Samurai Japan skipper Hiroki Kokubo announced his 28-man final squad for next month’s WSBC Premier 12 on Friday.
As expected, Kokubo selected nationwide stars like Kenta Maeda, Shohei Otani, Sho Nakata, Tetsuto Yamada and Yuki Yanagita as his team’s core players. Kokubo also added fresh faces, including 19-year-old left-handed closer Yuki Matsui of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Yokohama BayStars rookie reliever Yasuaki Yamasaki.
Takeya Nakamura, the Seibu Lions’ six-time Pacific League home run king, was chosen to play. He had been plagued by various injuries, leading to doubts that he’d be picked.
Overall, Kokubo and his staff chose 13 pitchers, three catchers, seven infielders and five outfielders for their team.
As he’s stated on previous occasions, Kokubo has tried to build his team around steady pitching. He said that he allocated 13 spots for pitchers and three for catchers before making the other selections.
“You notice that when you look at the members, but we’ve selected a lot of pitchers that have pitched as ace pitchers on their respective teams,” Kokubo said at a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. “So our pitching will be one of our strengths.”
Kokubo, a former star slugger for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants, has high regard for Yamada and Yanagita, two talented, young hitters. Both the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ Yamada and the Hawks’ Yanagita achieved “Triple 3” feats, exceeding a .300 batting average with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, this season.
“Even in the long history of professional baseball, Yanagita in the Pacific League and Yamada in the Central League came up with outstanding outcomes this year,” Kokubo said. “They are young, but they will just be able to lead the team well enough.”
Kokubo and his coaching staff have hurlers like Matsui, Yomiuri’s Hirokazu Sawamura, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Hirotoshi Masui and Yamasaki in the mix for the closer spot.
Kokubo hinted that he might not designate one pitcher for the job.
“I think that we are going to have to look at who the best guy is on that particular day, depending on who we are playing against,” Kokubo said.
Likewise, Kokubo has always considered the Fighters’ Sho Nakata as his cleanup hitter since he took the helm in 2013. But now with Nakamura on the squad, Nakata’s position could be in jeopardy.
“Since I’ve assumed this position, I’ve used Nakata,” Kokubo said. “But looking at this roster, we’ve got Nakamura. I’m still thinking of going with Nakata in my mind. But Nakamura, when he plays a full season, he’s won home run titles. So I have high expectations for him as well.”
Although his streak of consecutive seasons batting .300 or better ended at seven this year, hit machine Seiichi Uchikawa, who hit .284 in 2015, again will don a Japan jersey. Kokubo expects the 33-year-old Uchikawa, who played in the last two World Baseball Classics, to take a leadership role on the young Samurai Japan team.
Major league players will not participate in this tournament.
The inaugural Premier 12, with Japan and Taiwan as co-hosts, will begin on Nov. 8 at Sapporo Dome between Japan and South Korea.
Pitchers (13) — Yuki Matsui, LHP, Eagles; Tomoyuki Sugano, RHP, Giants; Takahiro Norimoto, RHP, Eagles; Hirokazu Sawamura, RHP, Giants; Shohei Otani, RHP, Fighters; Shintaro Fujinami, RHP, Tigers; Kenta Maeda, RHP, Carp; Hirotoshi Masui, RHP, Fighters; Yuki Nishi, RHP, Buffaloes; Yudai Ono, LHP, Dragons; Yasuaki Yamasaki, RHP, BayStars; Shota Takeda, RHP, Hawks; Kazuhisa Makita, RHP, Lions.
Catchers (3) — Ginjiro Sumitani, Lions; Motohiro Shima, Eagles; Yuhei Nakamura, Swallows.
Infielders (7) — Nobuhiro Matsuda, Hawks; Shingo Kawabata, Swallows; Hayato Sakamoto, Giants; Takuya Nakashima, Fighters; Sho Nakata, Fighters; Tetsuto Yamada, Swallows; Takeya Nakamura, Lions.
Outfielders (5) — Seiichi Uchikawa, Hawks; Ryosuke Hirata, Dragons; Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, BayStars; Yuki Yanagita, Hawks; Shogo Akiyama, Lions.
Manager — Hiroki Kokubo
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