Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB NOTEBOOK

Pena alone can't lift Rakuten's power profile

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

If the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles seal the deal with Wily Mo Pena, as reported on Monday by Daily Sports Online, it will help the Eagles avoid taking a step back in the power department, but it won’t solve all the team’s problems.

What Pena, 33, gives the Eagles is a hitter who has already proven he can hit for power in Japan. Last season he led the Orix Buffaloes with 32 longballs, second only to Seibu Lions duo Ernesto Mejia and Takeya Nakamura, who finished tied for the Pacific League lead with 34 apiece, while driving in 90 runs. Pena also ended the year with a .830 OPS. Pena had 21 homers for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in his first season in Japan in 2012 before hitting just one in 2013, when he saw limited action due to injuries.

His addition would be impactful in that it gives Rakuten a replacement for departed slugger Andruw Jones.

Jones was the lone Eagles player to reach double digits in home runs in 2014, hitting 24, fifth most in the PL. Veteran Kazuo Matsui had the next-highest total with eight.

The Eagles struggled to find additional power in 2014 without third baseman Casey McGehee, a cornerstone of the 2013 Japan Series team (along with Jones) who left for the majors in 2014 and was named National League Comeback Player of the Year with the Miami Marlins. Jones, who walked an NPB-most 118 times (the Hiroshima Carp’s Yoshihiro Maru was the only other player to crack 100) remained a threat, but beyond him there was little to fear in the Eagles’ lineup from a power standpoint.

The same will be true with Pena this year unless new additions Gaby Sanchez and Zealous Wheeler deliver. Neither brings a resume filled with home runs to the table, but then again, McGehee had never hit more than 23 in an MLB season before slugging 28 for Rakuten in 2013.

Pena would be a good addition, but his overall impact on the offense rests on what the Eagles have around him.

First impressions: The Kimiyasu Kudo era in Fukuoka got off to a winning, though unofficial, start on Saturday, as the Softbank Hawks pulled out a 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes in Kudo’s first spring game in charge of the team since being hired over the winter.

The newly appointed Mitsuru Manaka also got off to a winning start, with his Tokyo Yakult Swallows scoring a 4-0 victory over the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Sunday.

Hiromoto Okubo didn’t win, but he also didn’t lose in his first game without the interim tag in the Tohoku Rakuten dugout, with the Eagles and Fighters playing out a 2-2 tie on Saturday. The Seibu Lions’ Norio Tanabe, another interim-turned-full-time manager, had his first scheduled open-sen game in charge washed out on Sunday.

New Carp skipper Koichi Ogata lost his first game, 4-2 to the Yomiuri Giants, and will be happy to have it erased from his ledger when the season begins March 27.

No rest for the weary: Chiba Lotte Marines manager Tsutomu Ito gave new pitcher Chen Kuan-yu quite the workout during the team’s first spring game on Saturday. Chen got the start against the Chunichi Dragons and threw 82 pitches over four innings. Not exactly a light workload for the first day of the exhibition season.

The next-highest total of the weekend was registered by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Naoyuki Uwasawa, who threw 68 over 3⅓ innings. Yuki Saito had the next-heaviest workload, throwing 64 pitches over four frames in the same game.