The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2020 Pacific League.
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Manager: Kimiyasu Kudo
2019 record: 76-62-5 (2nd)
The Hawks’ recent success makes it really easy to forget their last PL pennant came two Japan Series titles ago in 2017.
This year, Japan’s reigning dynasty will try to both regain the pennant from the Seibu Lions and capture a third straight Japan Series crown.
The Hawks’ vaunted depth helped them finish second in the PL last year despite Yuki Yanagita playing just 38 regular-season games, Akira Nakamura playing in 44, Seiji Uebayashi suiting up for 99 and Kenta Imamiya playing 106. Star closer Dennis Sarfate didn’t play at all and reliever Sho Iwasaki pitched twice.
SoftBank is mostly healthy again and ready to benefit from its embarrassment of riches.
The Hawks’ vaunted depth will be tested with COVID-19 travel restrictions leaving Cuban sluggers Alfredo Despaigne and Yurisbel Gracial stuck in their home country for the time being.
That lends more importance to the signing of free-agent slugger Wladimir Balentien, who has reached 30 home runs in all eight of his NPB seasons with at least 100 games played. Nobuhiro Matsuda is coming off consecutive 30-homer campaigns and Yuya Hasegawa could provide more cover for the missing bats.
Ace Kodai Senga will miss opening day with an injury to his right arm, but may miss far less time than he would’ve had the season started in March.
While Senga, who is pitching again, works his way back, Nao Higashihama, Rick van den Hurk and veteran Tsuyoshi Wada will try to hold down the fort. The Hawks also have reigning Rookie of the Year Rei Takahashi, who was 12-6 with a 3.34 ERA in 143 innings, and first-year NPB pitcher Matt Moore, a veteran of nine MLB seasons. Young American Carter Stewart Jr. is another intriguing option for Kimiyasu Kudo.
What was already a solid bullpen could get stronger from the return of Iwasaki and then when Sarfate is all the way back.
Chiba Lotte Marines
Manager: Tadahito Iguchi
2019 record: 69-70-4 (4th)
The main question most fans will have about the Marines is when will Roki Sasaki pitch?
The rookie right-hander was pumping in his fastball at 160 kph (99.4 mph) in high school and four teams named him as their first selection during the draft, with the Marines winning the ensuing lottery. Now the question is if he’ll get a chance to show everyone why this season.
The other big offseason news in Chiba was the loss of star infielder Daichi Suzuki and the acquisitions of Shuhei Fukuda and Manabu Mima.
Fukuda was one of the most sought-after free agents this past offseason. He was a super fill-in on a loaded SoftBank roster but is diving into deeper waters as a regular player with Lotte. Fukuda had 1,087 at-bats in Fukuoka, hitting .235/.279/.361 with 24 homers.
Mima is a more known commodity after nine seasons with Rakuten, where he was the 2013 Japan Series MVP. Mima has only had an FIP north of 4.00 once in the past five seasons and is a steadying presence. He joins Lotte after finishing 8-5 with a 4.01 ERA in 2019.
Ayumu Ishikawa was 8-5 last year with a 3.64 ERA in 27 appearances, including 17 starts, and will get the opening day start.
The Marines also have a pair of really exciting young pitchers in Kota Futaki and Atsuki Taneichi.
The bullpen was strengthened over the offseason by the additions of former Eagles pitcher Frank Herrmann and Jay Jackson, who pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2019 and helped the Hiroshima Carp win pennants from 2016 to 2018.
Third baseman Brandon Laird (32 homers last year) and first baseman Seiya Inoue (24 home runs) give the Marines a couple of big bats and a full year of Leonys Martin gives the lineup more offensive potential. There’s also infielder Shogo Nakamura who hit 17 homers last year.
Leadoff man Takashi Ogino is coming off the best season of his career after hitting .315/.371/.470 and infielder Yudai Fujioka could turn out to be a pleasant surprise.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Manager: Hajime Miki
2019 record: 71-68-4 (3rd)
Eagles GM Kazuhisa Ishii responded to a third-place finish and return to the postseason (for the first time in two years) with a busy offseason.
The club’s new manager, Hajime Miki, takes over a team that added versatile infielder Daichi Suzuki (.288/.373/.454 and 15 homers) and Stefen Romero, who hit 18 home runs in 81 games for Orix last year.
They join a lineup that already has Hideto Asamura and Jabari Blash, who put up matching 33-homer, 90-plus RBI seasons. The top of the lineup features Eigoro Mori, who has a .768 on-base plus slugging percentage in his four seasons and hit .282/.358/.421 with 13 home runs last year.
Injuries limited the team’s two best pitchers, Takahiro Norimoto and Takayuki Kishi, to just 27 combined starts last year. Their return coincides with the additions of Hideaki Wakui and Kazuhisa Makita — who along with Kishi form a trio of Ishii’s old Seibu Lions running buddies.
After years of solid service as the closer, hard-throwing lefty Yuki Matsui will join the rotation for another shot at seeing how his stuff plays at the beginning of games. Of course, that leaves a hole to be filled in the bullpen, which also lost Frank Herrmann to Lotte.
Saitama Seibu Lions
Manager: Hatsuhiko Tsuji
2019 record: 80-62-1 (1st)
The Lions won the pennant, their second in a row, last year despite the departures of pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, to the Seattle Mariners, and Hideto Asamura, to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
The difficulty is turned up another notch this year with Shogo Akiyama now with the Cincinnati Reds.
Hotaka Yamakawa is back, though, and the 2018 PL MVP, is coming off two 40-homer seasons. Then there is Takeya Nakamura, who hit 30 in 2019, and reigning MVP Tomoya Mori and Shuta Tonosaki who finished in the 20s.
The Lions led the Pa League in runs scored, OPS, walk rate and stolen bases in 2019 and were second with 174 home runs.
Yuji Kaneko will try to fill Akiyama’s shoes in center field and the club added Cory Spangenberg, who looked good during practice games.
All of Seibu’s offense has served as armor for the club’s Achilles heel: it’s pitching staff.
The Lions had six players throw at least 85 innings in 2019 and only Zach Neal finished with an ERA under 4.30.
Neal was 12-1 with a 2.87 ERA and 3.57 FIP in his first NPB season.
Among the young players the team hopes can step up behind him are 22-year-old Tatsuya Imai and 23-year-old Kona Takahashi, a pair of recent first-round draft picks.
Wataru Matsumoto, 24, showed flashes in 2019 and hard-throwing rookie Tetsu Miyagawa (25), this year’s first-round pick, could also get a chance to contribute somewhere in the staff.
Manager: Norifumi Nishimura
2019 record: 61-75-7 (6th)
The league’s last-place outfit made the biggest offseason splash with the signing of five-time MLB All-Star outfielder Adam Jones.
They’ll need him to be close to his All-Star best, too, after finishing last or next-to-last in team OPS, batting average, runs scored and home runs last year.
Jones will be in right field, while left field will be manned by resident “Macho Man” Masataka Yoshida, fresh off hitting .322/.413/.543 with 29 homers.
Orix is also putting its hopes in Aderlin Rodriguez, who posted a .997 OPS and 19 homers in 75 games for the El Paso Chihuahuas, the San Diego Padres’ Triple-A affiliate, last year to help turn things around.
Starting pitching figures to be a strength again with Taisuke Yamaoka, who was 13-4 with a 3.71 ERA, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who went 8-6 while leading NPB with a 1.95 ERA and 2.69 FIP.
Mix in veteran lefty Andrew Albers and young lefty Daiki Tajima and the Buffaloes could have four really nice arms in the rotation.
Plugging the holes in a bullpen that had a lot of leaks last year, though, is a big concern. The Orix relievers brought up the rear in the Pa League with a 4.23 ERA in 2019. Brandon Dickson is reliable at the back, but a lot of players will need to bounce back from last year’s performance.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Manager: Hideki Kuriyama
2019 record: 65-73-5 (5th)
The Fighters had a disappointing 2019 and their manager nearly stepped down after the season. While Hideki Kuriyama was talked back into the big chair, he still has a tough job ahead of him.
The major extent of the team’s run production last year was basically Sho Nakata (.242/.329/.449) hitting 24 homers and driving in 80 runs and Taishi Ota (.289/.325/.451) finishing with 20 home runs and 77 RBIs.
Nippon Ham hit just 93 home runs overall, making the Fighters the only PL team to fail to crack 100. They didn’t do much else at the plate either and, unsurprisingly, didn’t score a lot of runs.
The club, however, does have a solid leadoff man in Haruki Nishikawa and a high-average bat in Kensuke Kondo.
The Fighters added Mexican slugger Christian Villanueva in hopes a change of scenery helps him bounce back from a rough start in Japan last year, when he hit just .223 with eight homers in 75 games with the Yomiuri Giants. He’ll miss the start of this season, however, after an appendectomy in May.
The Fighters will also look for something out of third-year infielder Kotaro Kiyomiya.
What could keep them contention is their pitching staff.
Kohei Arihara wants to move to the majors soon and pitched like it last year. He could’ve pocketed the Sawamura Award, had it been given out, with a 15-8 record and 2.46 ERA. In FIP, he was second only to Yoshinobu Yamamoto in the PL at 2.97.
The Fighters also get good pitchers in Naoyuki Uwasawa and Nick Martinez back from injuries. Rookie Ryusei Kawano should get a chance to contribute and Kurihara could also deploy openers the way he did last season with Chihiro Kaneko a candidate for that role.
Righty Drew VerHagen was also brought in over the offseason after six years with the Detroit Tigers.