Where will Chihiro Kaneko and Takashi Toritani be playing next season?
As the moving and shaking of the NPB offseason — or the Hot Hibachi League, as Japan Times columnist and HHL commissioner Wayne Graczyk likes to refer to it — begins to wind down, the two biggest pieces on the chessboard have yet to make their move.
The two Kansai-based stars, Kaneko a member of the Orix Buffaloes and Toritani a longtime Hanshin Tigers star, have big decisions to make in the coming weeks with a couple of fanbases ready and waiting to see how things play out.
Those are just about the only mysteries in what has been an active, but sort of mundane, winter in Japan. There have been moves, but few blockbuster transactions or even minor moves that have been trumped up as blockbusters.
Japan’s quiet offseason stands in stark contrast to the relative chaos unfolding during MLB’s Hot Stove season, which lately has been mostly seeing who the San Diego Padres will sign next. The MLB offseason is awash in news almost every year, even when there aren’t household names on the move. The majors have turned the offseason into an event and keep the Hot Stove burning all winter long, filling sports talk radio airwaves, giving fans something to chew on until spring training, and, most importantly, keeping the game relevant, albeit in a scaled back form, while stadiums sit idle. The hoopla keeps fans engaged in the game longer into the offseason and helps build momentum until the next year finally rolls around.
In Japan, the winter minutiae trends toward the mundane.
Players signing new salary deals usually go off without much fanfare, save for the young players who hit a certain benchmark early. This year, there’s not even a posting, Hiroshima Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda and Kaneko are both staying in Japan, to hold the public’s interest.
Japanese baseball could do well to take a cue from MLB and find a way to keep fans more engaged during the offseason, after the fanfests and parades have finished.
This offseason, for instance, has seen quite a few things happen.
The Buffaloes and Tokyo Yakult Swallows have revamped their rosters through free agency.
Some former All-Stars have also switched uniforms. Yoshihisa Naruse left the Chiba Lotte Marines to join the Swallows, and former Yakult catcher Ryoji Aikawa will sign with the Yomiuri Giants, an unnecessary move by the Kyojin, who already have Seiji Kobayashi, a young backstop who could blossom into a stud.
The foreign player spin cycle was also going with players such as Tony Blanco (who went from the Yokohama BayStars to the Buffaloes) and Bryan Bullington (Carp to Orix) among those swapping locales.
Japanese baseball also welcomed back former All-Star Hiroyuki Nakajima, who joins the Buffaloes after two nondescript seasons in the U.S. minor leagues, and infielder Kensuke Tanaka, who returns to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters after a stint in the U.S. that included a cup of coffee in the big leagues.
There wasn’t a blockbuster move, though there were a few that while not very sexy now could prove impactful down the road. Even without a earth-shaking transaction, NPB could do more to pump up the things that are happening in order to help keep the league in the news cycle and create momentum and interest for next season. That’s especially important for a league that needs to keep attendance and viewership numbers up.
Interest will be piqued again when Kaneko and Toritani make their decisions. Kaneko is a free agent, and the Buffaloes are eager to keep him while the Tigers are reportedly readying a full-court press.
Toritani meanwhile is choosing between MLB, the Padres and Toronto Blue Jays have been singled out as his most probable landing spots, or returning to the Tigers.
Both are juicy storylines that could help keep some of the spotlight on NPB right now.
Japanese baseball can’t simply copy everything MLB does, but the majors do a good job of trumping up offseason machinations in order to make a place for itself in the news cycle alongside the NFL behemoth and other winter sports.
It couldn’t hurt for NPB to find a way to spice things up a little, with an eye on keeping fans somewhat engaged and pining for baseball, even where there are no games to play.