Baseball / Japanese Baseball | Sac Bunts

New pieces present Marines with chance to alter fortunes

by Jason Coskrey

The Chiba Lotte Marines have gotten a makeover.

While the Marines may have missed out on the postseason this year (Lotte was fourth in the Pacific League), they haven’t been idle during the offseason.

There have been some changes to the team since the final out of 2019 that should make for an interesting year at Zozo Marine Stadium next season.

One of the biggest was finalized Saturday, when the club inked its top draft pick, pitcher Roki Sasaki, to a contract.

“I’m entering the tough world of the pros and I want to try to get better everyday,” Sasaki said. “I’m going to do my best.”

In addition to Sasaki (and the rest of their draft picks), the Marines also added free agent pitcher Manabu Mima, a former Japan Series MVP, and outfielder Shuhei Fukuda.

Japanese offseasons are not nearly as active as MLB’s hot stove season. So those two represent a veritable haul for Lotte, which signed two free agents in the same offseason for the first time since the system was introduced in 1993.

Of course, the news hasn’t been all good. All-everything team captain Daichi Suzuki left for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in free agency and pitcher Mike Bolsinger was not retained.

Of the incoming players, Sasaki is the biggest curiosity.

He became a sensation after his fastball was clocked at 163 kph during a national team camp, with even MLB scouts checking out the former Ofunato (Iwate prefecture) High School right-hander. He was named as the top pick by four teams during the draft, with Lotte winning a lottery for his rights.

The excitement around the young pitcher is enormous — his signing was broadcast on television — and all eyes will be on him the moment he steps into camp.

Fukuda is also an interesting addition.

He’s mostly been a backup in nine seasons with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, but his potential made him the most sought-after free agent of the offseason.

He’s just a .235 career hitter in 1,087 at-bats, but the thought is he could thrive if given room and playing time. With SoftBank, which is loaded with talent, Fukuda only had two seasons with at least 100 games played and never had more than 244 plate appearances.

Fukuda has shown flashes of potential and he was good in his role with SoftBank. If he lives up to expectations, his signing is a major coup.

It was an interesting outcome, at least.

The club already has Takashi Ogino, who hit .315 with 10 homers and 28 stolen bases and won a Golden Glove, in center and are also bringing back Leonys Martin, and his cannon arm, to probably play right.

Fukuda could squeeze out Katsuya Kakunaka for playing time. Or he could end up sharing the load or being a backup again. That was essentially what he did with the Hawks, except that job came with an above-average chance to win championships.

Meanwhile, Mima has been solid, but mostly unspectacular, since debuting with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2011. He has a career 3.82 ERA and 1.82 WHIP. He’s 51-60 overall.

The Marines don’t really have an ace. Mima, perhaps, could add some much-needed stability to the rotation and veteran guidance to younger pitchers like Kota Futaki, Chihaya Sasaki and especially the new rookie fireballer.

Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi has been given some new toys to play with next season. It should be interesting to see how he pieces everything together in hopes of engineering a new outcome on the diamond.