The last time Masahiro Tanaka was in Japan, he went 24-0 during the regular season and led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to the 2013 Pacific League pennant and Japan Series title before heading off to join the New York Yankees.
While Tanaka was away, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks became a fully formed dynasty. The Hawks won six of next seven Japan Series while Tanaka was away and claimed the PL pennant four times.
Now that Tanaka is back, the Hawks are ready to show him how much things have changed.
“Ma-kun,” the Eagles, and the rest of the league, however, will try to prevent the Hawks from adding to their trophy case in 2021.
The following is the second of a two-part NPB preview ending with the 2021 Pacific League.
In order of predicted finish:
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
2020 record: 73-42-5 (1st)
You can still write the Hawks in as the favorites — but in pencil.
Most of the usual suspects are back in the lineup, including reigning MVP Yuki Yanagita, who slashed .342/.449/.623 and hit 29 homers. Ryoya Kurihara will be trying to build off last year’s 17-homer campaign while improving his batting average, and it will be interesting to see what Ukyo Shuto has in store as an encore after stealing 50 bases in 103 games.
Shuta Ishikawa will get the ball on opening day and get an early start on trying to prove last season — when he was 11-3 with a 2.42 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 111⅔ innings — was no fluke.
Kodai Senga is one of best pitchers in the world when he’s healthy and Nao Higashihama is another quality performer when available. Rei Takahashi and Shota Takeda are getting the chance to start again and veteran Tsuyoshi Wada is still hanging on after going 8-1 with a 2.94 ERA in 85 ⅔ innings as a 39-year-old in 2020.
Among the team’s major concerns are health — though the Hawks have impressive depth — and the improvement of the rest of the league.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
2020 record: 55-57-8 (4th)
Masahiro Tanaka’s return after seven years with the New York Yankees made the Eagles the talk of the NPB offseason.
It also gives Rakuten a potential rotation of Tanaka (78-46 with a 3.74 ERA and 1.13 WHIP across 1,054 ⅓ MLB innings), Hideaki Wakui, Takahiro Norimoto and Takayuki Kishi. If — and it’s a big if — they all stay healthy, that foursome is hard to top. If rookie Takahisa Hayakawa is as good as the club thinks he is, the rotation borders on unfair.
Rakuten should also be stronger in the bullpen with Yuki Matsui heading back there to close and Alan Busenitz already a more than capable late-inning compliment.
The club has a perennial MVP candidate in infielder Hideto Asamura, who has hit at least 32 homers in three straight years, and good hitters around him. In the offseason, Rakuten also added former Red Sox farmhand Rusney Castillo and Brandon Dixon to the mix, hoping to offset the losses of Stefen Romero and Jabari Blash.
Chiba Lotte Marines
2020 record: 60-57-3 (2nd)
The power was out at Zozo Marine Stadium last season, but the Marines managed to small ball their way to a second-place finish.
Leonys Martin hit 25 homers and Seiya Inoue had 15. Aside from them, however, the cupboard was essentially bare. Brandon Laird hit 32 in 2019 and will look to put in a full season after missing most of 2020 with injuries.
Kyota Fujiwara isn’t going to be a pure power hitter, but the third-year player may be good enough to help kick-start an offense that needs a spark.
On the mound, Kota Futaki is an underrated pitcher who has the potential to have a big year. Ayumu Ishikawa, who decided against angling for a MLB job, and Manabu Mima are two more solid arms, while Kazuya Kojima (7-8 with a 3.73 ERA in 113⅓ innings last season) is a player to watch.
There is, of course, also the potential of “Reiwa Monster” Roki Sasaki, who finally stepped on the mound during the spring, making an appearance at some point.
Saitama Seibu Lions
2020 record: 58-58-4 (3rd)
The Lions’ quest for a third straight pennant was derailed by an offense that bottomed out after being among the best for a few seasons.
In that respect, there’s probably optimism that if hard-slugging Hotaka Yamakawa and Tomoya Mori, league MVPs in 2018 and 2019, respectively, get back on track, the lineup will roar again. That’s especially true if veterans Takeya Nakamura and Takumi Kuriyama, the latter who hit .272 with 12 homers last year, contribute.
Seibu brought up the rear in 2020 with a 4.28 ERA, finishing last in that department for the third straight year. The Lions are bringing back largely the same cast, so help will have to come from within. What they need is for Kona Takahashi and Tatsuya Imai, highly touted draft picks years ago who haven’t yet lived up to the hype, to step up. Seibu also needs someone to hold down a spot until Zach Neal can return to Japan, If you’re looking for positives, start in the bullpen, where both Reed Garrett and Kaima Taira can bring serious heat late in games.
2020 record: 45-68-7 (6th)
It’s not easy being a Buffaloes fan. The team has finished last in the PL in consecutive seasons and has finished in the top-half of the league just twice (2008 and 2014) since 2000.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Buffaloes fans, though, since they get to watch Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who won the ERA title in 2019 and was second last season, pitch. Plus Taisuke Yamaoka is another good pitcher in a starting rotation that’s better than you’d expect from a team that has been rooted in the bottom half of the standings.
The bullpen needs help, though, and bringing back Yoshihisa Hirano after three MLB seasons to pitch beside a very good player in Tyler Higgins is a plus move.
Masataka Yoshida, who hit .350 with 14 home runs, is the best player among the Orix batters. Adam Jones is returning for another year in Japan and the club also signed free agent Stefen Romero, who spent his first three years in Japan with the Buffaloes and has a .269 average and 93 homers in four NPB seasons.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
2020 record: 53-62-5 (5th)
The Fighters put two players into the posting system last year, losing pitcher Kohei Arihara to the Texas Rangers, but getting back outfielder Haruki Nishikawa.
Arihara is a big loss, but Naoyuki Uwasawa, who was 8-6 with a 3.06 ERA last year, should slide easily into the No. 1 slot. When Drew VerHagen is cleared to come back to Japan, the team will have two good arms to build off of in the rotation. There are a lot of unanswered questions after that, however.
Nippon Ham only really has power at two spots (Sho Nakata and Taishi Ota) but Nishikawa and Kensuke Kondo give the club two more really good players.
The Fighters will also be hoping Ronny Rodriguez puts up good numbers in his first NPB season and that Kotaro Kiyomiya finally lives up to the considerable hype that followed him out of high school a few years back.
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