Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Giants go on offseason flurry in effort to revive glory days

by Jason Coskrey

The Yomiuri Giants are often referred to as Japan’s answer to the New York Yankees — the “Evil Empire” version of the Bronx Bombers anyway — and the offseason they’ve had makes it easy to see why.

After finishing a fourth straight season without winning at least the Central League pennant — tantamount to crisis in the gilded halls of Tokyo Dome — Yomiuri went on an old-school shopping spree.

Over the winter, the Giants not only signed former Hiroshima Carp outfielder Yoshihiro Maru, the two-time reigning CL MVP and crown jewel of the free-agent market, but also reeled in pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, a former Pacific League MVP and most recently of the Seattle Mariners organization, and infielder Hiroyuki Nakajima, another former multiple-time All-Star. The team also added depth at catcher by signing former Seibu Lions backstop Ginjiro Sumitani as a free agent.

In terms of new foreign muscle, the Giants added former San Diego Padres infielder Christian Villanueva, only a year after signing slugger Alex Guerrero away from the Chunichi Dragons, and Mariners pitcher Ryan Cook.

“We’ve had a lot of new players join us,” shortstop Hayato Sakamoto told Sankei Sports on Friday. “The veterans and the young players, everyone, we all want to be moving in the same direction.”

The Kyojin have plenty of style, but it will take substance to claim the title.

The Giants won the offseason in terms of name recognition, but they only hand out titles based on what you do on the field. It’s not enough to roll out players with impressive resumes. Those guys have to live up to the hype.

The Carp are dented by the loss of Maru, but they’re not dead by any means. In fact, the three-time reigning CL champions raided the Giants for outfielder Hisayoshi Chono as free-agent compensation for Maru. That’s without taking into consideration the offseason adjustments the rest of the league has made.

Maru has hit over .300 with at least 20 homers and 90 RBIs each of the last two seasons and figures to be a big addition. But Iwakuma at 37-years-old and coming off an injury-plagued year and Nakajima, 36, are bigger question marks. Adding Sumitani as a free agent also hurt the team’s pitching depth, since Seibu claimed lefty Tetsuya Utsumi as compensation.

Then there are the first-year foreign players, who will have to adapt to baseball in Japan. It also remains to be seen how Kazuma Okamoto responds after a breakout 2018, when he hit .309 with 33 homers in 143 games (after never playing more than 17).

Recent history, at least, is on Yomiuri’s side.

This isn’t the first time the Giants have launched a get-rich-quick scheme.

Manager Tatsunori Hara left the team during the 2003 offseason after guiding Yomiuri to the CL and Japan Series titles in 2002 and finishing third in 2003. Yomiuri finished third and fifth the next two seasons before bringing Hara back.

After a fourth-place finish in 2006, and a fourth year without a pennant, the Kyojin signed Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara and won the 2007 pennant. The year after, the club signed the free-agent trio of slugger Alex Ramirez, starting pitcher Seth Greisinger and closer Marc Kroon, winning the next two pennants and adding a Japan Series title in 2009.

Now the Giants are counting on history repeating itself, coincidentally with Hara back at the helm after Yoshinobu Takahashi stepped down at the end of 2018.

“The atmosphere has changed to the extent that we’ve brought in players with proven track records,” Sakamoto said. “A lot of good players have joined.”

The challenge now is to bring them all together in time to look as good on the field as their names look on paper.