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03/27/2003 Archived Entry: "Japanese Baseball Season Preview Special"
It's a Giants, Giants, Giants World
The Chunichi Dragons and the Hiroshima Carp finished with the two best records this spring, but they don't start counting until Friday and, after the next 140 games will have been played, Hiroshima will be their familiar second division also ran selves while the Dragons will be waiting until next year.
Moreover, the Seibu Lions have had an awful spring mostly due to an inability to score runs, but the last week of the exhibition schedule they started to look real familar, i.e., like the team that ran away with the Pacific League title in 2002. Neverthless, they have some question marks that could bring them back to the pack in 2003, making for a battle of mediocrities if those potential horrors come to pass. So here we go, my fearless predictions for the upcoming Japanese pro baseball campaigns.
Anticipated Central League Finish:
1. Yomiuri: The Giants had not only by far the best draft, but one in which they got two future superstars in righthander Hiroshi Kisanuki and shortstop Masahiro Nagata. Wisely, the club is going to begin the season with Nagata in the minors, where he can develop away from the intense media glare of the Giants before he becomes a regular in 2005 and destroys the circuit and then moves to MLB in 2015. Kisanuki should win 10-12 games his first year as long as he can stay off of the disabled list and be a consistent 12-15 game winner for years to come. Too bad economic constraints kept the Mariners from being able to add him.
Anyway, even with Akira Etoh and Kazuhiro Kiyohara both looking at their last go arounds in a Yomiuri uni, this team is too loaded offensively with Yoshinobu Takahashi, Roberto Petagine, a still improving Tomohiro Nioka, a Takayuki Shimizu in his prime and a maturing Takayuki Saito and Shinnosuke Abe, the always handy Daisuke Motoki, and a clutch bench to stay off the scoreboard for very long.
In the rotation, Masumi Kuwata will have to prove that he wasn't a one season fluke after being put back in the rotation last year following some disastrous seasons in the bullpen and Kimiyasu Kudoh's durability will be a question mark. On the other hand, Koji Uehara is still improving and seems more mentally focused now, Hisanori Takahashi should be solid, if unspectacular, and there is a lot to like about second year man Hiroki Sanada. Their biggest weakness, the bullpen, has been upgraded substantially with the additions of rookie Yuya Kubo and veteran Rodney Pedraza. Don't be surprised if they win 90 games.
2. Hanshin: I've hardly been sparing in elucidating my distaste for manager Senichi Hoshino's management style, but you can't argue with the way he and batting instructor Koichi Tabuchi have improved the club. Osamu Hamanaka appears to be a developing star and second baseman Makoto Imaoka looks as if he is the real deal. The addition of Tomoaki Kanemoto to fill the leftfield spot that was an offensive black hole for them in 2002 will give the team more late season oomph. Sure, he starts slowly, but considering the pathetic production they got out of the leftfield slot last time around, it will prove to be a wash until he gets hot after the all star break for the stretch run.
George Arias, now back at third, still hasn't displayed any real consistency at the plate this spring. Both he and first baseman Shinjiro Hiyama will need to minimize their strikeouts and up their averages with runners in scoring position to make Hanshin a viable threat to their Tokyo rivals.
If I were another team, I would try to trade for Kentaro Sekimoto. Hoshino doesn't seem to know what to do with him, but he has a good bat that will get better with regular playing time, but he isn't a shortstop, the only vacant position on the infield.
Hanshin had a decent draft, with the good looking youngster Naohisa Sugiyama being a future three or four guy in the rotation. Tomoyuki Kubota is also a future star. But they are each at least a couple of years away.
The pitching staff, especially the bullpen, is considerably improved, with the team boasting the best personnel they have had in at least a decade. Kei Igawa could win 20 games and Trey Moore will lend his customary guts to the rotation. Taiyo Fujita should have a breakout campaign. Hideki Irabu and Keiichi Yabu are the weak spots in the rotation, so how they do will determine how close the Tigers get to the Giants. Setup man Jeff Williams and closer Lou Pote will be lights out. Rookie Yasuhiro Nakamura is an intriguing addition and here's to hoping he can handle the pressure when the bell rings. The outfield defense, however, and the unsettled shortstop situation, though, will lead to some occasional heartburn.
3. Chunichi The Dragons get a B for their draft, with Ryosuke Morioka and Yoshimi Sakurai being legitimate future stars. Norberto Semanaka, who has awesome power, may also sneak into that category as well once he learns to hit breaking pitches down in the zone with more authority.
While the Dragons were scoring runs in bunches this spring, how that will translate to the regular season is anyone's guess. Alex Ochoa started hot in his first few exhibition games and then went quiet. He improves the Nagoya side's outfield tremendously on the defensive side of the ball, but how much he will contribute offensively is still in doubt. Ivan Cruz cranked seven homers as he did two years ago with Hanshin, but how healthy will he stay and can he really produce like he did in AAA ball last season with St. Louis everyone is still waiting to see.
Kosuke Fukdome has just suddenly blossomed and should contend for the batting title. Kazuyoshi Tatsunami should be his sound self. Motonobu Tanishige will be amazing defensively as he was last season, when he should have been awarded the Gold Glove over Shinnosuke Abe, and shortstop Hirokazu Ibata should be solid in the two hole.
Their pitching is really too dicey to make a serious pennant bid. Shigeki Noguchi was impressive his last two spring starts, but how long will that last? Did Kenshin Kawakami have a career year in 2002? He has terrible in spring training. Will Marc Valdes routinely post good performances in the rotation after being Hanshin's closer? Masahiro Yamamoto could pitch himself into retirement at anytime, as his first last season showed. Takashi Ogasawara has good stuff, but consistency has been a problem. The bullpen has been ineffective this spring, though the addition of Akinori Otsuka will soup it up noticeably if he maintains good health. Eddie Gaillard will have at least a 30 save season. Just pencil it in. It will be important, though, that Eiji Ochiai and Hitoki Iwase, the team's right left middle relief combo, be dominant when they count.
Kenjiro Kawasaki will not pitch an inning for them and will ultimately prove to be the biggest free agent bust in Japanese history.
4. Yakult: Outside of Kevin Hodges, the starting rotation is in disarray. Shugo Fujii was wildly inconsistent last season and came down with an elbow problem this spring. Masanori Ishikawa will probably be little better than a .500 pitcher. Yataro Sakamoto pitched very well the first three quarters of the schedule before tiring but nobody seemed to want to score for him. Neither Ryu Kawabata nor Nobuyuki Ebisu will lead anyone to a championship. Hideki Sato is a reclamation project, so here's hoping that he is the new Satoshi Iriki, but don't count on it. And why isn't Futoshi Yamabe retired? He was washed up last year. Don't be surprised if rookie draftees Masayoshi Izumi and Yuhei Takai see significant action after the all star break.
At least the core of the pen, Hirotoshi Ishii, Ryota Igarashi and Manabu Hiramoto will be solid. But is closer Shingo Takatsu on the brink of retirement? He was shaky at times in 2002 and to say that he has been mediocre this spring would be overly charitable.
The batting order doesn't look very promising. Outside of third baseman Akinori Iwamura, it's filled with uncertainties. Leftfielder Alex Ramirez hasn't hit at all this spring. Todd Betts batted .365 in exhibition games, but what will he do against real first team pitching? Atsunori Inaba lead all hitters in knocks this spring, but that isn't going to continue since he isn't that good. And other than Ramirez, there isn't a legitimate big power threat on the team. So it's tough to forecast that the Swallows will fly very high. And come see Atsuya Furuta. It could be his last season since those knees aren't going to hold up forever.
5. Hiroshima: The Texas Rangers of Japanese baseball, you will see a lot of guys (Tomonori Maeda, Koichi Ogata, Takahiro Arai) have outstanding years, but their crapola bullpen and spotty starting staff will let the fish down. The only guy they got who might help them from the draft was Katsuhiro Nagakawa, who has a deadly forkball. Manager Koji Yamamoto plans to use the youngster in middle relief, which means that even if he has a big season, the opposition can still look forward to facing third rate closer Hiroyuki Oyamada. And do I have to mention that the team's defense sucks?
Indeed, while it's nice getting a sharp defensive performer such as Andy Sheets, how much will he contribute with the stick? Not much. Jimmy Hurst was brought in to bolster the club's power numbers and seemed to catch fire the last week of spring training, but how much playing time he will receive is a question since Toyo Asayama had a breakout spring and both Maeda and Ogata are locks for center and left. The main problem with the Carp offense is that it hits a lot of homers, but it also strikes out a lot and accumulates an abysmal OBP, which is a formula for fifth place if I've ever seen it. No joy this summer in Carpville, I'm afraid.
6. Yokohama: How bad were the Bay Stars last season? The were so hideous that even if they are one of the most improved squads of 2003, it is unlikely to elevate them out of the CL cellar. They got off to a good start in the spring, seemingly energized by new manager Daisuke Yamashita's engaging personality, which is 180 degrees opposite from predecessor Masaaki Mori, as well as new faces Tyrone Woods, Matt Whiteside, and
Steve Cox. But as we inched toward the starting gate, reality set in and they lost one battle after the other.
Both ace Daisuke Miura and Cox will open the season making rehab starts. Woods will have to prove that he isn't just a spring training superstar after a down season at Doosan last season. Takashi Saito, who is going back into the rotation after closing the last could of seasons, needs to stay away from the home run ball and demonstrate that he is strong enough healthwise to be a viable long term proposition in the rotation again. And is Yuji Yoshimi a future star or a ham and egger? He completed his spring by getting shelled. And outside of Whiteside, the less said about the pen the better. Ryoji Aikawa may not be up mentally to being the everyday catcher and veteran Takeshi Nakamura doesn't have the arm for it.
Katsuaki Furuki is a nice upgrade over Mike Gulan at third, as he should be able to ring up 30 jacks, but he will also total up a similar number of errors. As I indicated in Wednesday's article, infielder Shuichi Murata belongs in the minors since he is still a bit raw, but Takuro Ishii will have a solid year with 30 steals and Hirofumi Ogawa may have a career year.
Domingo Guzman will win 20 games. Count on it. And Ryutaro Doi, who is their promising number one choice, could see significant rotation time if somebody doesn't get the job done or goes on the shelf with an injury (Saito).
In the outfield, with the additions of Woods and Cox, the pressure on Takanori Suzuki to hit for power will be off and he may very well attain his goal of a third batting crown. Tatsuhiko Kinjo is a wild card, as his fortunes have declined significantly the last two seasons after winning the batting title as a rookie. If Kinjo doesn't show something the first half of the season, he should be demoted to the minors in favor of Mitsuru Tanaka. None of their other outfielders are worth a .
This team has no depth on the bench at all. And even while it is a somewhat less unsightly mess this season than last, a mess is a mess. Best case scenario is they climb to fifth.
Anticipated Pacific League Finish:
4. Nippon Ham
1. Seibu: The most athletic team in Japanese baseball thinks it has two more studs in Hiroyuki Nakajima at third and Taketoshi Goto at first. We'll see. If so, the PL race will be over by July 30th.
In any event, the Lions will hinge around the big kahuna, Alex Cabrera. Their confidence is markedly ramped up when the big Venezuelan is sitting in the four spot. He also helps the likes of Kazuo Matsui and Tatsuya Ozeki see better pitches. Leftfielder Kazuhiro Wada appears over whatever mental demons were bugging him after his disappointing Japan Series performance. Platoon man extraordinaire Toshiaki Inubushi against lefties. Whatever the team gets from catcher Tsutomu Itoh is a bonus as they ease him into a permanent coaching position. Nobody nailed down the centerfield job, as Kazuhiko Miyaji and Shogo Akada proved to be mediocrities. Scott McClain will have the pressure on him to produce right away or his starting thrid base job is Nakajima's. It would also help if McClain reduced his strikeouts and upped his OBP.
The pitching staff is anchored by Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will be a threat to collect 20 games if he is healthy all year. One thing to watch will be whether his velocity tails off at the end of the season. Fumiya Nishiguchi will rack up his eighth straight double figures in wins season. Takashi Ishii,though, has been a big piece of ---- this spring and may give way to the fine rookie Shuichiro Osada. Swing man Koji Mitsui should be passable and ti will be interesting to see if Mitsutaka Goto is ready. They all just want to get to the Shinji Mori/Kiyoshi Toyoda duo for the eighth and ninth and go home with a victory.
Oddly enough, Chang Chia-chia has emerged as the main question mark for the rotation. He reported out of shape and is likely to be down on the farm until sometime in May. Chang is a huge talent who may be doing himself in with his conceited attitude. Hopefully, what happened to him this spring will force him to eat some humble pie and he will be more diligent in the future. This is a guy with MLB potential, after all.
2. Daiei: This is odd to say given what happened in 2002, but the Hawks should have enough pitching this season to get them past the loss of veteran slugging third baseman Hiroki Kokubo. With rookies Nagisa Arakaki and Tsuyoshi Wada being every bit as good as advertised and Kazumi Saito appearing to be a reliable mainstay, Akio Mizuta doing okay and Toshiya Sugiuchi, who had a wonderful spring, the birds of prey finally find themselves with some arms they can count on.
The Hawks are also hoping that Hayato Terahara will prove that he is ready to contribute, but he still seems a bit raw and will require another year of seasoning. They had him change his delivery back to one that resembled his old high school motion when he could throw in the mid to high 90's. However, they slowed him down in an attempt to imbue him with greater consistency of command with mixed results. Certainly, if he could amp it back up to 94-96, it would make his breaking pitches and changeup more effective.
Brandon Knight has had limited appearances and so may not be quite in regular season shape yet, but having somebody who can throw the kind of gas that he is capable will make the other members of the rotation more effective.
Matt Skrmetta should be solid in the pen. Letting Rodney Pedraza get away is still a blunder, though. Shuji Yoshida will give godo middle relief, but Hirokazu Watanabe is a concern. He fell apart the second half of last season.
In the batting order, Tadahito Iguchi needs to have a monster year to acquire some value when he is posted this coming offseason. That means using the entire field and punishing mistakes as well as running at every opportunity to pile up stolen bases and reducing his strikeout rate. Munenori Kawasaki was very good in spring training. Now we'll see if that will carry over into the regular season. Sweet swinging Nobuhiko Matsunaka should rebound from his worst year in 2002 and hit over .300 with 25-30 homers. Ryo Yoshimoto and Bryant Nelson will both get plenty of playing time at third, with Yoshimoto looking more at home during the spring. Kenji Johjima will slug 40 homers and continues to improve his defense. Unfortunately, though, the Hawks outfield is full of non-entities. Chen Wen-pin had trouble making solid contact this spring while Yudai Deguchi, Kazuyuki Takahashi and Arihito Muramatsu, none of whom have any sock whatsoever, didn't open anyone's eyes. Pedro Valdez had a bad spring, but he should eventually get his stroke going.
Backup catcher Masanori Taguchi had a nice spring at the plate and could see more playing time than originally anticipated so that manager Sadaharu Oh can slot Johjima into the DH slot on occasion to get him away from the bumps and bruises of being behind the plate.
3. Kintetsu: Jeremy Powell and a whole lot of praying characterize the Buffs rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma, who was thought to be a rising star, has gotten bogged down a bit and Kevin Beirne hasn't shown too much this spring. Hiroshi Takamura, Ken Kadokura, and especially Katsuhiko Maekawa, ugh! Yet, the Buffs have quietly assembled a nice little bullpen in Akira Okamoto is quickly turning into one of the best relievers in the league and Hideo Koike, Toyohiko Yoshida and Takuya Matsumoto could sneak up on a lot of people. Closer Motoyuki Akahori hasn't looked like the dominant closer he once was and therefore the loss of Akinori Otsuka may loom large in the Buffs' season.
Offensively, they are obviously dominated by Norihiro Nakamura and Tuffy Rhodes, but the second half of last season, first baseman Yuji Yoshioka came on like gangbusters. 27 year old rookie Shinji Shimoyama has some thunder in his bat, but just how many at bats and how he will do against frontline pitching remains to be seen. Koichi Isobe must hit .300 for Kintetsu to once again have a chance and get substantial contributions out of Kenshi Kawaguchi. Still, the lack of first rate starting pitching will put them out of a lot of games early.
4. Nippon Ham: Really, aside from the novelty of the Fighters having an American manager, the lower half of the PL is the garbage scow of Japanese baseball. It's hard to work up any enthusiasm for any of them. I'm not sure what is behind Trey Hillman trying to force Takehito Nomura to become other than what he is, done, and Tsutomu Iwamoto is not yet ready to contribute with the first team. Yet, they will be in the bullpen opening day. That may be an indication of just how bad their bullpen is. The only way they can contend is if Carlos Mirabal wins 30 games and Satoru Kanemura chips in 20 for them to have a chance. Then it will be up to Chris Seelbach, Itsuki Shoda and Hayato Nakamura to pick up the rest. Just stay out of that bullpen. Yuck!
Up at the plate, Angle Echevarria hasn't hit his weight this spring, but that won't last long. He is going to lay waste to PL pitching, as will third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara. D.T. Cromer has been a revelation after a nondsescript 2002. If he can keep that up, they might have something. And can Shinji Takahashi be a force during the regular season too? We'll see. There is no help coming from the farm since their draft was a big waste of time.
5. Lotte: They just brought in Jose Fernandez, who is a DH, meaning that Derrick May will have to have to be the everyday leftfielder. Fernandez didn't hit at all in limited MLB action before going to the SK Wyverns and slugging better than 40 homers in 2002. So can he hit against the better Japanese pitching? We'll find out. Rick Short, a former PCL batting champ, has been a batting chump this spring.
Lotte is also still waiting on ace Tomohiro Kuroki and therefore their number one starter this season will be Naoyuki Shimizu, with Kosuke Kato and Shingo bringing up the rear. Masahide Kobayashi is one of the best closers in Japan. Hiroyuki Kobayashi was tried as a starter and didn't do badly. I think he would still be more valuable in the bullpen alongisde Atsushi Yoshida and Brian Sikorsky. They will all be throwing to Masaumi Shimizu, who, next to Johjima, is arguably the best receiver in the league. But there just isn't anything for Lotte fans to latch onto offensively except for Kazuya Fukuura and that will lead to a depressing time in Makuhari, Chiba.
6. They went out and spent millions of dollars to obtain Roosevelt Brown and Jose Ortiz to bolster the offense and Masato Yoshii and Makoto Suzuki to strengthen the rotation. Well, they are one for four and the jury is out on that one. Suzuki got hammered in an intrasquad game Wednesday and was demoted to the minor leagues. Ortiz, after needing to go home due to a family matter, is still playing himself into shape and posted a spring batting average of less than a buck. Brown hasn't done anything yet, though he seems to be slowly getting it, so we'll see. Yoshii has been up and down. And at his age, 37, you wonder how healthy he will be as we move deeper into the schedule. Yuki Tanaka, after several strong performances at the end of 2002, has just seemed to drop off the radar screen. What is up with that?
Consequently, outside of centerfielder Yoshitomo Tani, there isn't much reason to pay attention to this lot and manager Hiromichi Ishige could be replaced by mid-season, perhaps by Chuck Manuel (note: that came off the top of my head; I don't have any evidence of that other than Manuel is looking for a mangerial job in Japan).
And to add to the misery, Masahiko Kaneda and Kazuo Yamaguchi, two essential elements of their pitching staffs, are going to be out a while with injuries. The Blue Wave: Kobe's other disaster.
Yomiuri 4, Seibu 1
Rookie of the Year CL: Hiroshi Kisanuki
Rookie of the Year PL: Nagisa Arakaki
Sawamura Award: Kei Igawa
MVP PL: Alex Cabrera
MVP CL: Kosuke Fukudome
Batting Champion PL: Kazuo Matsui
Batting Champion CL: Kosuke Fukudome
Manager of the Year CL: Tatsunori Hara
Manager of the Year PL: Haruki Ihara