaru Takeda is a capable pitcher and Bobby Keppel and Brian Wolfe know how to win games. The most pressure will be on Yuki Saito, who will need his performance to match his star power.

The Fighters have a decent enough bullpen and a good closer in Hisashi Takeda. Though Darvish’s starts essentially gave them the day off, so the workload will be a little heavier.

Outfielder Yoshio Itoi is one of the best hitters in Japan, and reacquiring Terrmel Sledge may help out in the power department. The questions at the plate center around Sho Nakata, who needs to improve.

Daikan Yoh, a good hitter, can help by cutting down on his strikeouts.

How they’ll fare: The Fighters could make a run if their hitters produce, but they probably take a step back.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Manager: Norifumi Nishimura

Last Year: 54-79-11 (Sixth)

There wasn’t much to cheer about for the 2010 Japan Series champions last year.

Almost nothing went right until the draft, when Lotte won a three-team lottery for the rights to pitcher Takahiro Fujioka.

Fujioka has the goods and can probably crack the rotation from Opening Day alongside ace Yoshihisa Naruse, Yuki Karakawa submariner Shunsuke Watanabe and free-agent signing Seth Greisinger.

Though the bullpen could’ve used a overhaul as well after a subpar season.

Center fielder Yoshifumi Okada is among the best fielders in Japan, though his bat needs some work. The pecking order at the other two outfield positions is a logjam of Shoitsu Omatsu, Shota Ishimine, Ikuhiro Kiyota, Saburo Omura and possibly Takashi Ogino striving for playing time.

Tadahito Iguchi is still a good play at second base and Shunichi Nemoto should have earned playing time at shortstop.

Where Ogino’s concerned, health is a big issue with the dynamic youngster having been limited to 69 games over the past two seasons due to injury.

Still, with the exception of Josh Whitesell, who signed as a free agent, this is more or less the same bunch who as a team hit 46 home runs last year to finish two behind Seibu slugger Takeya Nakamura.

How they’ll fare: Fujioka may help keep them out of the cellar, but the Marines could have another long year ahead.

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Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Manager: Senichi Hoshino

Last year: 66-71-7 (Fifth)

The good news for the Eagles is that they have one of the best pitchers in Japan. The bad news is they also lost one.

Masahiro Tanaka might be Japan’s top pitcher but the rest of the rotation isn’t as solid without Hisashi Iwakuma in the fold. All isn’t lost, as the team still has a pair of solid arms in Satoshi Nagai and Takahiro Shiomi.

They also made a nice addition in trading for pitcher Keiji Uezono and whatever Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi produces is a bonus.

Rakuten needs to get better production from the bullpen, though Darrell Rasner settled into the closer’s role nicely last season.

Jose Fernandez will help power the offense, but Motohiro Shima and former MLBers Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura have to hit for the Eagles to win.

Ryo Hijirisawa is another fine player and trades for Keiji Oyama and Naoto Inada could eventually pay good dividends.

How they’ll fare: They might have the pitching, but may not have enough offense to compete.