Can the Yokohama BayStars become this year’s Hiroshima Carp?

It was the Carp who seemingly came from a so-so fourth-place finish in 2015 to win the 2016 Central League pennant by a whopping 17½ games.

Hiroshima put together a team of veterans and young players, produced a potent pitching staff and a powerful batting lineup, beat the third-place BayStars in the CL Climax Series Final Stage and finally ran out of gas, falling short in a six-game Japan Series loss to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

One similarity between the 2016 Carp and the 2017 BayStars is that each club lost a top-notch right-handed pitcher. Hiroshima ace Kenta Maeda left for the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago. Yokohama star Shun Yamaguchi this past off-season used free agency to jump to the rival Yomiuri Giants.

The Carp void was filled by Yusuke Nomura, who led both Japanese leagues with 16 victories. His teaming with southpaw American teammate Kris Johnson, a 15-game winner, reminds me to a certain extent of some of the great righty-lefty combos on World Series-winning teams decades ago.

Remember Lew Burdette and Warren Spahn with the 1957 Milwaukee Braves?

How about Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax on the 1965 L.A. Dodgers?

Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich for the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman of the 1969 New York Mets?

Unlike the Carp, the BayStars do not have a couple of fan-favorite returning veteran players to add heart and sentimental value to the mix. Pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, at 41, and first baseman Takahiro Arai, chosen as league MVP at 39 years of age, played a huge part for Hiroshima in last year’s pennant-winning effort.

What Yokohama does have, though, is a bunch of players who have already achieved stardom and several guys ready to step up and build on the confidence and momentum of last year’s third-place finish and an upset victory of the second-place Yomiuri Giants in the first stage of the CL Climax Series.

Manager Alex Ramirez said a year ago when he took over the club, “Our team offense centers around (left fielder and Samurai Japan member Yoshitomo) Tsutsugo and (right fielder Takayuki) Kajitani.” Unfortunately, Kajitani was injured in spring training in 2016 and missed the first six weeks of the season.

Still, he managed to hit 18 home runs and drive in 56 runs in just 107 games. Over the full 143-game schedule, that projects to 24 homers and 75 RBIs. Tsutsugo led the Central League with 44 homers and 110 RBIs, despite missing 10 games due to injury.

Then there is first baseman Jose Lopez who slammed 34 home runs and racked up 95 RBIs, and he too missed 20 games with a broken toe, or he could have had about 40 round-trippers and maybe tied Tsutsugo with 110 RBIs. If Ramirez bats them 3-4-5 in the order as expected, and they stay healthy, this would be one of the most productive cleanup trios in Japanese baseball.

Also to be mentioned is center fielder Masayuki Kuwahara, who emerged as a competent leadoff man last season, hitting .284 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs. Shortstop Toshihiko Kuramoto batted .294 a year ago, and candidates to man second and third base include Toshiro Miyazaki, who hit 11 homers and averaged .291 last season and veteran Hiroyasu Tanaka, who moves to Yokohama from the Yakult Swallows.

Also vying for jobs in the infield are Dominicans Elian Herrera and Audy Ciriaco. Herrera joined the ‘Stars at mid-season last year, and Ciriaco hit .332 for the Ishikawa Million Stars in the independent Baseball Challenge League.

Second-year catcher Yasutaka Tobashira has his rookie year under his belt and must improve offensively after hitting just .226 with but two home runs in 2016.

As for the pitching staff, who will fill the slot vacated by Yamaguchi?

It could be lefty Kenta Ishida (9-4 with a 3.12 ERA last season) or right-hander Shoichi Ono (7-11, 3.50 ERA) or southpaw Shota Imanaga (8-9, 2.93). Don’t be fooled by the losing records — Hiroshima’s Nomura was 5-8 with a 4.64 ERA in 2015, but turned it around to win those 16 games last year.

Rami-chan looks to have a pretty good bullpen too. Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki saved 33 in 2016, and lefty middle reliever Kenjiro Tanaka was 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA in 61 games. Righty set-up man Tomoya Mikami posted a 2.61 ERA in 59 appearances, albeit with a 2-4 win-loss mark.

An unknown is how three new American pitchers will adjust to Japanese baseball. Right-handers Phil Klein, Spencer Patton and Joe Wieland are all former major leaguers making their debut with the Baystars. If they can produce results anywhere near those of Hiroshima’s U.S. trio of starter Johnson and relievers Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens, Yokohama fans will be delighted.

Speaking of the fans, here is another similarity between the Carp and BayStars. Both have cheering sections among the most passionate in Japan; the only difference is the predominant color; red for Hiroshima, blue for Yokohama.

Attendance at home and road games for these two clubs has been on the rise, and there is every reason to believe the number of spectators will continue to increase in 2017.

The BayStars will open the season on the road playing the Yakult Swallows at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo March 31, and we shall see if they can put it all together and be this year’s Hiroshima Carp. Don’t expect a 17½-game pennant victory, but don’t be surprised if Yokohama is right up there contending for the CL flag come September.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com

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