Wednesday, February 14, 2018

NPB hot seat 2018: Which managers have the most pressure?

Shigekazu Mori is on the hot seat entering his second full season as Chunichi Dragons manager
The 2018 NPB season begins at the end of March. While players and who wins the pennant becomes the large discussion, another thing to think about is the outlook of managers.

In sports, it's always a question mark to wonder who is in danger of losing their position, which we often call the hot seat. Some sports like soccer and hockey are very short-sighted where a firing can happen when a long losing streak takes place. Others will look at the work within the last few years, while different situations draw a reason for this.

In NPB, no manager is "fired" on paper, but there are forced resignations by upstairs management. Manager changes during the season are rare, though it has happened once in each year from 2014-2016 with Haruki Ihara, Hiroshi Moriwaki and Motonobu Tanishige all stepping away. An interesting thing in NPB is how teams will formally announce each manager returning for the following year, even if he isn't on the hot seat/

Thorough this exercise, we'll look at all 12 NPB managers and examine their situation with a ranking from top to bottom. Here are some factors we'll be using to determine the rankings from 1-12 with 1 having the hottest heat, to 12 having the coldest.

What have you done for me lately?: Firing usually happen due to a lack of winning more times than not. Looking at a manger's track record is good, but the window within the last few years is where it matters most when making a bold decision.

Situation: Not all managers are there to win now. How does he do with the talent around him? Is the team supposed to contend or rebuild? Does the manager serve his purpose for a period of time before he's expendable?

Surroundings: Is there Wa/和 among the manager and the players? Does he make the right moves at the right time? Which market are they managing in?

As we rank these managers from 1-2, we'll also throw in an imaginary temperature for the hot seat where anything hotter than boiling water (212 °F, 100 °C) has a better chance of change if there is failure in 2018.

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1. Shigekazu Mori (Chunichi Dragons) 

Mori was brought in as an interim manager in 2016 when Tanishige was forced out by then-front office leader Hiromitsu Ochiai. After coming in last place (58-82-3, .414) when managing a portion of 2016, Mori's Dragons only took a slight step up going 57-79-5 (.428) in 2017 and they avoided last place due to a historically poor season from the Yakult Swallows

The Dragons admitted to rebuilding when 2017 started as it is a new era with a different front office regime. Unfortunately, they're still feeling the effects of the last decade where they held on to their veterans too long and failed to develop their draft picks under Ochiai. The team is mostly younger entering 2018, but it doesn't help that they have the longest A-class drought in NPB having not been in the postseason since 2012. In the NPB era starting in 1950, the Dragons had never finished in the bottom 3 for four consecutive years until now as they've reached five.

It's likely that Mori is in a no-win situation unless the Dragons win the pennant as he overwatches a rebuild. I personally view Mori as a caretaker serving his purpose to lead the the team for two years before someone else is lined up. Most people believe that farm manager Michihiro "guts" Ogasawara is lined up to be the long term candidate and it makes sense to groom him for two years. Mori is likely to take the fall and be replaced if Chunichi feels he's ready.

This could be a 3-year plan with Mori, but it's also possible that it's for two years. Having a similar record to 2017 can't b good no matter the rebuilding phase the team is in. It could be a lame duck year no matter what happens, but it depends on if Chunichi has a two or three year plan with Mori.  Temperature: 500 (°C), 932 (°F)

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2. Yoshinobu Takahashi (Yomiuri Giants) 


The Yomiuri Giants finished in B-class for the first time since 2006. They suffered a franchise-record 13-game losing streak in the middle of the year as they came up short by only two games. In response, the Giants changed only their front office with Yoshitaka Katori in charge. 

Two straight years of Japan's "National Team" in B-class would be an ultimate embarrassment for the nation and it wouldn't look good on Takahashi. If it were to happen, it would only be the second time in franchise history with the first being from 2005-2006. Some say the only way a winning Giants team would fire Takahashi is if Hideki Matsui took the position, but that's still a long shot.  Some even view Shinnosuke Abe to be a manager when he retires someday. Temperature: 350 (°C), 662 (°F) 

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3. Junji Ogawa (Yakult Swallows) 


Ogawa returns as Swallows manager for the first time since 2014 as he spent the last three years working in the front office. He had early success from 2011-2012, but injuries piled up and a last place finish came in 2014. 

Hiring Ogawa is has indication of a caretaker similar to how Mori is with the Dragons. With a poor offense, the Swallows are admitting they need to rebuild despite having Tetsuto Yamada and Wladimir "Coco" Balentien. Most people see two possible candidates lined up for the long term with head coach Shinya Miyamoto and farm manager Shingo Takatsu with the former having no prior coaching experience. 

The Swallows are often viewed as the Mets of Japan. Fittingly, both teams had an awful injury bug where everything went wrong in 2017. Wins and losses will not determine whether Ogawa goes one and done or not. It will be about the on-field progress from better hitting and a more competent bullpen. If progress isn't there, the Swallows could force something earlier. Temperature: 213 (°C), 415 (°F) 

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4. Alex "Rami-chan" Ramirez (Yokohama DeNA Baystars) 


The Baystars have done nothing but make progress once they get to the postseason. However, in both seasons under Rami-chan, they've barely clinched A-class by default in 2016 with a losing record  and in 2017 benefiting from a Giants 13-game losing streak. It took the final week of the regular season to secure their spot in the postseason for 2017. The Baystars themselves didn't even announce Rami-chan was safe until after the regular season. 

Rami-chan is ranked higher despite winning a playoff series in 2016 and going to the Japan Series in 2017 because he is a foreigner. This sounds unfair, but the team has been mediocre until they reach October and in reality, he's the beneficiary of several rebuilding years where the foundation was laid prior to his arrival. The Baystars have solid starting pitching and Rami-chan prepares for all the advantages, but the offense is still inconsistent and home run dependent with a flawed bullpen. 

Everything seems find and dandy now, but the Baystars need a better regular season than the last two years before we start saying he's a lock to be safe. Temperature: 110 (°C), 230 (°F) 

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5. Junichi Fukura (Orix Buffaloes)


The Orix Buffaloes let Moriwaki go in the middle of 2015 and have kept their interim manager Fukura since. Orix had a civil war between two executives fighting for power within themselves, but that ended after 2016 when one guy was kept and the other was dismissed. Most recently, both men from that war are gone as Ryuzo Setoyama is no longer with the organization. 

In all of this, Fukura was a yes-man and placeholder during the upstairs war and hasn't left his position since Shigetoshi Hasegawa has been in charge of the front office. Results are not kind since Fukura took over with a last place finish in 2016 and a distant fourth place in 2017. The last place finish in 2016 alone should've been a reason to find someone else, but Orix preferred the status quo with the players liking him. 

Fukura should be an assistant and was supposed to be a placeholder, but the longer he's manager, the more it feels like the front office of Orix doesn't care. Front offices are supposed to get their own personnel once they take over, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe losing will poke the bear, but talent along can get Orix to A-class as well. Only fans would be the ones to run him out. Temperature: 88 (°C), 190 (°F) 

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6. Hideki Kuriyama (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)

Kuriyama is currently the longest tenured manager in NPB having held his position since 2012. His team won the Japan series in 2016, but had an awful and forgettable 2017. Shohei Ohtani was forced back a little earlier than he should've been, but even with his injury, the team regressed big time. 

He has shown to be a smart manager who can get the most out of his player defensively and offensively, but the pitching needs to get better. It's likely another rebuilding year for a young Fighters team, but at least the hot seat won't be from the front office if he leaves his position. Despite the losing, Kuriyama is likely at a point in his career when he can step away on his own terms rather than management forcing the issue. That alone is why he drops from this ranking compared to being near the top. Temperature: 57 (°C), 135 (°F)

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7. Koichi Ogata (Hiroshima Carp)

Ogata underachieved in his first season of 2015, but the Carp have won the pennant in back-to-back seasons. Some passive moves in the 2016 Japan Series cost him a possible championship, but fans and management alike have to be on the same page with their recent winning. 

Could Ogata be a victim of his own success? It's possible. The Carp pitchers arguably overachieved in 2017 and given the talent they have, expectations will continue to remain high in 2018. With other teams up and coming, the Carp may not keep their position from the last two years and be in a dog fight for A-class this year. Temperature: 52 (°C), 125.6 (°F)

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8. Hatsuhiko Tsuji (Saitama Seibu Lions) 

The Lions came in second place and the first time in A-class since 2013 in Tsuji's first year. Suddenly, the expectations become larger and like Ogata, he could be a victim of his own success. Was last year a fluke or is this team for real after being in mediocrity from 2014-2016? 

Given all the talent that this Lions team has, Tsuji can't be out of danger yet compared to teh rest of the field. However, as long as the defense doesn't break, the Lions management should approve what he does. Temperature: 40 (°C), 104 (°F)

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9. Tomoaki Kanemoto (Hanshin Tigers) 

Kanemoto took over in 2016 and admitted that this team needs to rebuild. It showed in his first year with a B-class finish, but he got plenty of younger player playing time as a result. The Tigers finished Year 2 with strong progress having a solid second place finish, arguably a year ahead of schedule and doing it without Shintaro Fujinami. Results speak for themselves and fans have to like the sentimental feeling of a now Hall of Famer leading the team he once played for to possible glory. 

The second year for a manager with Hanshin has shown it's a make or break season and it appears Kanemoto passed that test. Expectations are always through the roof in the Kansai market and that alone is why he's ranked higher than some others on this list despite coming in second. Besides the Kyojin, the spotlight is always on the Tigers and any wrongdoings will be magnified. 

Interestingly enough, our buddy T-Ray has criticized Kanemoto as "Wacky Tomoaki", but his name recognition and results are what has likely drawn good will in Osaka. Temperature: 37 (°C), 99 (°F)

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10. Tadahito Iguchi (Chiba Lotte Marines) 


Iguchi steps away as a player and becomes the team's manager right away. Some have been waiting for this moment since they won the 2010 Japan Series. On paper, he has all the right leadership skills needed to be the skipper. 

For a guy who hasn't managed a game yet, Marines fans should be thrilled with this new era of baseball in Chiba. Expectations aren't sky high, but I would also think they'll be patient with him as he learns the ropes like any green manager. Temperature: 29 (°C), 84 (°F)

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11. Masataka Nashida (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles)

When Dave Okubo went one and done in 2015, the Eagles went with a retread and experienced manager in Nashida to enter 2016. It was a stark contrast to the young Okubo who was the farm manager and left on bad terms due to the relationship with his players. 

Nashida improved the team's offense as he did previously with the Fighters and it's likely to get even better in Year 3. Expectations are high in Sendai, but Nashida has shown enough good will with the team's progress that it's likely he can step away on his own terms as this is likely his final managerial position for his career. The only way they'd be losing is if their bullpen turns into what it was in the second half of 2017. Temperature: 14 (°C), 57 (°F) 

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12. Kimiyasu Kudo (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) 

Kudo stepped in a perfect situation after the 2014 season ended. His Golden Era teammate Koji Akiyama steps away from the game with his wife suffering through an illness (she passed away two months after the 2014 Japan Series). 

The Hawks already made historic numbers in 2015 and went on a tear to the Japan Series championship, repeating from 2014. After losing in the Climax Series and a pennant in 2016 to a hot Fighters team, the Hawks established a dynasty by winning it all in 2017 again. Closer Dennis Sarfate was quoted as saying his daughter could manage the Hawks with how they're structured. 

Right now, the Hawks have been set since the Softbank era. There is plenty of talent for the now and the future and it's likely none of that changes. Kudo arguably has a fancy car all but set where it drives on auto pilot to do the work. He just has to make sure he doesn't tear it apart. It would be a crazy shortcoming if something bad happened in 2018, but even then, winning two Japan Series titles will earn goodwill with everyone in charge. Temperature: -273 (°C), -460 (°F). This is also known as Sub zero or (°0) Kelvin.  

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Overall:

There could be up to four managerial changes by season's end if everything goes wrong, but I personally think only two will happen. Of course 2018 is a new year and we can't base old data off what will happen this season. Disagree on this? Let us know. Enjoy the baseball ahead. 

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Report: Nishitetsu Lion Teruyuki Takakura passes away at 83



Teruyuki Takakura passed away in a Fukuoka hospital on Monday, February 12. He was 83 years old.

In the early days of professional baseball, Takakura played almost immediately with the Nishitetsu Lions as an 18-year old with 18 games at the ichi-gun level. In the 1950s, he was part of a "streamline" lineup which featured five top hitters with Takakura leading the way as the centerfielder. The others following him include SS Yasumitsu Toyoda (1935-2016), 3B Futoshi Nakanishi, RF Hiroshi Oshita (1922-1979) and LF Seiji Sekiguchi (1925-2007).

Nakanishi, the only living member from the "streamline" lineup had the following statement upon learning about his death:

"He was a strong hitter especially against the right pitchers. A great leadoff hitter, reminding me of my time as a player. Being the only player remaining, I will remember him."

Born in Kumamoto prefecture, Takakura was named into the Best IX in 1959, 1964 and 1966. The Nishitetsu Lions won three consecutive championships from 1956-1958 with Takakura as the leadoff hitter. Early on in his career, he had plenty of stolen bases with 33 in 1955 and 35 in 1956.

Takakura moved to the Yomiuri Giants in 1967 and finished his playing career with the Sankei Atoms in 1969, before they became Yakult Swallows in 1970.

As a player from the legendary 1950s Lions, you will be missed. R.I.P. Takakura. 

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Seibu Lions 2018 Spring Camp Outlook: Manager


Hatsuhiko Tsuji enters his second year as the manager for the Saitama Seibu Lions having coached for more than a decade after his playing days. Things look good for now, but it can always change after a year.

When he took over a fourth place Lions team from 2016, Tsuji helped bring them into second place behind a mindset of defensive improvements. After leading the league in errors in 2016, the Lions reduced that number from 111 to 88. They still had a high number, but most of them errors were not back-breaking like it was from the year before.

There are several question marks on Tsuji despite the success in year one. Here are some uncertainties entering year two:

Keep in mind, some of these decisions may not be Tsuji's alone. The coaching staff including head coach Hideki Hashigami could be in charge of several choices. 

Can the defense maintain their form from last year? 

Tsuji's emphasis when coming in was defense. Everyone knew how bad the 2016 team was being at the top in errors and he looked to fix that. Sosuke Genda had an amazing rookie season despite having more than 20 errors.

It was on Opening Day of 2017 when the Lions made their statement. With Fumikazu Kimura starting a relay to Hideto Asamura to Ginjiro Sumitani tagging out the speedy Haruki Nishikawa for a 9-4-2 play.


The Lions went on to win that game when the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters were the ones caught with defensive blunders. Yes, it was one game, but the Lions looked completely different that night showing it was a new year. It would be a bonus if they can reduce the errors even more for 2018.

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How is the bullpen utilized? 

No more Kazuhisa Makita and Brian Schlitter to take the 7th and 8th innings as the former is with the San Diego Padres while the latter was let go. There are plenty of options, but Tsuji likely wants to figure out who takes their places. If the competition looks balanced, could he go by committee as a bridge to Tatsushi Masuda? We'll find out.

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Will Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura have a reduced role?
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Okawari-kun is past his prime, but has still shown he can play 3B without trouble. His track record has shown injury prone history and it's possible that the team will want to be careful in the future. It was quite a luxury last season when he was batting 7th in the lineup, making the Lions offense an embarrassment of riches.

If the Lions want to go younger, Haruka Yamada and Nien Ting Wu are candidates to take 3B. Shuta Tonosaki can also play on the infield in the pinch if they want to. There's no denying Okawari-kun's presence in the lineup helps, but there won't be much room for him to DH if Tomoya Mori or Ernesto Mejia play there.

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How much catching will Tomoya Mori get? 

Mori did not play much last year due to an accident in a WBC exhibition. When he was healthy, the Lions had him as a part time catcher as he took some games away from Masatoshi Okada. There is no other position in the field worth placing Mori in on a regular basis as he can only go in the OF in a pinch. Could he play a third of the season at catcher while Sumitani and Okada take the other two-thirds?

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Will the 2015 and 2017 draft classes be involved? 

Shinsaburo Tawata is the only player to get significant time from the 10-man 2015 draft class. Even then, he hasn't reached 100 inning in a single season due to injury in the first half. The Lions have drafted a starting pitcher, top end reliever or starting position player in each class from 2008-2014. With Genda, they can also count the 2016 draft class as he played every inning in 2017.

Majority of the 2015 draft class has failed to do much at the ichi-gun as Shogo Noda is the only other who has done some action. Others saw minimal time in 2016 when the season was over. It could be judgement year for many of them, minus the high school picks Aito Takeda and Koki Fujita.

For the 2017 class, Hiromasa Saito could contribute in 2018 as a reliever or starter if the Lions want to. On paper, the Lions wanted a left handed pitcher knowing that Yusei Kikuchi is likely to get posted after this season and would hope he can fill the void. If they want immediate help, he could be a lefty specialist out the bullpen right away.

Due to the youth in the 2017 class, there isn't much to expect out of a group that has four teenagers, two ikusei and two college players. Kaito Yoza is coming off an injury from college and they hope his submarine abilities can be developed long term.

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Overall:

There's other questions on how much Tsuji bunts or how he uses pinch hitters, but it's not as major as what's above. He's likely to bunt with some individuals, but won't force it with a guy like Hotaka Yamakawa. Defense and bullpen use should be the biggest points of emphasis with 2018.

In 2016, Norio Tanabe didn't trust his bullpen and often left the starter in too long. Tsuji was more aggressive when the starter would be taken out after the fourth or fifth inning. It's possible he did this under advice and guidance given the Lions had more spot starters than usual. Obviously any losing to an extreme number could hurt his job security, but he's not on the hot seat once Opening Day comes.

The coaching staff for 2018 has minimal changes. Fumiya Nishiguchi is at the ichi-gun, taking the place of the late Shinji Mori coaching pitchers. Kento Sugiyama and Ming-Chieh Hsu are the new farm pitchers coming from Taiwan. Also, one trainer went from the ichi-gun to ni-gun, but even that isn't huge. The biggest name addition is Kazuo Matsui serving as a player/coach. His title is "technical coach" at the ichi-gun level, while he will be there part-time as a player.

Tsuji needs to show that 2017 was not fluke and coming in A-class would still be a success. The Pacific League still has depth and the path won't be as easy as last year, but the talent on offense is there and the pitching could get better depending on what the recent draft picks do.

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Other positions:

Catcher

Infield

Outfield

Bullpen

Rotation

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Report: Tatsuya Imai suspended for smoking underage


Tatsuya Imai was suspended by the Saitama Seibu Lions for being caught smoking underage on Tuesday. He will be ineligible to play in any games until the end of May and cannot wear the team uniform in this time.

"We will work to prevent this from happening again by guidance and education," General Manager Haruhiko Suzuki said in a statement.  "We will have awareness on all players and staff members including Imai. We plan to take action with enough care."

Imai, 19, has been in ni-gun camp down in Kochi prefecture. The legal smoking age in Japan is 20, leading to a breaking of the law. Last year, he injured his shoulder on the first day of spring training and the team sidelined him for most of the year. Imai appeared in only seven ni-gun games, but still participated in the Fresh All-Stars game (All-star Futures equivalent).

It was reported from an outside source that Imai was seen smoking in public last January in Tokorozawa. The report was confirmed when team officials spoke with Imai on February 5.

This photo emerged to the media showing Imai playing pachinko while smoking.



The Lions drafted Imai in the first round of the 2016 NPB Draft and earned his rights without any opposition. Imai was the ace for Sakushin Gakuin, the 2016 Summer Koshien champions as it was their first championship in 54 years. 

"I am deeply sorry," Imai said in a team-released statement. "I believe I was naive, which brought about this situation. I would like to be strict with myself so I do not repeat this again in the future. I am very sorry." 

Previously,  Makoto Aiuchi was caught smoking underage and in uniform during his rookie camp year in 2012. He was given a six month suspension due to his previous offense of speeding and driving without a proper license. 

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Other note:

-OF Masato Kumashiro and P Yusuke Tamamura were diagnosed with influenza in ni-gun camp. They became the 3rd and 4th players to have influenza, joining battery coach Kosuke Noda and Aito Takeda, who are also in ni-gun camp.

-Kaito Yoza was also diagnosed with the flu, being the 5th person to sit out practice in ni-gun camp. He was the fifth round draft pick of the Lions last fall and is a submarine pitcher. 

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Seibu Lions 2018 Spring Camp Outlook: Rotation


The Saitama Seibu Lions had a 13-game win streak, which was one of the longest in franchise history dating back to its Nishitetsu days in Fukuoka. A big reason for that was the defense and pitching behind them, where the starter in each game went at least five innings without getting lit up.

For 2017, the Lions had adequate pitching, which is all that's needed given how powerful the offense can be. Some new faces have come along since then, but there is competition that will play out.

Locks: 

Yusei Kikuchi: The Lions verbally said they would post Kikuchi if he had at least 10 wins in both 2017 and 2018. He's already halfway there and if he repeats a similar season as the team's ace, he's as good as gone to MLB as the team will fulfill their promise.

Ken Togame: Togame began the 2017 season in ni-gun while coming up as the 6th starter in May. He will begin the 2018 season in the rotation, but track record is not on his side. He has not had two consistent seasons and has shown to have a bad year in an even-numbered calendar year, while doing well in an odd-numbered year. Last season, he showed he belongs in the rotation as a middle tier starter. Can he buck his own trend?

Shinsaburo Tawata: Tawata followed up his promising rookie year with a similar performance in 2017, where he started slow and had an injury which hurt his effectiveness. However, his second half was strong just like 2016 and he will look to reach a career high in innings this year hoping to stay healthy and effective at the ichi-gun level all-season long.

Brian Wolfe: Wolfe has been a longtime NPB veteran now entering his eighth year in Japan. He was good for 3/4ths of the season and ate up innings for the most part. Despite falling off to end 2017, the Lions will take the production he got for the year and hope he continues to have gas in the tank. Wolfe isn't getting any younger, but his arm doesn't have the normal mileage for a pitcher his age due to his past injuries. He was relatively healthy in 2017 only missing one projected start before taking him off for majority of September due to the shortened weeks.

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Competition: 

Hayato Takagi: Takagi became the player compensation selection by the Lions after the loss of Ryoma Nogami in free agency. He spent most of 2017 as a reliever due to a freak-accident injury from last April. Assuming he's healthy, Takagi is capable of being a starter right away. He's also younger than Nogami and much cheaper while having more years of control.

Kona Takahashi: Takahashi is the ace of the future, but he had a shortened 2017 season due to injury. He will look to crack the rotation hoping to work on his control after struggling in Australia with the Melbourne Aces last winter.

Fabio Castillo: Castillo can throw the heat, but can he throw with control? On paper, he's the hardest throwing Lions rotation candidate, but he can't just fastball his way in Japan. The newest Lions import will get a look at some point, but will he be part of the opening rotation? Time will tell.

Hiromasa Saito: Saito was the team's first round pick last fall and is looking to compete right away. He was the ace out of Meiji University and the team is hoping he can be a starter down the line when Kikuchi leaves. They placed a high priority on a left handed pitcher last draft and ended up with Saito as a plan B after losing out on Daiki Tajima. For 2018, it wouldn't hurt of Saito is a reliever as a lefty specialist to start his NPB career/

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Spot starters: 

Yosuke Okamoto: After being on the bubble a year ago, Okamoto took control of a the 6th rotation spot and did a decent job eating up innings. He's a nibbler, but has drawn weak contact and had a better approach in 2017 than before.

Yasuo Sano: Sano is coming off a leg injury and won't be playing until the second half of the season at the earliest. Like Okamoto, he did a decent job getting four or five innings as the back end starter and only left the ichi-gun once he was injured. He could also be another left handed option out of the bullpen if they want to ease him back.

Makoto Aiuchi: Aiuchi has his last name registered to his jersey and now faces a large uphill battle. He's been mostly a spot starter due to his poor location, leading him to be a gas can. He might be better suited as a reliever in the long run.

Keisuke Honda: Honda struggled with location in his few stints at the ichi-gun. Opposing hitters were not fooled and it would lead to walks. Despite tearing it up down under in Australia, his success hasn't translated to the NPB level yet.

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The Farm: 

Tatsuya Imai: The first round pick of 2016 spent majority of 2017 injured and the Lions were cautious with him. Assuming he's healthy, expect Imai to get his baptism of fire sooner than later.

UPDATE: Imai has been suspended from playing in games until May for smoking underage. He cannot wear the team uniform in this time. It's likely his debut could be later than we thought.

Kaima Taira: The Lions 4th round pick of 2017 out of Okinawa has a good zip. He'll be working on his control

Sho Ito: Ito was invited to the ichi-gun camp and Hatsuhiko Tsuji will get a first look at the 19-year old out of the independent Shikoku Island League. A third round pick from last fall, Ito has upside for his velocity at a young age.

Yusuke Tamamura: Tamamura has been a regular starter in ni-gun, but has yet to make any impact. Time could be running out if others pass him on the depth chart and he has a better chance at making the bullpen than rotation in the long term.

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Outlook: 

The front end of the rotation looks good, the back end remains uncertain. Spot starter depth proved to be decent in 2017, but can it repeat the success from last year? It would help if there is stability in the rotation and both Tawata and Castillo stay at the ichi-gun level.

By taking Takagi, they're hoping he can make an impact right away even though he'll be adjusting to the Pacific League on a regular basis.

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Other positions: 

Catcher

Infield

Outfield

Bullpen

Manager

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Seibu Lions 2018 Spring Camp Outlook: Bullpen


The Saitama Seibu Lions bullpen is undergoing a few changes with the back end in particular being different. Gone are Kazuhisa Makita (Padres) and Brian Schliter (let go). Tatsushi Masuda is still the closer, but who provides the bridge for him?

Locks: 

Tatsushi Masuda: Masuda had one bad stretch in 2017, but has been a decent closer overall since having it in 2016. The Lions expect the same from him for 2018.

Shota Takekuma: Takekuma can be a lefty specialist and is one of the better middle relief options. He can go anywhere from the 5th to 8th inning if needed. Last year, he didn't impress as much to be a back end reliever compared to Schlitter and Makita and he hopes to take the reins this time.

Katsunori Hirai: Hirai came on and earned meaningful innings in middle relief as a rookie in 2017. His splits indicate he's solid against right-handed batters.

Tomomi Takahashi: Takahashi is coming off Tommy John surgery and we saw a glimpse of him at the end of the 2017 season. If he can regain his form from 2014 to the first half of 2015, the Lions would take it and he can be the setup man.

Tatsuya Oishi: The former highly touted first round pick of 2010 has shown he's a solid reliever with an effective slider. Oishi's biggest problem is health as he only appeared in a handful of games in 2017. An argument can be made he's the best option in middle relief against right-handed hitters.

Neil Wagner: The Lions will likely give their import a first look out of the bullpen. What Wagner does will depend on how he looks in camp and preseason. Best case scenario would be a guy to take the 7th or 8th inning, but they'll at least give him a chance at the start of the year based on how much they're paying him.

Some pitchers not listed here will likely get a look at the rotation and those who lose out will probably go to the bullpen. They will be mentioned in our starting pitcher piece. 

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Reserves: 

Hirotaka Koishi: Koishi came off a bad year and only took low leverage innings in 2017. After having a career high in 2016 due to the team trailing often, the role for Koishi could continue to diminish. At best, he can draw a ground ball for a double play or eat up innings.

Shunta Nakatsuka: The Lions hope Nakatsuka can work on his control as he is the hardest thrower on the team. He worked down under in Australia for five weeks with the Melbourne Aces, but can he crack the ichi-gun? This will be only his second year with the team.

Shogo Noda: Noda nibbles quite a bit when throwing pitches, but can be effective at getting a ground ball. Entering his third year, he should be better and could also be a lefty specialist.

Tsubasa Kokuba: Kokuba was the 8th round pick in 2015. He has yet to pitch a meaningful inning for the ichi-gun as he only got a brief glimpse in 2016.

Takuya Toyoda: Toyoda failed to play an ichi-gun game in 2017 and being one of the older reserves, he's in trouble as this could be his final season with the team.

Kentaro Fukukura: Fukukura was part of the revolving door as a mop up duty pitcher. He'll likely need to work his way up with good low leverage innings if he wants a crack at the ichi-gun.

Chun-Lin Kuo: Kuo started with the team initially in 2015, but his control faded which led to his downfall in 2016. By putting his stock on the 2017 World Baseball Classic, he has one of the biggest uphill battles among Lions pitchers as he almost everyone passed him on the depth chart. His upside isn't as good as it once was as he just turned 26 this month. \

Tadasuke Minamikawa: The third year Shakaijin hopes to get more innings after only getting a few looks at the ichi-gun. He's in the same class as Shogo Noda and Kokuba.

Naoaki Matsumoto: Matsumoto was the 10th round pick of the Lions in 2015 and the ultimate underdog out of the Shikoku Island League. One scout liked him and the team felt it was worth a flyer. Like Toyoda, he's up there in age compared to the rest and it could be his last season if he can't make any impact at the ichi-gun level.

Ryohei Fujiwara: Fujiwara could be in for a pinch as he can miss bats. He isn't worth relieving for more than two innings unless it's mop up duty.

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The Farm: 

Koki Fujita: Fujita was the only high school pitcher taken in the 2015 draft by the Lions. He finally got a glimpse in ni-gun in 2017 after recovering from an injury.

Seiji Kawagoe: The second round pick of 2015 is on pace to be a bust. Kawagoe has not converted to pitcher as well after being a two-way player in college. It's possible he could switch to OF like Fumikazu Kimura if pitching doesn't work out.

Kaizo Yota: The submarine pitcher could be a depth option and is capable of playing in 2018. He's coming off an injury from college and will have to take it slow to start.

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Outlook:

This unit has uncertainty on the back end before Masuda, but there are plenty of options available given the recent draft picks and more. It would be a huge boost if Wagner can crack the bullpen and stay there for the entire season, rather than get sent down after one month of being ineffective.

Tsuji will be experimenting along the way and hopefully he finds out who can be the best in middle relief as time goes on.

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Other positions: 

Catcher

Infield

Outfield

Rotation

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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Seibu Lions 2018 Spring Camp Outlook: Outfield


The outfield for the Saitama Seibu Lions had a revolving door in right field in 2015. With multiple infielders moved into the outfield, the starters are all but set for the long run.

Locks: 

Shogo Akiyama: Akiyama is coming off a batting champion year in the Pacific League while also having a career high 25 home runs, arguably his peak season compared to 2015 where he had the most hits in a single year. He'll stay in centerfield.

Yuji Kaneko: Kaneko started 2017 with shin splits, but was put into the outfield right away and still stole 25 bases. He went from right field to left field last year and should receive majority of the starts out there.

Shuta Tonosaki: Tonosaki was one of the bigger surprises in 2017 by being one of the players who stayed at the ichi-gun the entire season after being a reserve from 2015-2016. Initially thought to be a replacement player and pinch runner, Tonosaki became a starting right fielder by the season's end and made the most of his opportunity by upgrading the bottom-3 in the batting order. Like Kaneko, his speed is valuable. The Lions can also put Tonosaki on the infield as a defensive replacement.

Takumi Kuriyama: The former captain saw his playing time diminish in the field when he played through an injury and started 2017 as a DH. He'll likely split time with Kaneko in left field, but is still an effective pinch hitter at worst.

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Reserves: 

Kazuo Matsui: The long time Lions outfield returns for a presumed final year with the team he started his career with. He'll be serving as a player coach. On the field, there can't be any high expectations for someone who is 42.

Fumikazu Kimura: Kimura received a lot of starting time due to Kaneko's injury last year, but Tsuji and everyone else noticed how poor of a hitter he is. The converted pitcher is a defensive replacement at best, where his arm is more accurate than others.

Shogo Saito: Saito's time has diminished even though he was the fourth outfielder in 2015. He will be on the outside looking to be a reserve, but can't be caught with foolish pinch running mistakes.

Masato Kumashiro: Kumashiro served his purpose in the early parts of his NPB career and is nothing but a former shell of himself. He failed to play an ichi-gun game in 2017 and could be cut after the year if things don't improve.

Ryo Sakata: Sakata can be good on some occasions, but couldn't keep a starting OF spot for a whole season. Like Kuriyama, he's not a bad pinch hitting option.

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The Farm: 

Shohei Suzuki: The Lions like what they saw from him in 2017 at the ni-gun level. Manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji will get a closer look at him in ichi-gun camp and he's made good progress as a high school outfielder.

Aito Takeda: Takeda also made good progress in ni-gun until his injury late in the year. He even earned a few ichi-gun at-bats in 2017. Like Suzuki, he's viewed as a future outfielder in the long term.

Daisuke Togawa: Togawa was an ikusei pick of the Lions promoted to the 70-man roster after the 2015 season. He'll be 22 this year and could crack some time at the ichi-gun if he can impress the staff.

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Ikusei: 

Wataru Takagi: Takagi is an athlete who has two-way abilities. He's coming off a shoulder injury, but is viewed as fast and quick. His goal will be to earn a 70-man roster spot.

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Overall:

This team is set for a few years in the outfield for the short term. On paper, Takeda and Suzuki will step it up in the long run. It will be interesting to see how many games Matsui plays, but we're expecting him to coach more than play given his age and natural regression. There's plenty of depth options, but not all of them can play.

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Other positions: 

Catcher

Infield

Bullpen

Rotation

Manager

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