Kazuhisa Ishii did not become the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ general manger in 2018 to just sit back and be idle.
The former NPB and MLB pitcher has been busy in his role as a mover and shaker in the Eagles’ front office. Busy doing what, however, is still up for interpretation.
Is Ishii putting together a winner, or is he creating a northeastern chapter of the Seibu Lions? Does he have a master plan for competing with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and the Lions in the Pacific League, or is the plan to surround himself with guys he used to play with?
Whether you consider Ishii a mad scientist or just mad, at least he hasn’t been boring.
In less than two full years on the job, Ishii has already attracted two high-profile free agents and jettisoned a manager who took the team to a third-place finish and reached the postseason this year.
If all this doesn’t work out, at least he’ll have some familiar faces to commiserate with.
Ishii landed infielder Hideto Asamura in free agency last offseason and Asamura has been as good advertised. The Eagles GM reeled in Kazuhisa Makita this offseason and just made a trade for pitcher Hideaki Wakui, who was introduced on Monday. Ishii played with all three during his time as a pitcher for the Lions.
Takayuki Kishi was already in Sendai when Ishii got there, but he’s another former Lions pitcher and played alongside Ishii and Wakui on the Seibu team that won the 2008 Japan Series.
It’s no wonder some netizens have jokingly dubbed the team the “Rakuten Lions.”
As for man replacing Yosuke Hiraishi, who took the club to the Climax Series in his only full year on the job, that would Hajime Miki, Ishii’s former Yakult Swallows teammate. Miki is also a former Eagles player who managed the Rakuten farm team to the Eastern League title this year.
Not all of the new Eagles are former Ishii teammates. He outmaneuvered the Yomiuri Giants for free agent infielder Daichi Suzuki early in the offseason. He also plucked 26-year-old pitcher Tomohito Sakai from the Chiba Lotte Marines’ roster as compensation for Lotte signing pitcher Manabu Mima in free agency.
So, are the Eagles better than they were this time last year?
Ishii’s vision may include a healthy dose of former teammates, but it doesn’t mean it won’t work. Asamura, for one, is already one of the best players in Japan.
As for the new players, it’s more wait and see. Wakui could eat up innings and replace some of the depth Mima provided behind ace Takahiro Norimoto and Kishi. That’s in a starting rotation that may also be adding Yuki Matsui in 2020.
“Of course I want to be a starter, but first of all I have to win the battle at the position,” Wakui said at his introductory news conference on Monday.
Makita is back in Japan after spending 2018 with the San Diego Padres and 2019 in the Padres’ farm system. Ishii is banking on the submariner being an asset in a bullpen that will be without Matsui and set-upper Frank Herrmann.
“The reason we got him is because he performs well in any situation and can pitch throughout the year,” Ishii said on Dec. 11. He’s stable and pitches well in pressure situations whether he’s facing a righty or a lefty. We welcome him to the Rakuten Eagles to beef up our bullpen.”
Perhaps being around some former Seibu teammates also helps ease the transition for the two new pitchers.
“He’s been my rival since I joined Seibu,” Wakui said of Kishi. We both improved by competing against each other.”
Then there is Suzuki. The former Lotte captain is a proven leader and versatile defender who can give the Eagles a lot of options in the infield.
Of course, there are a lot of ifs in this experiment. It works if Wakui and Makita are good, ditto for Suzuki. It’ll also help if whoever replaces Matsui and Herrmann can close out games.
Say this for Ishii, he isn’t standing still or pretending to be satisfied with third place. Whether or not it all works, he’s shaking things up here and there.
He’d just better hope his team is this entertaining when the spring rolls around.