While much of the media horde tasked with covering the Yomiuri Giants has spent the spring either breathlessly reporting on every nuance of Shinnosuke Abe’s transition from catcher to first base or peppering manager Tatsunori Hara about what’s wrong with the club, Frederich Cepeda has been off to the side working up a sweat.
Cepeda’s brow is rarely dry when he’s on the field and even in the home dugout at Tokyo Dome on Friday, the beads were forming and rolling down his face as gripped the end of his bat, and smiled a big smile.
“I’m working hard,” he squeezed out in between deep breaths.
That’s been the Cuban slugger’s mantra this spring, as he’s thrown himself into practices almost as if trying to win over Hara and his teammates through pure grit alone.
If Cepeda feels like he has anything to prove this season, it might be because he knows the optics of his first year in Japan, a .194 average with six home runs and 18 RBIs in 52 games, weren’t very flattering.
He came to Japan right after playing in Cuba and was in the lineup four days after his arrival in May. He never seemed to find his footing in NPB and it wasn’t long before Cepeda had fallen out of favor with Hara, who can be fickle with some members of his starting lineups in the best of times, and went from playing everyday to mostly pinch-hitting, making it even harder to find a rhythm.
Cepeda is hopeful of making a much larger contribution this season.
With Abe coming off a subpar season at the plate and among the many Giants either slightly banged up or struggling at the plate this spring, Cepeda may get an opportunity to show everyone what he can really do. He’s already more comfortable this year, having had the opportunity to spend part of the spring in Japan.
“Last year I was playing in Cuba and then I came here,” he said. “It was tough. The culture was different, the game was different, and I don’t speak Japanese. It was very different from Cuba.
“This year, I’m just working hard. Maybe I can hit fourth or fifth and play in the outfield. Or not. Whatever they want.”
Cepeda hit .244 during spring training, connecting on one home run and driving in four runs in 49 plate appearances.
He probably arrived in Japan this year brimming with confidence after helping Cuba capture the Caribbean Series title for the first time since 1960. Cepeda was 2-for-4 with an RBI against Mexico during the championship game in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 8, and was the tournament MVP with a .471 average and seven RBIs in is 17 at-bats.
“It was good. It was important for us in Cuba to win the Caribbean Series,” Cepeda said. “We really wanted to win it.”
Cepeda wants to bring those types of numbers with him to Japan, and he’s putting in long hours to try and make it happen. Playing in Japan initially took Cepeda a little out of his comfort zone. Now seemingly more settled in, both he and the Giants are eager to see the fruits of his labor in 2015.