Generous Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters fans gathered at Sapporo Dome on Christmas Day to put a bow on the present they spent the last five seasons wrapping, one the Los Angeles Angels can’t wait to open during spring training.
The MLB-bound Shohei Ohtani said his final goodbyes in Hokkaido on Monday night, bidding farewell to Fighters fans in the same venue Yu Darvish used for the same purpose on his way to the majors in 2011.
Ohtani also leaves the same questions in his wake as Darvish did back then (the difference being Ohtani must be replaced both on the mound and at the plate). Namely, where do the Fighters go from here?
As much as Ohtani’s presence will be missed in the lineup, not to mention by the team’s marketing department, the pitching staff takes a huge hit without him.
Even though he missed virtually all of 2017 (as a pitcher) due to injury, fans could console themselves with the thought at least Ohtani might be back next year.
Now they know he won’t be. For that matter, neither will starter Luis Mendoza, who was released, All-Star reliever Hirotoshi Masui, now of the Orix Buffaloes, or new Texas Rangers pitcher Chris Martin.
So the Fighters will enter the spring looking for pitchers to step up and help fill the void.
A lot of the pressure, at least at the outset, will probably fall on Kohei Arihara. The 25-year-old righty is the only pitcher to have thrown at least 100 innings for Nippon Ham in each of the last three seasons, although Mendoza missed joining that club by a third of an inning last season.
Arihara will also be trying to bounce back from a difficult season that saw him post a 4.32 ERA and 4.50 fielding independent pitching average in 169 innings. That was a steep drop-off from a solid 2016 that saw him throw 13 fewer innings, yet finish with more strikeouts (103 to 88) one fewer walk and a much lower 2.94 ERA.
Arihara was the only qualified pitcher on the team last season. Only two others, Takayuki Kato and Hirotoshi Takanashi, cracked the 100-inning mark. Kato threw 120 innings and finished 6-6 with a 3.53 ERA. Takanashi, the Pacific League Rookie of the Year in 2016, was 7-7 with a 3.68 ERA in 117⅓ frames. Next was Mendoza, who threw 99⅔ innings, and then Naoyuki Uwasawa, who was 4-9 with a 3.44 ERA across 91⅔ innings.
Arihara, Kato and Takanashi have to step up and lead the charge. To do that, they need to produce much more than they did in 2017.
The team also signed former Padres farmhand Bryan Rodriguez earlier this month and is hoping he can break into the rotation. Toshihiro Sugiura has also begun throwing again, and perhaps he can be ready to contribute next season.
The Fighters also have other returning pitchers on the roster, and Yuki Saito will undoubtedly get another chance.
What manager Hideki Kuriyama has to find out is whether he has players who can aid the rotation, not just arms to fill it out, without the security of Ohtani’s turn coming back around every week.
After Darvish left, Mitsuo Yoshikawa caught lightning in a bottle and had an MVP season, going 14-5 with a 1.71 ERA and leading the team to the Japan Series.
Yoshikawa was a perfect storm. He didn’t have great numbers, so one saw him coming in 2012, and for the most part no one has seen him since.
Perhaps someone on the current roster will have a breakout year in 2018, but its more likely the Fighters don’t get that lucky again.
It’s going to take improvement across the board — actually they were going to need that anyway — to make up difference with Ohtani in Los Angeles.
Which is probably what a lot of fans at Sapporo Dome Monday already had on their Christmas lists.