The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2018 Pacific League.

In order of predicted finish:

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks

Last season: 94-49 (1st)

The reigning Pacific League and Japan Series champions return with most of the pieces intact from the 2017 squad that won the PL pennant by 13½ games.

The Hawks feature the usual assortment of All-Star hitters, from Yuki Yanagita and Nobuhiro Matsuda to Akira Nakamura and PL home run king Alfredo Despaigne. An offense that produced 638 runs last year also gets back infielder Seiichi Uchikawa, who was limited to 73 games in 2017 due to injures.

Shortstop Kenta Imamiya could play a big part in keeping the engine running smoothly. Imamiya is skilled at advancing runners with sacrifice bunts, but a .264/.317/.422 slash line with 14 home runs in 2017 shows he can do more with his bat when manager Kimiyasu Kudo gives him the chance.

SoftBank had one of the better starting rotations in NPB in 2017 even mostly without Shota Takeda and Tsuyoshi Wada, who combined for just 20 starts because of injuries.

Kodai Senga, who won 13 games and posted a 2.64 ERA in 143 innings, is a force on the mound — when he’s healthy — and 16-game winner Nao Higashihama could possibly return even better this year. Dutchman Rik van den Hurk will also feature, and if either Shuta Ishikawa or Seigi Tanaka steps up, then the rich get richer.

That’s all without mentioning the best bullpen in the league, at the end of which sits the “King of Closers,” reigning PL MVP Dennis Sarfate.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Last season: 77-63-3 (3rd)

No one questions Takahiro Norimoto’s status as Rakuten’s best pitcher, but Shoma Fujihira might be the most important piece of the rotation.

Norimoto (15-7, 2.57 ERA in 2017), Takayuki Kishi (8-10, 2.76) and Manabu Mima (11-8, 3.26) were a solid trio for manager Masataka Nashida last season. If Fujihira, a second-year righty who spent his offseason training with Norimoto and former Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka, can make the leap and turn the trio into a foursome, things will be looking up in Sendai, especially if the team gets at least average production from the other spots in the rotation.

Lefty reliever Yuki Matsui is coming off a 33-save season and leads a bullpen that was good last year and will probably play a big role in whichever way the season turns out.

Offensively, Nashida has a wealth of foreign muscle at his disposal in Carlos Peguero, Zelous Wheeler and Japhet Amador, who all hit over 20 homers in 2017. The Eagles also have solid hitters in Ginji Akaminai and Eigoro Mogi, two of the players who’ll have to help pick up the slack when the power is switched off.

Rakuten’s most dynamic player could be third-year outfielder Louis Okoye, if the 20-year-old begins to tap into his potential at the plate, and in the field.

Orix Buffaloes

Last season: 63-79-1 (4th)

On a staff featuring a former Sawamura Award winner in Chihiro Kaneko and a three-time All-Star in Yuki Nishi, the pitcher to watch could be second-year righty Taisuke Yamaoka.

The 22-year-old was good in 2017 and had a productive spring. He could give the Buffs a solid pitching foursome, assuming Nishi bounces back from an off year and Brandon Dickson continues to pitch well.

Losing closer Yoshihisa Hirano to the majors weakens the bullpen, but adding Hirotoshi Masui, who had 27 saves for the Fighters last season, softens the blow somewhat.

Still, manager Junichi Fukura will be counting on his relievers to step it up across the board.

Third-year outfielder Masataka Yoshida is the man to watch offensively. The 24-year-old had a .311/.410/.518 slash line with 12 homers in 64 games last season. Yoshida is looking to have a breakout year and wants to reach 30 homers. Even if he only gets about 60 percent of the way there, imagine that alongside the potential slugging prowess of Takehiro Okada (31 home runs in 2017), Stefen Romero (26), and Chris Marrero (20).

That would be an offense that could cause problems. On the other hand, it’d also be a group that might be a little boom or bust, unless they get the guys around the big boppers, such as Eiichi Koyano, Hiroyuki Nakajima, and whoever wins the battle to hit leadoff, to do a better job of getting on base and hitting for average.

Saitama Seibu Lions

Last season: 79-61-3 (2nd)

The Lions head into battle behind ace Yusei Kikuchi, who is coming off a year in which he was either the best pitcher in Japan, or No. 2 or No. 3, depending on who you were speaking to at the time.

With Ryoma Nogami leaving for the Yomiuri Giants in free agency, however, the Seibu pitching staff has a hole to fill. Brian Wolfe provides a solid veteran presence, but the onus will be on Ken Togame and especially youngster Shinsaburo Tawata to step up. Newcomer Fabio Castillo likely fits in somewhere as well. The team also landed former Yomiuri right-hander Hayato Takagi as a surprisingly solid compensation pick for Nogami.

Backing up the starters is a bullpen that was mostly average last season and will be without Kazuhisa Makita and Brian Schlitter, who are both in North America now.

Offensively, Seibu can bludgeon teams with a lineup including Shogo Akiyama, Hotaka Yamakawa and Takeya Nakamura, who each went over 20 homers in 2017, and also Hideto Asamura and Ernesto Mejia, who both hit 19. There could be even more power if Tomoya Mori catches regularly.

They’ve also got plenty of base-stealing skills in Sosuke Genda, who stole 37 bases last year, as well as Yuji Kaneko and Shuta Tonosaki, who both stole over 20 and even Akiyama, who stole 16.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters

Last season: 60-83 (5th)

The Fighters lost Shohei Ohtani’s bat, but the 2016 champions get back a healthy Kensuke Kondo.

Kondo was limited to 57 games last season because of a hernia but hit .413 during that span and should give the offense a boost.

Brandon Laird returns after back-to-back 30-homer seasons and the team added free agent Oswaldo Arcia, who hit 44 homers in MLB from 2013-16. What the Fighters really need is for Sho Nakata to break free of whatever funk he was in last season, when he hit just .216 with 16 home runs, and for Haruki Nishikawa, who hit .296 and racked up 39 stolen bases, to keep doing what he’s been doing.

Nippon Ham’s starters posted the worst ERA (4.21) in the Pacific League in 2017. Needless to say, all of the starters have to perform better, beginning with Kohei Arihara, who is coming off the worst of his three pro seasons having gone 10-13 with a 4.74 ERA last season. Former Texas Ranger Nick Martinez could be one answer in the rotation for manager Hideki Kuriyama.

The team also lost closer Hirotoshi Masui, with first-year foreign player Michael Tonkin perhaps stepping into that role.

Chiba Lotte Marines

Last season: 54-87-2 (6th)

The most exciting member of the 2017 Marines was newest mascot the Mysterious Fish, which is bad. The Marines had the worst offense and worst pitching staff in the league last season and finished with a -168 run differential. Also bad.

So expecting new manager Tadahito Iguchi, who is going straight from the field to the dugout, to turn it around in one season is asking a lot.

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. The team has as a trio of young pitchers to be excited about in 23-year-old Kota Futaki, a fourth-year right-hander about ready to break out, Tomohito Sakai, a 23-year-old second-year righty, and Chihaya Sasaki, a right-hander also in his second season. Those three could be the future. For now, they’ll follow the lead of veteran Hideaki Wakui and Ayumu Ishikawa.

At the plate, the light-hitting Marines desperately need hefty infielder Seiya Inoue to hit like he does in the minors and for newcomer Matt Dominguez to also put up numbers. Takashi Ogino, Taiga Hirasawa and Shogo Nakamura all had good springs, which is a positive sign for a lineup that can use all the help it can get.

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