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03/22/2004 Archived Entry: "Japanese Season Preview: Hanshin, Daiei Headed for Japan Series Rematch"
Giants' Inability to Solidify Pitching Will Outstrip Rhodes, Kokubo Additions
5. Nippon Ham
Japanese baseball fans might generally believe that if the Giants aren't strong it won't be any fun, but the Central League is going to be all Hanshin in 2004 while Daiei, if their frontline pitching stays healthy, should destroy the Pacific League, thus setting the stage for a rematch of the 2003 Japan Series that saw the Hawks walk off with a championship.
Senichi Hoshino, now a special adviser with the club, has turned an absolutely patheticTigers nine into a powerhouse. Even with the added offense Yomiuri brought in thanks to the giveaway by Daiei of third baseman Hiroki Kokubo and Kintetsu's refusal to give leftfielder Tuffy Rhodes a multiyear deal, their pitching situation remains so unsettled and they have become such an injury magnet that it is unlikely they will be able to gel enough to overcome their Osaka competition.
In the Pacific League, Seibu's pitching, well, what happened? Aside from superman Daisuke Matsuzaka and closer Kiyoshi Toyoda, nobody has has shown anything this spring and setup man Shinji Mori's health and durability are questionable. The only reason that they will finish second is that Lotte probably won't score enough to surpass them and they are so athletic that they can do more with the players they have even with the subtraction of shortstop Kazuo Matsui and slugger Alex Cabrera being out for two months or more. They will perform well against the PL's lower tier, saving their bacon.
Of course, it is a big mistake to go solely by spring training results. But if you look at what happened to starters Fumiya Nishiguchi and Takashi Ishii last season and the continuing deterioration of their middle relief, they just don't seem to be balanced enough to get to the post season.
Now if we're going to talk lower tier, get out the welcome mat to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for a "B class" admission. Yuji Yoshioka is on vacation for the season with a severed Achilles tendon and Tuffy Rhodes is being spelled by Larry Barnes. Barnes has hit well this spring, but he's not a power guy and his reputation in MLB has been good glove no stick. Barring third baseman Norihiro Nakamura slamming 70 homers and setting a new single seaosn RBI record, one fails to see how they can compensate for their mediocre starting pitching. Jose Carrasco, though, has looked right at home in Japan thus far and if the Buffs are to have a shot at staying out of the second division, he has to step up bigtime.
Vastly improved is the Chiba Lotte Marines ballclub, who are inspired by both some nice pitching, as usual, from Naoyuki Shimizu, innings eater Nate Minchey and saves machine Masahide Kobayashi, but now they may finally have Tomohiro Kuroki available and Bobby Valentine is back running the show. Kazuya Fukuura appears poised to have a big year and catcher Tomoya Satozaki continues to develop. Korean import Seung-yeop Lee has been racking up tons of strikeouts, but if he can make eventually make the adjustment to higer quality Japanese pitching, it will measurably improve Lotte's run production.
Both Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco have had poor springs, but it also took Jose Fernandez, who had trouble staying out of the minors in MLB, a while to lock in, so we'll have to wait and see with them. In addition, Agbayani has a checkered injury history and how long he will be able to stay in the lineup playing on mainly artificial turf fields is a legitimate concern. But there is just an atmosphere surrounding this team and they could be Japan's KC Royals in 2004.
Nippon Ham has the best exhibition record, but that is a mirage. Sure, Angel Echevarria is back and should be a terror after putting a season under his belt. And the Fighters also have Japan's best remaining player, Michihiro Ogasawara, who has been methodically preparing himself for the schedule and has looked every inch the artist with the bat that he has been for his two consecutive hitting titles. Indeed, if you ask who can perhaps notch a .400 season in Japan, the laconic Ogasawara is the man. But he has to do it this season since he has already turned the corner on 30 years old.
But that just won't get it. Their overall pitching is terrible and Tsuyoshi Shinjo has been a bust this spring and is likely to not do much better when they begin counting. True, manager Trey Hillman has developed catcher Shinji Takahashi, but this club has zero for a bench and a bullpen. Hiroshi Shibakusa is the most overrated reliever in Japan. They also lack a serious closer. Hillman has done the best he can, but there just ain't a there there. About the only thing the former Yankees minor league skipper will get out of this second season of the long knives is that it will prepare him for what he'll have to endure when he takes over as the field boss of the Texas Rangers next year.
Orix? Well, let's put it this way: Hanshin owner Shunjiro Kuman came out yesterday and said that up to one third of the Japanese pro outfits should be contracted. Orix, which, when it was owned by the Hankyu railway corporation, was one of the original pro teams back in 1936, would, if you want to base it on performance, theoretically be one of those targeted. But then again, Kuman is borderline senile. However, when your big pitching acquisition, Trey Moore, has been getting tattooed more than a Maori tribesman this spring and the rest of the staff has been little better and you can't catch the ball, the good people in Kobe will be ashamed once more.
Back in the CL, Hiroshima just flat out sucks. Carp? Try flounder. Greg LaRocca has been tearing it up during the spring, but bad defense paired with pitching that is Hiroki Kobayashi, Kanei Kobayashi, closer Katsuhiro Nakagawa and not much beyond that makes for a tail of the circuit finish. Former Number one draft pick Kan Otake hasn't given the faithful much of a rationale for optimism. Too, how Shinji Sasaoka's body will hold up to the demands of being a swingman is a prominent issue. Maybe Bucky Showalter should be brought in for next year since the combination of dubious arms and three or four stickmen who will post good numbers for a last place team will make Bucky feel right at home.
Don't misunderstand me. It's not that Yokohama, who may break the all time single season strikeout record again is that much better. They have a bunch of guys who are first baseman/DH types in a league where the pitcher has to hit. If you like beer league baseball, Yokohama is your team. Expect Daisuke Miura and Eddie Gaillard to rebound with fine campaigns, but one wonders if Tyrone Woods' age is finally catching up with him. Leftfielder Takanori Suzuki and shortstop Takuro Ishii could also see substantial disabled list time, as may oft injured righty Takashi Saito. Kazuhiro Sasaki can't seem to refrain from incurring some ache or pain, either. But having said that, this club has some youngsters who will be fun to watch, even if it isn't a winning formula. Number one draft choice Daisuke Mori was my early pick for Rookie of the Year, but his elbow still isn't 100% and he is kind of screwed up mechanically.
Chunichi is a mediocre club that not even the charismatic Hiromitsu Ochiai can fix. When the one guy on your team people are most talking about is the manager, you know you have some defects. Alex Ochoa has found a nice groove since last September and Kosuke Fukudome will be amazing, but the great veteran Kazuyoshi Tatsunami isn't that far away from retirement and the up the middle twosome of Hirokazu Ibata, who is gradually being nudged aside, and Masahiro Araki make the old L.A. duo of Bill Russell and Ted Sizemore look like A-Rod and Alfonso Soriano at the plate. Consequently, the onus will be on the Dragons' pitching. Shigeki Noguchi's health is always going to be in question and Domingo Guzman isn't going to radically improve the rotation. Kenshin Kawakami made an appearance recently, but how that translates over the full schedule remains to be seen. Their middle relief is more than decent. But who will close? This team will have to play totally out of its mind to get anywhere. If, by some miracle, Kenjiro Kawasaki is back in the rotation sometime this season, they could make a run, but only if all their big guys are consistently healthy. They have had two nice drafts recently, but those players are still another year or two away.
Over in Tokyo, the injury bug has hit worse than a SARS plague. The Yakult Swallows have been absolutely leveled by it, with outfielder Billy Martin now gone for a substantial chunk of the year due to knee surgery. Shugo Fujii will be back in June, at the dead earliest. Third baseman Akinori Iwamura, who hopes to be in an MLB team's uni next season, has a bad wrist again. Lefty Hirotoshi Ishii has an oblique strain. Masanori Ishikawa, the tentative Opening Day starter, has had his spring preparation retarded by nagging aches. This all puts a huge load on leftfielder Alex Ramirez' shoulders, and that's even before you get to the departure of Japan's all time saves leader to the White Sox. The best thing for A-Ram to do would be to relax and focus on what he can do rather than try to hit five run homers each time up. If he stays within himself, he will have a monster year. Unfortunately, fourth, or maybe even fifth place, is still pretty much the Swallows' fate. Sigh.
Yomiuri had better hope that ace Koji Uehara doesn't come down with something. And Roberto Petagine is slow to come back from a knee procedure and Kokubo has gotten some pine time this past week due to an injury himself. Utilityman Takayuki Saito has been out for a substantial share of time, as has rightfielder Yoshinobu Takahashi and shortstop Tomohiro Nioka. First baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara isn't seeing eye to eye with outspoken manager Tsuneo Horiuchi. This is going to be a very messy year for the Giants. Add pinhead owner Tsuneo Watanabe to that and my oh my.
Now for Hanshin. O dios mio! Just look at that bench! Kentaro Sekimoto would be a starter for most teams. With Makoto Imaoka out with a bad left hand, incumbent shortstop Atsushi Fujimoto, who is only hitting about .450, will step in to spell the 2003 league batting king. Then he will go have a seat when Imaoka returns. Hiroshi Yagi will be the main pinch hit guy and then manager Akinobu Okada can dial up Osamu Hamanaka or Mike Kinkade or Atsushi Kataoaka, depending on what lineup he puts out there on a particular day, to pinch hit, too. They are so strong in the pitching department that losing both Keiichi Yabu and Hideki Irabu now might be an improvement considering who they have waiting in the wings. Second year guy Naohisa Sugimoto has had a very good spring, but I'm still skeptical as to how he would fare during the regular season. That means that Yuya Ando would be inserted should either Yabu or Irabu need time away. Not too shabby the way he has been developing.
The key question at Koshien will be Akihiro Yano. Hanshin has nobody who can take up everything the former Chunichi backstop has meant the last couple of years should Yano go on the shelf. That would be the only shot Yomiuri has. Get hot and then pray that Yano suffers a torn ligament somwhere.
Daiei has gotten a disappointing spring from DH Julio Zulewta, but otherwise, if that foursome of Kazumi Saito, Tsuyoshi Wada, Nagisa Arakaki and Toshiya Sugiuchi can make their regular turns, it isn't going to matter much. The offense will score and score some more and I'm looking for second baseman Tadahito Iguchi and third baseman Munenori Kawasaki to run even more than they did in 2003. They will now have prime rookie Takahiro Mahara for middle relief or even the fifth rotation slot if either Brandon Knight or Junji Hoshino can't get the job done. If they can get Hayato Terahara straightened out, wow! The bugaboo with this team, though, is that the substandard bullpen will make manager Sadaharu Oh want to push his starters as long as he can. Can they hold up?
Barring a farcical number of injuries sweeping the Hawks or the Tigers, the league races this season will be a joke.
Incidently, one more note: the Mets are negotiating a working agreement with the Lions right now. One proviso would be Matsuzaka training with the Mets next spring, if Seibu doesn't, in fact, post him. So for those of you living in Japan at the moment, watch Daisuke closlely, since you may not see him after this year unless you're watching an MLB satellite package.
Here it Comes!
In previous articles, I've made vague references to the upcoming Baseball Guru.com Japanese baseball-related sister site. Well, I'm on schedule putting it together and it should be ready for the planned April 1st opening with complete boxscores, stats for every retired offensive player, historical notes and lots more. The reason I haven't been writing with the frequency of that of the last couple years is so that I can work on assembling the new site. I will be adding more stuff as I'm able in an attempt to create the ultimate english language Japanese baseball site. I will also have a piece set aside for those of you who wish to play in Japan. Of course, I want everybody's input to give you all the information you most want to know. So feel free to mail me with your ideas and questions.
I also haven't been answering mail, but I will get to those messages by late Monday night. Sorry for the wait.
Replies: 1 Comment
Great to see your going to do a Japan baseball site as I'm going for two weeks in May to Osaka.
Have most of the schedule's but sometimes even with the translation
button does not always work.
The npb web has a English button but this hardly ever works
Posted by DAVE ROBERTS @ 03/31/2004 05:02 PM EST