Baseball / Japanese Baseball | NPB Preview

Central League clubs enter 2019 hoping to dethrone Carp

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The following is the last of a two-part NPB preview ending with the 2019 Central League.

In order of predicted finish:

Yomiuri Giants

Manager: Tatsunori Hara

2018 record: 67-71-5 (3rd)

Yomiuri skipper Tatsunori Hara, back for a third stint with the team, has a roster with plenty of big names and will be expected to deliver a pennant to the fans at Tokyo Dome.

He’s going to have some combo of Yoshihiro Maru, the two-time reigning MVP, who the club signed in free agency from Hiroshima, and Hayato Sakamoto forming a potentially dynamic duo as the Nos. 2 and 3 spots in the order. Factor in cleanup man Kazuma Okamoto, who had a breakout 2018 with a .309 average and 33 homers, and the Giants could be a nightmare for opposing pitchers.

That’s even before getting to 2017 CL home run king Alex Guerrero or outfielders Daikan Yoh and Yoshiyuki Kamei. The Kyojin also signed Hiroyuki Nakajima and former San Diego Padres infielder Christian Villanueva.

Ace Tomoyuki Sugano, winner of the last two Sawamura Awards, is Japan’s best pitcher and there are solid arms behind him in Shun Yamaguchi and lefty Kazuto Taguchi, who’ll try to bounce back from a subpar 2018. Hirokazu Sawamura may also get a look and Hisashi Iwakuma should be ready to go at some point.

The Giants won the offseason. Now they may have the pieces to win the real thing.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp

Manager: Koichi Ogata

2018 record: 82-59-2 (1st)

There hasn’t been a four-peat in the Central League since the days of the V9 Giants, but the Carp have a chance this year.

Hiroshima lost center fielder Yoshihiro Maru to the Giants in free agency, but claimed a nice player in Hisayoshi Chono as compensation. Plus, Seiya Suzuki is still around and coming off a 6.3-WAR, 30-homer season.

Ryuhei Matsuyama, who chose to stay, has driven in at least 74 runs the last two seasons, while Takayoshi Noma will help fill the Maru-shaped hole in the outfield. The Carp also have depth in other places.

Pitcher Daichi Osera made a big jump last season, winning 15 games and finishing with a 2.62 ERA in 182 innings. The Carp have two more top-shelf pitchers in Kris Johnson and Yusuke Nomura, while young lefty Hiroki Tokoda and Akitake Okada could just add to manager Koichi Ogata’s riches.

Hiroshima lost a good reliever in Jay Jackson, but retained fireballer Geronimo Franzua and added former New York Met Kyle Regnault.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows

Manager: Junji Ogawa

2018 record: 75-66-2 (2nd)

Scoring might not be much of a problem for Yakult, which has bats almost everywhere.

Tetsuto Yamada is coming off yet another Triple 3 season, having hit .315 with 34 homers and 33 stolen bases, and Wladimir Balentien remains one of NPB’s premier home run hitters with 38 to his credit in 2018.

Add to them Norichika Aoki, who hit .327 and had an .884 OPS in his first year back in Japan, slugging youngster Munetaka Murakami and Yuhei Takai, who quietly hit .318 a year ago, and Yakult can do damage.

The problem is the Swallows starters brought up the rear in the CL with a 4.32 ERA. David Buchanan, who was 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA in 174 innings, was the only Yakult pitcher to throw more than 110 frames.

Yasuhiro Ogawa and Juri Hara could definitely push the Swallows in the right direction and the team also traded for former Pacific League Rookie of the Year Hirotoshi Takanashi.

Even with their pitching woes, the Swallows still finished second and could be in the hunt again with a little better production on the mound.

Hanshin Tigers

Manager: Akihiro Yano

2018 record: 62-79-2 (6th)

The name of the game for the Tigers is scoring more runs to support what might be one of the CL’s better pitching staffs.

Manager Akihiro Yano and Co. hope newcomer Jefry Marte can help on that front and that NPB teams don’t figure him out the way MLB clubs did toward the end of his tenure with the Los Angeles Angels. The team also has high expectations for Yusuke Oyama, who hit four homers during the spring. Hanshin could use some more of that — preferably without the .224 average — from the 24-year-old in the games that count.

Vets Kosuke Fukudome and Yoshio Itoi, who’ll turn 42 and 38, respectively, this year, will try to keep outrunning Father Time, while rookies Koji Chikamoto and Seiya Kinami built momentum with good springs.

The newly Japanese (for NPB purposes) Randy Messenger heads a rotation that plucked a pair of quality arms off the free-agent market in Onelki Garcia, 13-9 with a 2.99 ERA for Chunichi in 2018, and Yuki Nishi, 10-13 with a 3.60 ERA for Orix. There’s also always the possibility Hanshin figures out what’s wrong with Shintaro Fujinami.

The Tigers might be able to keep the runs against them at managable levels, but they’ll need to score more themselves.

Yokohama DeNA BayStars

Manager: Alex Ramirez

2018 record: 67-74-2 (4th)

The BayStars hit a lot of home runs last year — a CL best 181 — but didn’t score a lot of actual runs, bringing up the rear with 572.

They were the worst NPB team at drawing walks and also the worst in Japan at hitting with runners in scoring position.

Manager Alex Ramirez has some real firepower at his disposal, with Neftali Soto (a league-best 41 homers), Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (38), Jose Lopez (26) and Toshiro Miyazaki (28 with a .318 average) packed into one lineup. The challenge is to produce runs when the balls aren’t flying out of the park.

The BayStars worked their bullpen to the bone in 2018, with Yokohama relievers leading Japan with 513 innings pitched.

So one of the first orders of business for new pitching coach Daisuke Miura is turning around southpaw starters Haruhiro Hamaguchi, Shota Imanaga and Kenta Ishida, who all slumped after solid 2017 campaigns.

Rookie right-hander Taiga Kamichatani might get thrown in the mix early and can follow the example set by 2018 Rookie of the Year Katsuki Azuma, who was 11-5 with a 2.45 ERA in 2018.

In the bullpen, Spencer Patton and closer Yasuaki Yamasaki are the linchpins of a unit hoping for a lighter load in 2019.

Chunichi Dragons

Manager: Tsuyoshi Yoda

2018 record: 63-78-2 (5th)

Manager Tsuyoshi Yoda has quite the challenge ahead of him in his first year in charge.

The Dragons hit OK as a team last season but had trouble on the scoreboard. They were tied for last in the CL in stolen bases, though Yohei Oshima and Yota Kyoda had 21 and 20, respectively.

Ryosuke Hirata, Dayan Viciedo and Zoilo Almonte are all productive hitters, but the Dragons just need them to do what they do best more consistently with runners on base.

The best pitcher the team had in 2018, Garcia, plays for Hanshin now, which is a problem for a unit in need of improvement.

So the team needs anyone, be it Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Kazuki Yoshimi or Shotaro Kasahara, or someone else, to step up and set the tone.

It’s likely rookie Akira Neo, and not the pennant race, is still the talk of Nagoya at the end of the season for a team that might be laying the foundation for later years.