Buffaloes appear headed in the right direction

No doubt the Hanshin Tigers are the more popular of the two Japanese professional baseball teams in the Kansai area. Their games at historic Koshien Stadium between Osaka and Kobe draw packed crowds most of the time, and the fans are arguably the most boisterous in the country.

The other Kansai team should not be forgotten, however, and there would seem to be some hope for fans of the Orix Buffaloes, a club that appears to have improved itself greatly over the offseason with a big trade, new player acquisitions by other means and the return of injured stars who missed most or all of last season.

Orix is coming off a last-place finish in the Pacific League in 2012, and the Buffaloes have qualified for the Climax Series only once (with a second-place finish in 2008) since being formed as a franchise in 2004 by merger of the old Orix BlueWave and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Could this be the year for a return to the postseason?

The two biggest names coming to the team are new manager Hiroshi Moriwaki and outfielder Yoshio Itoi, a batting title contender and World Baseball Classic participant. The Buffaloes got the Kansai (Kyoto) native Itoi on Jan. 23 from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in a trade that shocked many.

Itoi was the Fighters leading hitter last year, batting .304 as Nippon Ham won the Pa League pennant, and at 31 appears to be in his prime. Now he’s going to be in the same lineup as first baseman Dae Ho Lee, the league’s RBI leader, and Takahiro Okada, the 2010 PL home run derby winner, and in the same outfield with Tomotaka Sakaguchi, a .297 hitter in 2011 but whose 2012 campaign was limited to just 40 games after he suffered a season-ending injury last May.

While the Buffaloes are losing two starting pitchers, the mound staff may also have been strengthened by a couple of incoming hurlers. Gone are right-handers Hayato Terahara and Hiroshi Kisanuki, but added to the roster are lefty Tomoya Yagi and reliever Takahiro Mahara.

Terahara went to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks as a free agent, while Kisanuki was dealt to Hokkaido in the Itoi trade. Yagi was obtained from the Fighters in that same transaction, while Mahara is the compensation from Softbank for losing Terahara. If Sakaguchi and Mahara can bounce back from their long periods of inaction, Orix will be that much better.

Also new to the club are foreign pitchers Brandon Dickson and Steve Hammond and outfielder Vinny Rottino. Dickson was with the St. Louis Cardinals last year; Rottino split the season with the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians. Hammond played in a Japanese independent league.

Rounding out the gaikokujin roster are third baseman Aarom Baldiris who led the PL with 31 doubles in 2012, along with first baseman Lee and the Italian lefty pitcher Alex Maestri, who posted a 4-3 mark with a 2.17 ERA after joining the Orix rotation late last summer.

Yagi appeared to be a star of the future when then-Nippon Ham manager Trey Hillman used him extensively in the Fighters’ championship year of 2006. He was only 24 then and put up a 12-8 season with a 2.48 ERA. However, he has not done much in the last five years, and Hokkaido apparently found him expendable.

Mahara was one of the top closers in Japan, having led the Pa League with 38 saves in 2007. He also saved 29 for the Hawks in 2009, 32 in 2010 and 19 in 2011. But injuries led to his being sidelined in 2008 and 2012. Softbank left him off the compensation protected list, making him available for Orix to claim.

Agreeing the Buffaloes should be a lot better this year is Softbank relief pitcher Brian Falkenborg, himself coming off an injury-prone 2012 season and a possible successor to Mahara as Fukuoka’s full-time closer.

Prior to an exhibition game at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants last week, Falkenborg said, “Orix has made a lot of changes, and it looks like they will be the most improved team in our league.”

Falkenborg was also surprised Mahara, his former bullpen mate, was the guy sent to Orix as the exchange player for Terahara. Asked if this means he will be the Hawks closer this year, Falkenborg said, “I don’t know. It depends on how we all do during the exhibition season.”

Another strong candidate for the role is left-hander Masahiko Morifuku, who is currently not with Softbank, as he is playing for Samurai Japan in the WBC. Falkenborg, entering his fifth season with Fukuoka, threw an inning in relief against the Giants on Sunday but was a bit shaky, giving up a pair of walks and a two-run double in his first outing this year.

He’s trying to return to full strength after back troubles put him on the disabled list in 2012. Also, he had a birthday in January and said, “I’m on the wrong side of 35 now, but would like to play two or three more years with the Hawks.”

Getting back to Orix, though, the Buffaloes appear to be heading into a season with the most confidence since Kintetsu rode Tuffy Rhodes’ 55-home run performance into a Japan Series appearance in 2001, also the year Ichiro Suzuki left the Orix BlueWave for the Seattle Mariners.

The Tigers will continue to rule in Kansai, but the Buffaloes games should be a lot more interesting at their two home ballparks, Kyocera Osaka Dome and Kobe’s Hotto Motto Stadium, in 2013.

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