The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2016 Pacific League.
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
2016: 83-54-6 (2nd)
The Hawks would be within their rights to enter this season feeling as if they should be the defending champs. Really, if not for an inexplicable 22-25 run in July and August (they were 61-29-6 the rest of the season) and the 15-game win streak the Fighters went on around the same time, they probably would’ve won the pennant. If nothing else, they still have the tools to get it done this year.
The Hawks had the PL’s top scoring offense last season, and that was without Cuban slugger Alfredo Despaigne, who joins SoftBank this year. Despaigne hit 24 home runs for the Marines in 2016 and in moving from Zozo Marine Stadium to Yafuoku Dome, he goes from Japan’s third-worst park for home runs last year to one that was third-best.
SoftBank may also have a healthier Yuki Yanagita this year, which is saying something since he hit .306 with 18 home runs in 2016. Nobuhiro Matsuda will also feature in a lineup that can punish opposing pitchers.
As for SoftBank’s own pitchers, veteran Tsuyoshi Wada is probably still the No. 1, for now. It’ll be Kodai Senga, a 12-game winner in 2016, who probably draws the most attention after he and his “ghost fork” opened eyes around the world with a breakout performance at the World Baseball Classic. Shota Takeda and Rick van den Hurk are also key parts of a very deep staff. The rich will be even richer if rookie Seigi Tanaka is as good as advertised in his first year.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham
2016: 87-53-3 (1st)
A transcendent season from Shohei Otani and a franchise-record 15-game win streak propelled the Fighters to the top of the Pacific League. Now they have to stay there.
Otani’s health will be a major factor in whether Nippon Ham can repeat. The two-way star was forced out of the WBC because of a hurt ankle and won’t be pitching on opening day. He hasn’t been hindered at the plate, with four home runs in nine spring games.
He should again play a big role, alongside Sho Nakata and reigning home run king Brandon Laird, in an offense that can score in a variety of ways. The team lost Daikan Yoh over the offseason, but can try and fill the void with players such as the newly acquired Taishi Ota, or Hiromi Oka or a different option.
Otani is also the best pitcher in Japan if he’s healthy. If Kohei Arihara avoids the wall he hit last year (10-4, 1.90 ERA from March-July, 1-5, 5.74 ERA in August and September) he’s another great option. Luis Mendoza is reliable, but the performances, good or bad, from players such as reigning rookie of the year Hirotoshi Takanashi, Takayuki Kato and others can make or break the staff. Last year, enough of them rose to the occasion that the Fighters kept climbing even with Otani out. The bullpen remains in good hands with Naoki Miyanishi and Hirotoshi Masui, but will be missing Anthony Bass.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden
2016: 62-78-3 (5th)
The fans in Sendai are hoping for a turnaround this season from the Eagles, who haven’t sniffed success since Masahiro Tanaka helped deliver the Japan Series title in 2013.
Tanaka’s right-hand man in the rotation that year, Takahiro Norimoto, is the staff ace these days. The Eagles went out and got him some help this year, snagging former Seibu Lions ace Takayuki Kishi in free agency. It’s a good sign Yoshinao Kamata shook off past injuries and made 20 starts last season. If he keeps improving, the Eagles might have something to talk about. Might. In the bullpen, closer Yuki Matsui can put games away.
At the plate, slugger Japhet Amador and Carlos Peguero only played 39 and 51 games respectively last season, and the team will hope they produce in 2017. Rakuten also has a good player primed for a rebound in Ginji Akaminai and Zelous Wheeler can drive in runs. No one will mistake Rakuten for SoftBank, but if everybody clicks, the team could post respectable offensive numbers.
Saitama Seibu Lions
2016: 64-76-3 (4th)
The Lions kept their fans purring when they were hitting, but there was nothing comforting about watching them in the field last season. New manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji’s first job is to do something about that.
Seibu has bats. Hideto Asamura might be among the finest offensive players in the PL, and Takeya Nakamura and Ernesto Mejia are certainly two of the better power hitters. The Lions get even scarier when burly Hotaka Yamakawa, who put on a show late last season, is added to mix, not to mention the eventual return of injured Tomoya Mori. Rookie shortstop Sosuke Genda was drafted to help shore up the fielding woes, but will light hearts aflutter if he also hits (considered his weak point) like he did during the spring.
The problem is an already thin pitching staff that lost Takayuki Kishi. Yusei Kikuchi was already the team’s most talented pitcher, now he’ll have to finally pitch like it consistently as the top starter. Shinsaburo Tawata showed promise as a rookie last year and Seibu would greatly benefit from him taking another step forward. Still, a lot of guys will need to step up in a group of starters who ranked fifth with a 4.10 ERA with Kishi (Seibu’s overall ERA was fourth at 3.85) and now move forward without him.
Chiba Lotte Marines
2016: 72-68-3 (3rd)
Manager Tsutomu Ito got the most out of his team last season, guiding the Marines to a second consecutive A-class finish. He could get the most out them again this year, but he might also have less to work with.
Losing Alfredo Despaigne is a potentially huge blow offensively. Despaigne hit 24 homers in 2016. Only one other Marine had even 10, and no one actually returning this year hit more than Katsuya Kakunaka’s eight. Newcomers Matt Duffy and Jimmy Paredes will try to fill some of that void, and Ikuhiro Kiyota is a better player than the story his 2016 numbers told. Kakunaka is also a really good hitter. The Marines can certainly manufacture runs, but that might not be enough against some of the other big-swinging PL clubs.
Ayumu Ishikawa and Hideaki Wakui are the best two pitchers, and Lotte is hoping 38-year-old Jason Standridge has at least one more surge left in the tank. The team also has a pair of intriguing young pitchers in Kota Futaki and rookie Chihaya Sasaki, who could tilt the balance with good seasons.
2016: 57-83-3 (6th)
The Buffaloes nearly won the PL in 2014. That second-place finish looks more and more like an aberration with sixth- and fifth-place finishes immediately before and fifth- and sixth-place finishes immediately after.
The franchise didn’t have much going for it before star outfielder Yoshio Itoi bolted as a free agent, and seems to have even less now. The exception is Masataka Yoshida, who hit .290 with 10 home runs as a rookie and displayed a lot of promise. Takahiro Okada and Hiroyuki Nakajima are coming off decent years and could contribute again. Orix also added a new foreign batter in Stefen Romero, who will need to produce.
A healthy Chihiro Kaneko would give the Buffs a No. 1 arm on the pitching staff, and Yuki Nishi and Brandon Dickson are good pitchers. There might also be room for rookie Taisuke Yamaoka to see what he can do. The pitchers could actually keep the team somewhat afloat, enough so that if Orix hits little, a rise, within reason, isn’t out of the question.