The following is the second of a two-part NPB preview concluding with the 2020 Central League.
In order of predicted finish:
Manager: Akihiro Yano
2019 record: 69-68-6 (3rd)
The Tigers had an eventful spring, with three players, including pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, testing positive for COVID-19. All three have since returned to the field.
With that behind them, the focus is on baseball.
Offense is what the Tigers were missing last year, when they brought up the rear in the CL with 538 runs. The team injected some foreign muscle to help solve the problem, signing Justin Bour, who hit 92 homers across six MLB seasons, and Jerry Sands, who had 28 for the Kiwoom Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization last year.
A more representative campaign from the supremely-talented Yoshio Itoi, who hit .314 but with just five home runs and 42 RBIs in 103 games, would also give the lineup a boost. Jefry Marte is another foreign player with talent to contribute.
The Tigers were all over the place defensively in 2019 and can’t afford another NPB-worst 102 errors.
Even with all the extra traffic on the bases last year, the Hanshin pitching staff was among the best in NPB.
The club has a nice 1-2 punch in Yuki Nishi (10-8, 2.92 ERA) and Koyo Aoyagi (9-9, 3.14) and Haruto Takahashi was better than his 3-9 record suggests.
Takahashi had a .357 BABIP but a 3.78 ERA and 2.81 FIP last year and is a candidate for a big year.
The wildcard — wild being the operative word as of late — is Fujinami.
The 26-year-old, who was among NPB’s first COVID-19 cases, has shown flashes of being an elite pitcher but has lacked the consistency to make it stick for very long. If he does, and forces his way back into the rotation, the Tigers could be really dangerous.
Of course, the bullpen will have to work to replace Pierce Johnson and Rafael Dolis and you have to wonder how Kyuji Fujikawa, who turns 40 on July 21, holds up in his 20th pro season.
Manager: Tatsunori Hara
2019 record: 77-64-2 (1st)
The Kyojin achieved the desired resurgence under returning manager Tatsunori Hara in 2019 before being swept out of the Japan Series by the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
The CL’s best lineup returns mostly intact, led by reigning MVP Hayato Sakamoto, who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month but is back now, Yoshihiro Maru, who won the two MVP awards before Sakamoto’s breakthrough, and Kazuma Okamoto.
Okamoto, 24, is coming off consecutive 30-homer seasons and still approaching his prime. The club has tasked former star Warren Cromartie with helping him unlock his potential.
The Giants led the CL in home runs (183) and OPS (.758) and should score plenty even if they decline a bit.
Yomiuri signed Gerardo Parra, who was part of the Washington Nationals’ World Series team last year, to introduce “Baby Shark” to Tokyo Dome and also roam the outfield with Maru and Yoshiyuki Kamei. Takumi Oshiro, who tested positive along with Sakamoto, will likely try to fill the shoes of retired fan-favorite Shinnosuke Abe at first base.
A “rebound” season from ace Tomoyuki Sugano (he wasn’t actually that bad at 11-6, 3.89 ERA, 3.91 FIP) is a must for Yomiuri with Shun Yamaguchi now with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Even if they get it, the Giants have other question marks on the mound.
How smooth will right-hander Angel Sanchez’s transition be from South Korea, where he was 25-13 with a 3.68 ERA the last two seasons? Will C.C. Mercedes, Yuki Takahashi and Shosei Togo take steps forward? How much can Toshiki Sakurai provide? Can Kazuto Taguchi recapture the magic of 2017?
The answers may determine whether or not these Giants reach the same heights the 2019 version did.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Manager: Shinji Sasaoka
2019 record: 70-70-3 (4th)
After winning the league pennant in three straight seasons, the Carp hit a pothole in 2019.
Now it’s up to new manager Shinji Sasaoka to get them back on track.
The shining jewel of the Hiroshima lineup, perhaps any NPB lineup, is outfielder Seiya Suzuki, who put up a .335/.453/.565 line with 28 homers and led NPB with a 188 wRC plus and 8.6 WAR (per Data Stadium).
What the Carp could also use is for a healthy Kosuke Tanaka to bounce back from hitting .193 with three homers last year. He’ll really want to get it turned around with young infielder Kaito Kozono waiting in the wings.
Ryoma Nishikawa, who hit .297 with 16 home runs in 138 games, is a candidate to have a strong season, as is Ryuhei Matsuyama, who had a down year in 2019. Ryosuke Kikuchi’s misfortune in the posting system also works to the team’s benefit, as the dynamic second baseman remains in the mix.
Sasaoka, a former pitcher himself, should feel fortunate to have inherited a rotation featuring Daichi Osera (11-9, 3.53 ERA) and Kris Johnson (11-8, 2.59). Plus, rookie Masato Morishita, who was one of Japan’s top college pitchers, has looked good.
Aren Kuri (8-8, 3.51) and Hiroki Tokoda (7-6, 2.96) will also get chances to impress with Yusuke Nomura on the farm team. Atsushi Endo is another young pitcher who will get a look, and make his first NPB start, this season.
The Carp bullpen didn’t have a great year, especially after closer Shota Nakazaki was injured. Fixing the issues there could help ease the climb back into the top half of the league.
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Manager: Alex Ramirez
2019 record: 71-69-3 (2nd)
Even without Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who is still waiting to start his first MLB season in Tampa, the BayStars should have plenty of pop.
Neftali Soto is coming off two 40-homer seasons, Jose Lopez hit 31 last year and newcomer Tyler Austin has already been flexing his muscles.
Still, replacing Tsutsugo won’t be easy. Keita Sano (.259/.301/.389 with 10 homers in 180 career games) takes his place in the lineup and as captain and Toshiro Miyazaki gives the team another quality bat. A bounceback season by Takayuki Kajitani at the top of the order would really help the team get things moving.
Lefty Shota Imanaga (13-7, 2.91) was one of the CL’s best hurlers last year and heads the pitching staff.
Yokohama led the CL with a 8.28 strikeout rate last season. What the team also did, though, was walk too many batters and finish with a 3.93 ERA as a team. Yokohama also allowed the second-most runs (611) in the league — which contributed to a minus 15 run differential.
Still, the possibility of breakout years for fourth-year lefty Haruhiro Hamaguchi and second-year righty Taiga Kamichatani is tantalizing. They have good secondary stuff — each has a great changeup and batters had trouble with Hamguchi’s slider — and would make the BayStars staff a force.
Spencer Patton and fireballer Edwin Escobar are good bullpen arms and the club has one of the better closers in Yasuaki Yamasaki.
Manager: Tsuyoshi Yoda
2019 record: 68-73-2 (5th)
The slow burn that is the Dragons’ rebuild — seven years and counting without reaching the postseason — may actually yield a few results this year.
The club’s top two pitchers figure to be lefty Yudai Ono, who was 9-8 with a 2.58 ERA and threw a no-hitter last year, and Yuya Yanagi, who was an 11-game winner with a 3.53 ERA in 170 2/3 innings.
Behind them are a group of young pitchers who could shape the future. Shinnosuke Ogasawara has loads of potential and Kodai Umetsu and Takumi Yamamoto could also be solid contributors. The growth of that trio will be something for Dragons fans to track this year and beyond.
As is often the case with Chunichi, a major question is where will the runs come from? The Dragons led the league with a .263 batting average in 2019 but were fifth in runs scored, though they posted a plus-19 run differential. The offensive deadzone that is Nagoya Dome doesn’t help matters.
Nobumasa Fukuda and Dayan Viciedo each hit 18 home runs in 2019 and Naomichi Donoue (12) was the only other player to reach double figures. Viciedo also hit .315 and drove in 93 runs.
Leadoff man Yohei Oshima, the only other Dragon to play at least 50 games and bat over .300, gives the team a weapon at the top of the order.
Shuhei Takahashi batted .293 and would provide a boost if he can keep his average up and add some more power after a seven-homer season. Ditto for Toshiki Abe, who batted .291. Ryosuke Hirata is another candidate to contribute and is coming off a .278/.350/.425 year, though with eight home runs.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Manager: Shingo Takatsu
2019 record: 59-82-2 (6th)
The 2019 Swallows were like a luxurious hillside mansion that fell apart because it was built on a shaky foundation.
The Birds were one of only two CL clubs to score at least 600 runs last year, but were the only team to give up more than 700.
The bad news for new manager Shingo Takatsu is the lineup may take a step back without Wladimir Balentien, who left for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks after hitting 288 home runs in nine seasons.
On the brightside, the Swallows still have Tetsuto Yamada, and he’ll be looking to hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals for the fourth time in five seasons. No one else in NPB history has done it more than once.
Yakult can also lean on reigning Rookie of the Year Munetaka Murakami, who hit 36 homers in 2019 and will be trying to do better than the .231 average and CL-high 184 strikeouts he also posted.
Veteran outfielder Norichika Aoki still has some gas in the tank and Yasukata Shiomi could be an impressive young outfielder. The club has also added Alcides Escobar, an MLB All-Star in 2015.
Offense wasn’t the problem last year, though, it was a NPB-worst 4.78 team ERA.
Rookie Yasunobu Okugawa may or may not be in a position to help this year, but the attention he’ll garner will rival anyone on the team.
As for those guaranteed to take the mound, the team’s top pitcher is Yasuhiro Ogawa, who had a very rough 2019 with a 5-12 record and 4.57 ERA. Yakult is also bringing back 40-year-old lefty Masanori Ishikawa, who will start on opening day. There’s also Hiroshi Takanashi, who will be hoping to have a stronger year after a disappointing first season in Tokyo saw him register a 6.23 ERA over 78 innings in 21 appearances.
At minimum, though, Yakult needs steady improvement across the board from its pitching staff.