Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

Lions need Imai to step up with Kikuchi gone

by Jason Coskrey

Yusei Kikuchi, as Japanese fans can easily see on news reports every night and also on the internet and in newspapers, is doing just fine so far in his first MLB spring training with the Seattle Mariners.

But while everyone watches Kikuchi move on from Japanese baseball, there is another side to the story. Namely, how the Seibu Lions will move on from Kikuchi as they try to defend Pacific League title.

Pitching was already the soft spot for the Lions. The club brought up the rear in the Pacific League in 2018 with a 4.24 overall ERA. Seibu’s starters were fifth in the league at 4.17 and the bullpen was sixth at 4.38.

That was with Kikuchi, who was 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA. Now Seibu has to forge ahead without him, leaving a sizable hole in a ship that was already sinking.

Shinsaburo Tawata will enter the year with the pressure of being considered the staff’s top pitcher after winning 16 games and pitching 172⅔ innings with a 3.81 ERA and 3.65 fielding independent pitching last season. Tawata jumped from throwing 98⅔ innings in his first season and 96⅔ in 2017 to last year’s workload. So it will be interesting to see what he manages for a encore.

But even more than Tawata, the Lions may be counting on Tatsuya Imai to have a similar breakthrough this season.

Imai was taken in the first round of the 2016 draft, a year after Tawata went in the same spot, and the Lions need him to start to living up to that potential.

Pitching coach Fumiya Nishiguchi, who won the 1997 Sawamura Award with Seibu, says the 20-year-old right-hander has the tools to be an ace. Hisanobu Watanabe, the team’s GM and a former Lions pitcher himself, told the Nishinippon Shimbun Imai will have to be able to be consistent with a fastball in the mid-140s. Also that he has to be effective with breaking balls in the way Takayuki Kishi, a former Lions ace now with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, has been during his career.

It may help the young hurler to have Tetsuya Utsumi coming on board this year after being claimed by the Lions as compensation for the Yomiuri Giants’ signing of catcher Ginjiro Sumitani in free agency. The 36-year-old Utsumi has been around the block and won championships and his experience could prove to be a valuable resource.

The heavy lifting, though, will be up to Imai. He was 5-5 with a 4.81 ERA and 4.65 fielding independent pitching in 78⅔ innings in 2018. He struck out 65 and walked 35.

Imai and Tawata are set up to be the Lions’ future, but the team might need them to have an impact on the present. Tawata showed what he was capable of last year, now the ball’s in Imai’s court.

He threw two innings in the team’s first intrasquad game of the year on Friday at spring camp, earning a positive review from catcher Tomoya Mori. Imai needs still needs polish, but he should get every chance to get prepared as the Lions nudge him forward this spring.

Seibu will have other arms in the rotation, possibly including veterans Utsumi, Daiki Enokida and Ken Togame. But it’s Imai who has the highest ceiling at this point in their careers and will be the pitcher to watch. A breakout year by him would be a big boost to Seibu’s starting rotation.

The Lions’ offense may not reach 2018’s heights, especially with Hideto Asamura having departed in free agency, so more could be asked of the starting pitchers. Outside of Kikuchi and Tawata, they didn’t collectively pull their weight last season.

Now with Kikuchi gone someone needs to step up, and Imai could be a prime candidate to help lead the charge from the mound.