Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

A look at NPB’s new skippers for the 2015 season, challenges they will face

by Wayne Graczyk

Five new managers are in place to lead Central and Pacific League teams in 2015 after an unusually big turnover of field bosses. Here is a look at who they are, their backgrounds, what kind of leaders they may turn out to be and what issues they will face with their respective clubs.

Kimiyasu Kudo, Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — Kudo, 52, will finally get his chance to manage after blowing the opportunity to take over as skipper of the Yokohama Baystars in 2012. He was about to be introduced into that job when he made a demand unacceptable to general manager Shigeru Takada two days before the official announcement.

An All-Star, 224-game-winning left-handed pitcher with the Seibu Lions, Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama and a two-time Pacific League MVP, Kudo played 30 seasons (1982-2011), retiring reluctantly at age 49. He succeeds outgoing skipper Koji Akiyama, who surprisingly resigned last month.

He has no experience as a manager and most recently has served as a commentator for the TV-Asahi network on game telecasts and sports news programs. In leading the 2014 Japan Series champions in 2015, Kudo will inherit a batting lineup loaded with .300 hitters, and his pitching staff may be strengthened if another ex-Seibu ace and eight-year major leaguer Daisuke Matsuzaka joins the Hawks as has been rumored.

Obviously, the pressure will be great to maintain the club’s status as No. 1 in Japan.

Hiromoto “Big Dave” Okubo, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles — Okubo, 47, the Eagles farm team manager in 2014, was a part-time catcher and pinch hitter with Seibu and the Yomiuri Giants between 1985 and 1995.

Known for his fiery personality, Okubo comes with baggage, having been dismissed by the Lions from his job as a farm team batting coach in 2010 after accusations he became violent toward players and also struck a woman. Japanese press reported Eagles fans and team sponsors have expressed opposition to Okubo’s promotion and threatened to drop support.

He succeeds Senichi Hoshino and will lead a team in transition after the Eagles fell from being Japan Series champions in 2013 to last place this past season after the loss of pitching ace Masahiro Tanaka to the New York Yankees.

“Big Dave” will be on a short leash. If the team gets off to a good start next spring, the Sendai faithful will probably back him. However, if Rakuten is in last place during Golden Week (early May), the dissenting voices will become louder.

Norio Tanabe, Saitama Seibu Lions — Tanabe, 48, was the Lions batting coach when he took over the Seibu helm in June of last year on an interim basis. The team was in last place then, and it finished fifth—barely — just a game ahead of the Rakuten Eagles. Still, he is now the full-time manager.

He was a Lions shortstop from 1985-99. A two-time Pacific League Best 9 and Golden Glove award winner (1989 and 1992), he finished his active career with the Yomiuri Giants in 2000. In 2002, Tanabe rejoined the Seibu organization as a coach, and he knows well the tradition of winning in Tokorozawa, having been a part of 11 pennant-winning Lions teams during his playing days.

He earned favor with his players after taking over the manager’s seat from Haruki Ihara by relaxing Ihara’s policies of forbidding facial hair and long trouser legs. Tanabe’s personality is low-key, and his challenge will be to get the team back into the playoffs.

Tanabe needs to improve Seibu’s .248 team batting average, the worst in Japan, and that goal might be more reachable if the Lions are successful in their reported efforts to re-obtain another former Seibu star shortstop, Hiroyuki Nakajima, who spent 2014 playing minor league ball in the Oakland Athletics organization.

Koichi Ogata, Hiroshima Carp — A Carp outfielder from 1987-2009, Ogata, 46, was a good player but not a great one; a star player but not a superstar. He served as a Carp batting coach under manager Kenjiro Nomura the last five years and, like Tanabe, has a quiet, low-key character.

The selection of the more-reserved Ogata came as a bit of a surprise after a line of high-energy Hiroshima managers including Koji “Mr. Carp” Yamamoto, the excitable American Marty Brown and Nomura, a 2,000-hit career player.

Ogata’s goal will be to get Hiroshima into the Climax Series for a third consecutive season with a solid lineup built around second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi and center fielder Yoshihiro Maru. He will also be helped by the apparent decision of pitching ace Kenta Maeda to remain with the team and the continued development and improvement of 2014 rookie right-handers Daichi Osera and Aren Kuri.

Mitsuru Manaka, Tokyo Yakult Swallows—Manaka, 43, also moves up from the Swallows batting coach job to take over from departing skipper Junji Ogawa. Another one with a low-key persona, he was a Yakult outfielder from 1993-2008 who joined the coaching staff upon retirement.

Manaka will have to figure out how to end Yakult’s two-year, last-place slump. The Swallows, under his tutelage, had the highest team batting average (.279) in the Central League, led by second baseman Tetsuto Yamada and outfielder Yuhei Takai, but also the worst pitching staff ERA (4.62).

Yakult is trying to bolster its mound corps by possibly signing free agent left-hander Yoshihisa Naruse from the Chiba Lotte Marines and American righties Bryan Bullington and Kam Mickolio from Hiroshima. Getting any of those should make Manaka’s job easier.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com