The following is the second of a two-part NPB preview concluding with the 2018 Central League.
In order of predicted finish:
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Last season: 88-51-4 (1st)
Manager Koichi Ogata has the keys to an offense that put up 736 runs in 2017, led the CL in almost every category and can run and hit for both average and power.
Reigning CL MVP Yoshihiro Maru and fellow outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who is returning from an ankle injury, are two of the top position players in Japan, and shortstop Kensuke Tanaka and second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi are a formidable combination at the top of the order, each able to do damage with their bats and their legs. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re all very good fielders as well.
Brad Eldred and Xavier Batista can bring the power and Hiroshima may have unearthed another gem in Alejandro Mejia, who tore through the spring with a .300 average and four homers in 14 games.
Hiroshima’s starters finished third in the league with a 3.71 ERA, but that was with 2016 Sawamura Award winner Kris Johnson limited to only 13 starts and 76⅓ innings. If Johnson is back to his form from 2015 and 2016, he, Yusuke Nomura and Kazuki Yabuta will help form a solid attack from the mound. The team will just need its bullpen to hold up.
Last season: 78-61-4 (2nd)
Wilin Rosario has the power to be a game changer after hitting 70 homers in South Korea over the past two seasons. Japanese pitchers will look to exploit his weakness to breaking balls, but if he hits, he’s an instant shot of offense for manager Tomoaki Kanemoto’s squad.
The same can be said of second-year infielder Yusuke Oyama, who many think is one of Japan’s future slugging stars. The Tigers will also have all-around maestro Yoshio Itoi in the lineup and can call on Kosuke Fukudome, who may still have some good swings left in his age-41 season, and Masahiro Nakatani, who had a slow spring but did hit 20 homers a year ago.
Randy Messenger (11-5, 2.39 ERA in 2017) is back as the No. 1 in a solid pitching rotation. Takumi Akiyama will look to build on his 12-6, 2.99 ERA performance in 2017, while Taiki Ono will aim to turn his productive spring outings into a good regular season.
Of course most fans will be watching to see if Shintaro Fujinami has finally ironed out his control problems, which, if he has, would propel the Tigers to another level.
Hanshin can also fall back on a good bullpen, especially Kentaro Kuwahara, Marcos Mateo and Rafael Dolis.
Last season: 72-68-3 (4th)
New acquisition Alex Guerrero won the 2017 home run title while playing for the Chunichi Dragons, meaning he played his home games in Japan’s worst park for home runs. So fans are understandably excited to see what kind of damage he could do at homer-friendly Tokyo Dome.
He’ll be playing alongside one of Japan’s best all-around players in shortstop Hayato Sakamoto and with Casey McGehee, who hit .315 last season. Kazuma Okamoto may have played his way into a job with a nice spring (.267 average and four homers in 17 games), but he’ll have to keep producing to keep it.
Manager Yoshinobu Takahashi can mostly breathe easy when he sends Tomoyuki Sugano, the reigning Sawamura Award winner, or lefty Kazuto Taguchi to the mound. The challenge for the rest of the pitchers will be adequately filling the void left by Miles Mikolas’ departure to MLB.
Shun Yamaguchi is back after a tumultuous first season with the team and has the talent to plug the hole by himself. The Kyojin also added former Seibu Lions righty Ryoma Nogami in free agency and hope second-year hurler Seishu Hatake, who gave Yomiuri some good innings last season, continues to develop.
The Giants also have decent bullpen arms in Scott Mathieson, Arquimedes Caminero and recently brought home former MLB-er Koji Uehara.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Last season: 73-65-5 (3rd)
Jose Lopez proved again in 2017 that he’s among the best in the CL, slashing .301/330/.533 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs, and could again form a devastating 1-2 punch with cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. Batting champion Toshiro Miyazaki, who hit .323 with 15 homers, could be lurking behind them as well.
Manager Alex Ramirez also wants to play more small ball this year, which puts the onus on Masayuki Kuwahara and Takayuki Kajitani to record hits, get on base, make smart decisions in the running game and help manufacture runs and scoring opportunities. Same applies to versatile free-agent addition Yamato Maeda, who came over from Hanshin.
Pitching has sometimes been an issue for the BayStars in recent seasons, and the staff as a whole was fourth in the CL with a 3.81 ERA last year. Yokohama Stadium is one of the better parks for offense in Japan, which adds another layer of difficulty for the Yokohama pitchers.
The BayStars could have lefties galore in their rotation with Kenta Ishida, Shota Imanaga and Haruhiro Hamaguchi back in the fold. Right-hander Joe Wieland, who was 10-2 with a 2.98 ERA in 21 starts, is another solid arm, and bat for that matter, for Ramirez.
In the bullpen, Spencer Patton and closer Yasuaki Yamasaki are good players, though getting to them could be an issue at times.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Last season: 45-96-2 (6th)
Injuries decimated the 2017 Swallows, who saw Shingo Kawabata, the CL batting champion in 2015, miss the entire season, Kazuhiro Hatakeyama miss virtually all of it and Yuhei Takai also left on the sidelines for a significant portion of a nightmare campaign.
That, coupled with a year in which Tetsuto Yamada wasn’t quite himself, helped send the Birds tumbling down the standings.
They’ll get those players back, and will also hope Yamada has broken out of his funk. Also back is favorite son Norichika Aoki, who spent 2012-17 in MLB and signed with the team over the winter. The 36-year-old star should still have plenty to contribute this season.
Wladimir Balentien returns with a bat that’s produced at least 30 home runs in all six seasons in which he’s played at least 100 games.
The Swallows may need all the offense they can get if their pitching staff, which was the worst in the CL last year, doesn’t improve.
David Buchanan, who had a very misleading 6-13 record, and Yasuhiro Ogawa are the team’s top two pitchers, and manager Junji Ogawa will probably take anything Yoshinori Sato can give him at this point as long as Sato stays healthy enough to give it.
But there still are far more questions than answers among the Yakult pitching corps, though third-year hurler Juri Hara looks to be developing into a nice player.
Last season: 59-79-5 (5th)
The Dragons finished fifth in the CL in runs scored (487) and home runs (111) in 2017, and their biggest source of offense, Alex Guerrero, who hit 35 homers and drove in 86 runs, plays for the Giants now.
Manager Shigekazu Mori really needs Dayan Viciedo and Nobumasa Fukuda to remain upright for the entire season, with both hitting 18 home runs after playing in just 87 and 95 games, respectively, last season. The same goes for slugger Ryosuke Hirata who played in 66 games and went deep six times.
Second-year shortstop Yota Kyoda and Yohei Oshima give the team a pair of good hitters who can also be effective on the basepaths. The Dragons aren’t without potential at the plate — everyone just needs to get going in the same direction.
Daisuke Matsuzaka will get the headlines among the Chunichi pitchers, but Dillon Gee, a veteran of eight MLB seasons, should by far be the more impactful newcomer. The team also has a nice young pitcher in Shinnosuke Ogasawara. Yudai Ono and reliever-turned-starter Katsuki Matayoshi could also eat some innings for a staff that needs a lot to go right.
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