The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2019 Pacific League.
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Manager: Kimiyasu Kudo
2018 record: 82-60-1 (2nd)
The Hawks usually look like the best team on paper this time of year and 2019 is no different.
SoftBank has the best player in the PL in Yuki Yanagita, who hit .352 with 36 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 2018, and one of the league’s fastest-rising stars in outfielder Seiji Uebayashi, who hit .270 with 22 homers.
Seiichi Uchikawa and Nobuhiro Matsuda are beginning to show their age, but are still playing at a high enough level, especially 35-year-old Matsuda, who had 32 homers last season and has hit at least 24 every year since 2015.
Kodai Senga is the ace on the mound, and there are a wealth of options behind him. The Hawks will also hope Nao Higashihama looks more like he did during the second half of 2018 (6-0, 1.75) than during the first (1-5, 4.88).
Closer Dennis Sarfate, the 2017 PL MVP, had a setback with the hip injury that kept him out virtually all of last season and won’t be ready for Opening Day. So it may be up to Yuito Mori, who led the PL with 37 saves (tied for most in NPB) while the “King of Closers” was on the mend last year, to handle the duties again.
The Hawks have won the last two Japan Series and have a shot at becoming the first team since the 1990-92 Seibu Lions to three-peat.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
2018 record: 74-66-3 (3rd)
The Fighters found themselves right in the middle of the Pa League last season, finishing seven games behind the second-place Hawks and eight ahead of the fourth-place Buffaloes.
The pitching staff will get a boost if free-agent signing Chihiro Kaneko, who dominated the Oakland A’s in an exhibition earlier in the month, is healthier than he was during his last few seasons with Orix. If he is, and Naoyuki Uwasawa (11-6, 3.16 ERA) and Nick Martinez (10-11, 3.51) can replicate their performances or go up a notch or two, the Fighters could be really good.
Yuki Saito made a push for a rotation spot during the spring and Kohei Arihara should be motivated to better the 4.55 ERA he posted last year.
Nippon Ham has a good mix of players like Haruki Nishikawa, who stole 44 bases last year, Kensuke Kondo, who can do a little of everything (he could use a little more power) and slugger Sho Nakata, who drove in 106 runs.
Another positive is Taishi Ota finally started to look like the player the Yomiuri Giants thought they were drafting in 2008, hitting .274 with 14 homers in 2018. While the Fighters lost Brandon Laird, the club added Taiwanese slugger Wang Po-jung to provide some pop in the lineup alongside the original “Sho Time.”
Chiba Lotte Marines
Manager: Tadahito Iguchi
2018 record: 59-81-3 (5th)
To say the Marines lacked power a year ago is like saying an ocean is just a little deep.
Lotte hit 78 round-trippers in 2018, by far the fewest in the PL. Orix hit the next fewest and had 108.
Seiya Inoue, who hit 24 homers, was the lone slugging threat in last year’s lineup but will be joined by newcomers Brandon Laird, who hit 26 for the Fighters last year, and Kennys Vargas, who is in his first year in Japan.
The fences have also been moved in at Zozo Marine Stadium, creating a “Home Run Lagoon” that may turn some 2018 fly balls into 2019 home runs.
Of course, the flipside is that your pitchers have to pitch there.
Mike Bolsinger got his NPB career off to an electric start (13-2, 3.06 ERA) and will compete alongside Ayumu Ishikawa and veteran Hideaki Wakui.
That could be a solid trio, but Yuki Ariyoshi and Kota Futaki also making a leap forward would be a game-changer. The club also added Brandon Mann.
With a little more offense and more than one good pitcher, the Marines could have an interesting year.
Saitama Seibu Lions
Manager: Hatsuhiko Tsuji
2018 record: 88-53-2 (1st)
It seemed as if the Lions barely had time to celebrate winning the pennant before lefty ace Yusei Kikuchi was off to the Seattle Mariners and second baseman Hideto Asamura was signing with Rakuten.
The ship was sinking on the mound with Kikuchi, so his absence can’t be good. Although last season’s bloated 4.24 team ERA was the anomaly among Seibu’s past five seasons, the previous worst being 3.85 in 2016.
Shinsaburo Tawata will try to build off a breakout 2018 that saw him finish 16-5 with a 3.81 ERA in 172⅔ innings.
But the Lions may have to lean heavily on youth and will hope to see similar gains from 20-year-old Tatsuya Imai and 22-year-old Kona Takahashi. Though Seibu also acquired veteran lefty Tetsuya Utsumi from the Yomiuri Giants as compensation when the Kyojin signed free agent catcher Ginjiro Sumitani.
Offense was a strength last season and the team can still count on Hotaka Yamakawa, who hit 47 homers and is aiming for 50, all-around star Shogo Akiyama, Takeya Nakamura and Tomoya Mori in the lineup. Shuta Tonosaki isn’t close to Asamura at the plate, but he’s a better fielder and baserunner and is a solid player.
The Lions scored 102 more runs and hit 43 more homers in 2018 than in any season since 2014. So it’s fair to wonder if they regress from last’s year’s 792-run behemoth and, more importantly considering their pitchers, by how much.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Manager: Yosuke Hiraishi
2018 record: 58-82-3 (6th)
The Eagles’ season took a hit before getting started with ace Takahiro Norimoto needing elbow surgery and expected to miss about four months. That put a damper on what had looked like a pretty good offseason.
Rakuten set about improving the league’s worst offense with the signing of free agent Hideto Asamura, who is coming off a 32-homer, 127-RBI year. Rakuten also made what it hopes to be a shrewd signing in former Los Angeles Angels player Jabari Blash, who hit .317 with 29 homers in 83 games for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees.
On the mound, Takayuki Kishi slides into the ace role with Norimoto out. What’s worrisome, tough, is that the ranks are thin behind him if players such as Wataru Karashima and Manabu Mima can’t string together consistent performances.
Manager: Norifumi Nishimura
2018 record: 65-73-5 (4th)
The first job for new manager Norifumi Nishimura is filling the hole left by departed pitchers Yuki Nishi and Chihiro Kaneko.
On the plus side, Andrew Albers is back after going 9-2 with a 3.08 ERA over 114 innings in his first NPB season, and maybe Taisuke Yamaoka is ready to show some ace potential.
Daiki Tomei, Daiki Tajima, Tsubasa Sakakibara and import Tyler Eppler may also be in the mix.
Even with bats like Masataka Yoshida (.321 and 26 homers) and Stefen Romero (25 homers), Orix didn’t do a lot at the plate last season ranking fourth in runs scored. The Buffs will be counting on new addition Joey Meneses to add more logs to the fire and Takahiro Okada to have a bounce back season.
Orix has the pieces, the team just needs someone to solve the puzzle.