The following is the second of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2016 Central League champions.
In order of predicted finish:
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
2016: 89-52-2 (1st)
The Carp won the CL by 17½ games last season, doing so with a plus-187 run differential. That’s a wide chasm for the other five teams to bridge, even if Hiroshima falls back to earth a little.
The 2017 Carp should look a lot like the 2016 version at the plate, even if the Red Helmets don’t quite match last year’s CL-best 684-run output. The two main questions are probably what kind of seasons Takahiro Arai and Seiya Suzuki will have. Arai, the reigning league MVP, is a prime candidate for regression at 40 years old, despite hitting .300 with 19 homers last season. Suzuki had a breakout year, hitting .335 with 29 homers, and fans will be eager to see what he has in store for an encore. The Carp also have a middle infield duo in Ryosuke Kikuchi and Kosuke Tanaka who, from the top of the lineup, can help set the table for the heavier hitters, and also be spectacular in the field. The team also has run-producers like Yoshihiro Maru and Brad Eldred on board.
Reigning Sawamura Award winner Kris Johnson leads a pitching staff that lost veteran talisman Hiroki Kuroda to retirement. Central League wins leader Yusuke Nomura, 16-3 last year, is the only returning pitcher to have thrown at least 100 innings last season. Daichi Osera is healthy again, and hit 152 kph during the spring, and could return to the rotation, while second-year right-hander Akitake Okada is another pitcher to watch.
Each of the last four Hanshin managers led the team to a B-Class finish in Year 1, before reaching the A-Class in Year 2. The Tigers were fourth in Tomoaki Kanemoto’s first season as manager, and fans hope history repeats itself.
Kanemoto has already made one major change, moving stalwart Takashi Toritani out of the shortstop position in favor of Fumiya Hojo. An even bigger move for the team was landing free agent outfielder Yoshio Itoi to go along with 2016 rookie of the year Shun Takayama and still-productive veteran Kosuke Fukudome. The other new addition is infielder Eric Campbell, who performed well for the Las Vegas 51s, the New York Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, the past few seasons. Those players, and Genki Haraguchi, could combine to give an anemic offense a much-needed shot of adrenaline.
Randy Messenger returns as the top player in the pitching rotation and Shintaro Fujinami as its most talented. Behind them some mix of Atsushi Nomi, Yuta Iwasada, Koyo Aoyagi and others will try to keep runs off the board, which they did a good job of last season.
2016: 71-69-3 (2nd)
The last time the Kyojin went three straight years without winning the pennant was from 2003-2006. Needless to say the squad is expecting a lot out of the 2017 campaign.
Outfielder Daikan Yoh was among the biggest splashes in a busy offseason for the Giants. The team is hoping Yoh helps kickstart an offense that finished fourth in the CL in runs scored. The Giants also went out and got slugger Casey McGehee, who returns to NPB after spending the last three seasons in MLB. Hayato Sakamoto, the reigning CL batting champion, and Shuichi Murata should produce again, and Garrett Jones is back with a year’s worth of NPB experience after hitting 24 homers in 2016.
The Giants have one of the best pitchers in Japan in Tomoyuki Sugano and another quality arm in Miles Mikolas. Kazuto Taguchi won 10 games and was a slight revelation last year, and the team needs him to do it again. The Giants, who had good pitching numbers last season, also went shopping for depth over the offseason, adding starters Shun Yamaguchi and Mitsuo Yoshikawa and reliever Masahiko Morifuku. Power is the name of the game in the bullpen, where fireballers Scott Mathieson and Hirokazu Sawamura will try to protect leads. Toshiya Sugiuchi may also return to the fold after missing last season with injuries.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
2016: 69-71-3 (3rd)
The BayStars finally reached the Climax Series last year. Now they’re hungry for an encore.
Everything at the plate starts with Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who is perhaps the premier cleanup hitter in Japan, after finishing 2016 with a .322 average and 44 homers. The BayStars will need a better season out of Jose Lopez in front of him and also hope that Takayuki Kajitani produces. As always, playing in Yokohama Stadium, the best hitters’ park in Japan, will help.
Although the downside to playing in the best hitters’ park is that your pitchers have to pitch there. The BayStars’ staff ranked fifth in the CL with a 3.76 team ERA in 2016. Kenta Ishida and Shota Imanaga are good, young talents and Shoichi Ino and Yasutomo Kubo are decent veteran options. Still, a staff that didn’t have a ton of options to begin with, will also deal with the loss of Shun Yamaguchi to Yomiuri. Manager Alex Ramirez is hoping rookie Haruhiro Hamaguchi, the team’s top draft pick, is part of the solution, saying the 22-year-old had the ability to reach 10 wins this season.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Part of the Swallows’ slogan for the year is “snap out of it 2017.” Perhaps that refers to snapping out of the funk that saw the team drop from reigning pennant winner to fifth-place finisher last season.
The offense, at least, doesn’t need to snap out of anything. The Birds have maybe Japan’s best hitter in Tetsuto Yamada and one of its top sluggers in Wladimir Balentien, who tore it up at the WBC, powering the offense. The Swallows put 594 runs on the board last season and probably have enough talent among the above-named pair, Shingo Kawabata, Yuhei Takai, Tomotaka Sakaguchi and the other usual suspects to throw up a big number in 2017 as well.
The problem is they might have to in order to win a lot.
Of the three pitchers to throw more than 100 innings last year, Hirofumi Yamanaka’s 3.54 ERA was the best. Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa and Masanori Ishikawa, ostensibly the top two pitchers, finished at 4.50 and 4.47, respectively. Those two especially will have to pitch better, but the entire staff, and newcomer Ross Ohlendorf will have to step things up. If the Birds get halfway decent pitching, they’re a threat, otherwise, they’ll probably stay in the lower-half of the league.
The Dragons have four-straight B-Class finishes and are trying to avoid a fifth after hitting rock bottom in the league last season.
Unfortunately for the Nagoya faithful, the Dragons will be trying to do that with mostly the same cast of characters. Yohei Oshima is a capable leadoff option, while Dayan Viciedo and Ryosuke Hirata can supply some power. Chunichi doesn’t seem to have much else going for it offensively, and it might take a few career years from a couple players to get the engine going.
Yudai Ono is the top returning pitcher, and Kazuki Yoshimi has hit high notes in the past. Shunta Wakamatsu and Raul Valdes were mostly average, and the team will need far more than that to climb out of last place. Shinnosuke Ogasawara got his feet wet as a rookie, and a promising second year would at least light a fire for the future if the present ends up being more of the same.