Thursday, October 17, 2019

Seibu Lions land Miyagawa with first round pick


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The Saitama Seibu Lions entered the 2019 NPB Draft hoping to take the ultimate prize in high school phenom Roki Sasaki out of Ofunato. They had a four-way draw and ultimately lost when Tadahito Iguchi of the Chiba Lotte Marines picked up the winning ticket.

As a result, the Lions went to plan B and nominated RHP Tetsu Miyagawa out of Toshiba and the shakaijin leagues. In a 50-50 coin flip drawing with the Yomiuri Giants, Tatsunori Hara's pick decided it all. In the end, Hatsuhiko Tsuji won the draw and the Lions hold his signing rights.

Miyagawa, 24, spent two years with Toshiba's baseball team in Kanagawa prefecture in both a reliever and starter role. He also pitched in both situations at the University level.

He can top out at 154 kph (95 mph) and has above average control for his fastball. He can also throw a curve, fork and cutter.

While this wasn't the most attractive name coming into the draft, taking an industrial league pitcher means he can likely help the Lions sooner than later and they can plug him in as a reliever or starter if needed. With his versatility, he could be valuable depth even though his upside is minimal at 24 years old.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Seibu Lions re-sign Zach Neal for 2020


The Saitama Seibu Lions announced on Wednesday that Zach Neal will be returning for the 2020 season. This is the first time a foreign pitcher returns for the following year for a second full season since Esmerling Vasquez.

According to Nikkan, this is a two-year contract. The last time a Lions starting pitcher stayed in a rotation role without moving to the bullpen for more than one year, it was Chris Gissell (2006-2007).  Alex Graman was also a starter, but remembered for his dominant closer season in 2008.

"This year's work [from Neal] was wonderful," General Manager Hisaobu "Nabe-Q" Watanabe said. "It is worth a multi-year contract for the team. He has been learning Japanese baseball and has a respect for it. I have been negotiating with Neal since the end of the season."

Neal, who will turn 31 next month, had a dominant second half of 2019 which had an 11-game win streak and the Lions did not lose any of the 13 regular season starts he played in. In September, he was named Pacific League pitching MVP with a 4-0 record and a 0.67 ERA while having zero walks.

He finished 2019 with a 2.87 ERA and a 12-1 record in 100.1 innings of work. It wasn't all roses for Neal at the start, when he played through an injury in the first four appearances. He was sent to ni-gun for 40 days and learned several tips and tricks to Japanese baseball from the coaches.

His strikeout ratio is not flashy (4.6 K / 9 IP), but he learned to be crafty at drawing the ground ball while Sosuke Genda and Shuta Tonosaki were behind him on the infield. Neal's biggest strength has been control, where he still throws strikes and avoids walking batters.

The Lions have marketed Neal with a player towel available when the postseason started. Neal himself has also continued to learn the Japanese language as shown in his hero interviews with "Azaaasu" あざーす (Thanks) being his big line.

Earlier in the season, Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman were making comparisons to Miles Mikolas and how Neal had potential to return to MLB. By signing this contract before leaving Japan, Neal put an end to any rumors and even gave his word in a news article as shown below.


Unlike Mikolas, who came to Japan in his late 20s, Neal will likely finish his baseball playing career in Japan like Kris Johnson and most recently Randy Messenger. MLB teams likely don't see upside in a pitcher who will be 31 next year and the offers would not have been as easy.

It's also clear Neal likes being in Japan while as said in an interview that he was seeking a job in Asia as early as 2015. The Oakland Athletics blocked Neal from signing with a KBO team in Korea by placing him on their 40-man roster in the past.

On the eve of the 2019 NPB Draft, the Lions got one part of business out of the way and can now move forward without being distracted by Neal receiving other offers.

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Other note:

Ernesto Mejia's sayonara to end the 2019 regular season at home was named the Pacific League's Sayonara of the month for September. If anyone missed it, here was the hit.


Mejia also had a reaction to receiving this award.



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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

2019 NPB Lions Draft Preview: Three pitchers top this class


The 2019 NPB Draft is this week as the offseason for the Saitama Seibu Lions began quickly after being eliminated in the Climax Series. This year, it takes place on October 17 at 16:50 JT.

As a reminder, the first round is a free for all where everyone selects who they want and if anyone wants the same player, they draw for his rights with a winning ticket out of a box. Teams that miss on their player will go again until all 12 teams have their first round selection. The record for most teams wanting one player is eight. 

You can see the first round of the most recent draft here:


For the record, the representative for each team is chosen at the team's discretion. Sometimes it's the manager, other times it could be an executive, GM equivalent or even a scout. 

From the second round and on, the draft order is like a traditional one where the worst team of one league goes first, then it reverses to the worst of the opposite league then flops back to the second worst of the original in a snake format. The Central League will select first 

Here is how the draft order will look in the second round, while the odd rounds will be this list in reverse:

1. Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Central League, 6th place)
2. Orix Buffaloes (Pacific League, 6th place)
3. Chunichi Dragons (CL, 5th)
4. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (PL, 5th)
5. Hiroshima Carp (CL, 4th)
6. Chiba Lotte Marines (PL, 4th)
7. Hanshin Tigers (CL, 3rd)
8. Tohoku Rakuten Eagles (PL, 3rd)
9. Yokohama DeNA Baystars (CL, 2nd)
10. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (PL, 2nd)
11. Yomiuri Giants (CL, 1st)
12. Saitama Seibu Lions (PL, 1st)

The Lions will draft back-to-back for the second and third rounds and more after the first round.
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Looking ahead, any draft is more for long term needs. Here's a look at each position: 

Pitcher:

Pitcher is the most obvious need for both the short and long term. This year is very pitcher-heavy with several candidates to help immediately, but three main pitchers are the talk of the first round. Roki Sasaki (Ofunato HS) has all the hype where even MLB teams were scouting him to try and pry his talents to North America. His velocity can hit 100 mph on the gun, but he made himself eligible for the draft and said he is fine with going to all 12 teams.

Ofunato HS did not make the Summer Koshien tournament, so as a result, Yasunobu Okugawa (Seriyo HS) was able to take advantage of the spotlight and up his stock as a guaranteed first round draft pick. He carried his team to the finals before losing to Riseisha HS.

Masato Morishita (Meiji) is the consensus best college pitcher available who can likely play sooner than later at the ichi-gun.

EDIT: The Seibu Lions announced Roki Sasaki will be their pick.

Other candidates the Lions could go for if they whiff on their first round drawing are Masaki Oyokawa (Yokohama HS), Ryosei Kawano (JFE West), Hiroki Inoue (Nichidaisan HS), Kazuaki Tateno (Tokai Rika University) and Daiki Yoshida (Nittai Univesity).

Several later options are also available including Yuki Tsumori (Tohoku Fukushi University), Hiroaki Matsuda (Nagoya University), Shinri Komine (Kagoshima Joseiko HS) and Shogo Tamamura (Fukui Shinritsu HS).

With the Lions having pitcher holes, expect several pitchers to be taken in the main draft with even more names unlisted.

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Catcher:

The Lions had an injury to Masatoshi Okada, but they drafted enough depth catchers with Daichi Nakaguma, Masato Saito and Shoya Makino all being later draft picks in the last two years. Expect no catchers taken except in the late rounds or ikusei.

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Infielder:

The Lions may feel Ryusei Sato will be the future 3B while Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura can be a DH for the rest of his career. SS, 2B and 1B are all locked up for the next few years. That being said, a high school infielder can always be an intriguing long term solution.  SS Keito Mori (Toin Gakuen HS) and Kohei Wada (Saitama Sakae HS) are both names the Lions have looked at. Others can play multiple positions on the infield and are listed as outfielders.

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Outfield: 

Shogo Akiyama is likely to take a opportunity in MLB which leaves a void in centerfield for the first time in awhile. The Lions are rumored to acquire Shuhei Fukuda from the Softbank Hawks, but nothing is official. K. Mori and Yuya Gunji (Keio University) are players the Lions have looked at with the latter also a catcher. Koki Ugasa (Hosei University), Akito Takabe (Kokushikan University) and Riku Kaneko (Hakuoh University) are also college outfielders the Lions have looked at.

Another multiple position option is Tatsuru Yanagimachi (Keio University), who is capable of playing 3B too. By looking at this list, the Lions have thought ahead in wanting a player who can be plugged in immediately.

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Outlook: 

The Lions have put their name in the box for Roki Sasaki with an official announcement from the team. Their last time going to a drawing was 2017 when they lost to Orix in an attempt to have Daiki Tajima. Before that, their last drawing was in 2012 for Nao Higashihama.

Presumably, Hatsuhiko Tsuji will be the representative to take the draw, but it's all just a formality with the Lions being last and having zero control over taking a winning ticket in the box or not. Tsuji will be standing there taking the final ticket available.

If the Lions ended up with any of the top three pitchers, it would be awesome. What has stood out is how the Lions are expected to expand their roster with a san-gun, which is taking extra ikusei players in the ikusei draft. The Softbank Hawks and Yomiuri Giants do this and have found several diamonds in the rough by taking this approach.

Fasten your seatbelts everyone, this draft is always interesting.

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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Seibu Lions 2019 Climax Series Digest: New year, same result


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The Saitama Seibu Lions came up short again in the Final Stage on the Climax Series against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, losing the series 4-1 in game results, but without winning one on the field. This was the same outcome as last year, where the team won a pennant only to lose to the Hawks ii the postseason.

Instead of a normal game-by-game recap, this piece will be about what went wrong as a whole in the postseason.

Unfortunately, I saw this coming despite everything going right in August and September. Here's why the Lions couldn't win beyond the regular season:

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Katsunori Hirai's arm was done before the regular season ended

New pitching coach Kazuyoshi Ono had the reins of the Lions bullpen and used Hirai in what felt like every game. Hirai set a single-season Pacific League record for appearances by a pitcher with 81, but it was clear his arm was already fatigued and couldn't regain form in September.

Hirai was used for almost any role before the ninth whether the team was tied, trailing or leading by a run. On occasion, he would even take two innings. In the first Climax Series game, he left two men on base and it set the tone for the rest of the bullpen needing to step it up. With no clear identity before the 9th inning, everything went downhill.

This isn't to say Hirai was nothing, as he was the team's MVP of the first half as they were mediocre as a whole. It's just unfortunate the team had to live and die by one pitcher being the glue to the bullpen and more.

What also hurt was how other players with expectations didn't live up to hype. Hayato Takagi and Hiromasa Saito were supposed to help the team in the short term when acquired, but the former never adjusted to the Pacific League and the latter stayed in ni-gun. Everything before the 8th inning had the effects of a roulette wheel with anyone coming in.

Lions returning import pitchers Deunte Heath and Kyle Martin both regressed from 2018 and are unlikely to return in 2020.

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Rotation was overwhelmed, functioning without an ace

The Lions had the worst team ERA and won the pennant for the second consecutive year. While the pitching wasn't as awful as the stats say, there wasn't a true established ace this season when the expectations before the year were different. Shinsaburo Tawata was the opening day starter, but he failed to stay at the ichi-gun with poor form and didn't even see a game in the second half. In the world of memes, Tawata's face would be on a milk carton given how awful his 2019 was.

Zach Neal was the closest thing to an ace this year and was the team's best pitcher in the second half. While statistically he performed great, he doesn't miss bats or strikeout hitters like a true ace and the Lions defense was able to cater to his strength in forcing ground balls.

The rest of the Lions rotation was raw, unproven or downright mediocre. There is plenty of upside as a whole, but pitchers including Tatsuya Imai, Keisuke Honda and Ken Togame were No. 4 pitchers at best and not the greatest options for a postseason series. In the long run, the Lions hope Wataru Matsumoto, Imai and Kona Takahashi can be part of a Big 3 in the future. 

It also hurt that Tetsuya Utsumi was a waste of a compensation selection when he didn't play an ichi-gun game due to injuries and setbacks. The Lions were hoping he would be a veteran presence for the young pitchers, but all he did was sell bento boxes.

This postseason featured a first run allowed in the first inning in three of the four losses. The Lions could have used a pitcher like Takayuki Kishi or (while in his prime) Hideaki Wakui in this situation. Some may argue Yusei Kikuchi, but his track record against the Hawks wasn't good. Historically, thee Lions will not pay the pitcher once he reaches free agency and hope to reload from within.

The pitching was as advertised in this postseason and it wasn't a shock to lose, but it was surprising they came in first place even with this obvious flaw.

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Offense was simply unclutch

Game 1 will be remembered as a game the Lions blew in the 8th inning, but the offense had plenty of runners on base while only scoring our runs to show for it. Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, Shogo Akiyama, Tomoya Mori and others didn't have the magic that came from the regular season.

Were the Hawks sandbagging in the regular season like how Shohei Ohtani was in the 2018 Spring Training? The Lions offense looked just as overwhelmed as the pitchers were. Softbank's bullpen was also in a similar situation with several young pitchers, but they stepped up to the occasion and got it done, especially in Game 1 when they were behind and kept the team within reach.

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Where do the Lions go from here? 

Shogo Akiyama, Ernesto Mejia, Martin and Heath likely played their last games with the Lions in 2019. Togame also has Type C domestic free agent rights and could walk without compensation. Thee Lions already announced nine players not being offered a contract for 2020, meaning they aren't messing around.

With the 2019 NPB Draft this week, we'll have a short piece previewing it while also recapping what happens. It's possible they draft several players hoping to fix the pitching staff and more. The outfield will have to change with no Akiyama while the infield is all but set. Pitching is the big glaring hole while hoping the draft picks develop. 

For Neal, there is uncertainty if he returns, given he could have an offer from an MLB team. Going one and done for positive reasons is rare with NPB as even Miles Mikolas and Colby Lewis spent more than one season to refine their game.

It's very likely this group takes a step backwards in 2020, but the pitching can get better with the right development and execution. 

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Monday, October 7, 2019

2019 Pacific League Climax Series: Lions hoping for no repeat of last year


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The Final Stage of the 2019 Pacific League Climax Series is set. With the first stage's results in the books, the Saitama Seibu Lions will take on the Softbank Hawks.

Here is our preview with matchups and positions on both teams:

Background: 

The Lions won their second consecutive Pacific League Pennant, but didn't do it in the same fashion as 2018. This year's squad had rotation issues while hovering around .500 for majority of the first four months. It wasn't until August where the Lions began their run and went a combined 31-17 through August/September/October to win the pennant.

Majority of NPB experts expected regression with the losses of Yusei Kikuchi to MLB and Hideto Asamura to the Eagles. This year was much more surprising than last year's dominant stretch with a franchise record breaking offense.

For the Hawks, they're aiming for their third straight Japan Series championship and fifth in the last six years. This season dealt with injuries and pitching inconsistency leading to a not-so dominant 2019 like years before. Kodai Senga continued to show off his velocity and even threw a no-hitter, but it wasn't his best season by his standards.

Rei Takahashi picked up a lot of slack while other young players got their feet wet at the ichi-gun level, including first round draft pick Hiroshi Kaino. Yuki Yanagita was out for majority of the year and this time it was all about Yurisbel Gracial in the outfield doing the damage. The Hawks are still the Hawks and can compete with anyone, but more importantly, several farm players got ichi-gun experience for the long run.

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Rotation: 

The Lions will throw Zach Neal in Game 1 while Wataru Matsumoto, Tatsuya Imai, Keisuke Honda and maybe Daiki Enokida could round out the group. It's possible Kona Takahashi returns from an injury as well.

Softbank played Rei Takahashi, Senga and Rick van Den Hurk in their series against the Eagles. With two primary starters carrying this rotation, they could be bullpenning the rest of the way with Shota Takeda or Ariel Miranda taking 3-4 innings to start a game. Quality is better in Fukuoka, but the Lions have the depth when it comes to starters only. Edge: Lions 

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Catcher:

Tomoya Mori is coming off a batting title and reached the 20 HR milestone for the first time in his career. His defense is average as a catcher, but his offense has taken the next step, living up to the hype as a first round draft pick many years ago.

Softbank has Takuya Kai who is better defensively. With Kai having a respectable hitting year, his defense prevents the Lions from stealing on them all day and takes the cake even with the offense Mori brings. Edge: Hawks

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First base: 

Hotaka Yamakawa had a red hot first half and still finished with a league-leading 43 home runs. He can still do damage with runners on base, but he isn't a cleanup hitter.

Softbank has Seiichi Uchikawa, who is a shell of his former self. He has the experience, but Yamakawa is currently a better hitter, though Uchikawa has shown he can be clutch. Edge: Lions

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Second base: 

Shuta Tonosaki won the role for 2019 and has been decent in both the field and with his bat. He passed the 20 HR milestone for the first time in his career and still has speed on the base paths.

Softbank has Taisei Makihara, who has been a hole for them even though he hits in the leadoff position on occasion. They tried to offer Asamura money in the offseason, but he signed with the Eagles instead. Tonosaki beats Makihara in almost every category from defensive range to hitting. Edge: Lions

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Third base: 

Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura has been strong not only in home runs, but hitting for average in an irregular season for his standards. He's come up with the bases loaded several times an has a high average with runners in scoring position. Defensive range isn't his strong point, but he can field and throw well.

Softbank has Nobuhiro Matsuda as the regular "hot man" (Atsuo), but Gracial has spent time here too. Everyone has power potential and the defensive edge goes to Softbank in comparison. Edge: Hawks

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Shortstop: 

Sosuke Genda's streak of playing every single inning and game of his career was snapped, but he still a top SS defensively and hit his own weight to bat second in the lineup. He was also effective at stealing bases.

Kenta Imamiya is still one of the top SS in NPB, but his defense isn't near the same caliber as what Genda did in 2019. However, Imamiya can belt some home runs and quietly hit even with a lower average. Genda's speed beats out the other categories. Edge: Lions

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Outfield:

Shogo Akiyama, Yuji Kaneko and Fumikazu Kimura have their roles with the Lions. Kaneko led the league in stolen bases while Akiyama had the most hits. Kimura is primarily in RF for his arm and defense, but even he can slap a hit on occasion.

Yuki Yanagita is back for the Hawks as he's always dangerous. Akira Nakamura, Gracial and Shuhei Fukuda are also part of the mix the Hawks use in the OF. The numbers aren't flashy, but even the role players can do damage on the Lions. Therefore, the Hawks have quality and quantity to be a threat. Edge: Hawks

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Designated hitter:

Takumi Kuriyama saw DH most of the year to prevent any damage to his knees. He was average at best, but made several clutch hits and was even better off the bench in 2018. Ernesto Mejia could see time depending on the opposing pitcher.

Softbank has Alfredo Despaigne who provides plenty of pop. Even with a low average, his power threat is more intimidating than Kuriyama. Edge: Hawks

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Bullpen: 

The Lions were dependent on Katsunori Hirai and Tatsushi Masuda for the 8th and 9th innings for the regular season. All innings before the 8th were at tossup by committee with 19-year old Kaima Taira earning some playing time.

Softbank had another year without Dennis Sarfate throwing as Yuito Mori remained the closer. Arata Shiino, Hiroshi Kaino and Livan Moinelo should see plenty of high leverage situations before the closer. Manager Kimiyasu Kudo has plenty of options, he just has to decide who comes in. Edge: Hawks

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History: 

The Seibu Lions went 12-13 against the Hawks in the regular season. In the first series of the year, the Lions were swept and began the year with an 0-3 record. It was their only sweep in defeat for a three-game series in 2019. Since then, the Lions were able to compete with the Hawks, including a series win in Fukuoka while also winning a two-game series in Okinawa. 

In prior Climax Series history, the Lions have lost in 2011, 2012 and 2018 while only winning in 2004 when it was then called the Pacific League playoff. The Lions also lost in 2006 to the Hawks.  

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Outlook: 

Will this team crumble under pressure? Last year, there was a limited Tonosaki while Mori was knocked out of the game by a swing from Despaigne. Even with both players missing, the pitching couldn't handle the Hawks. What will this group of Lions do, learn from last season or do the Hawks repeat 2018?  There are still plenty of question marks with this Lions team even after winning the Pacific League pennant again.

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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Lions announce nine players not returning for 2020



In what is one of the hardest things in sports, NPB teams around the league announced players who will not be offered a contract for 2020 with their preliminary senryokugai lists this past week. On Thursday, the Saitama Seibu Lions announced nine players who were part of the preliminary cuts.

The nine players include P Hayato Takagi, P Hirotaka Koishi, P Tatsuya Oishi, IF Kazuki Kaneko, OF Shogo Saito, P Jen-Lei Liao, P Chun-Lin Kuo, P Naoaki Matsumoto and P Tadasuke Minamikawa. 

Takagi, 30, was the free agent compensation selection by the Lions for the loss of Ryoma Nogami. Since being in the Pacific League, he was nothing but a disappointment and only saw two ichi-gun games in 2019, being lit up both times in mop up duty. 

Koishi, 32, was mostly in the Lions bullpen eating innings in low leverage. When the Lions were trailing several times in 2016, he had a career-high 74.2 innings. This past season, he fell out of favor with others leaping him on the depth chart.

Oishi, who turns 31 this week, will be remembered as one of the biggest draft busts in franchise history. Six teams wanted his services in the 2010 NPB Draft and the Lions won the rights when Hisanobu "Nabe-Q" Watanabe drew the winning ticket. Injuries derailed his career early on and he never recovered. He produced a decent 2016 as a reliever, but couldn't stay at the ichi-gun consistently after that.

Saito, 30, was mostly a fourth outfielder and had a peak season in 2015 with 103 games appeared in. He never played more than 60 ichi-gun games after that and couldn't hit his way back.

Kaneko, 24, was a high school draft pick in 2013. He was briefly called up in 2018 when an injury to Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura was injured and did well for six games. However, he struggled in ni-gun this past year and Ryusei Sato took the reserve infielder spot at the ichi-gun, making him expendable.

Kuo, 27, was an amateur signing out of Taiwan who won his debut in 2015. Once in NPB, his control and location problems were exposed and he never got better. He saw 79.2 innings while being in the rotation for his first season, but never reached 25 ichi-gun innings after that and was only used as a spot starter.

Liao, 26, was a free agent signing after the Yomiuri Giants decided to not bring him back last year. He saw three ichi-gun games to pitch three innings in mop up duty last April, but stayed in ni-gun for the rest of the year.

Matsumoto, who turns 29 next month, was the 10th round draft pick by the Lions in 2015 while also being the last player called before the ikusei draft. He saw several mop up innings throughout his career and reached a career-high 24 innings in 2018. His time diminished to four games in 2019 in favor of others. 

Minamikawa, 27, was a 5th round shakaijin draft pick in 2015. He saw minimal ichi-gun time each season, but couldn't establish himself once he was called up. In 2019, he only had one ichi-gun appearance and failed to record an out while also allowing an earned run in low leverage. He finished this past season with an infinite ERA. 

Even for my expectations, this is a high number of players cut through the first wave. Teams will make a second wave of senryokugai moves after the Japan Series, but with nine players removed, it wouldn't surprise me if this is what the Lions intend to do the whole time.

With nine roster spots freed up, the Lions can draft the quantity they want later this month. There are now at least 15 roster spots open with the assumption that Ernesto Mejia will not return while other imports are still uncertain for 2020. We wish these players the best of luck in their future endeavors.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

2019 NPB Power Rankings: Final Edition


The 2019 NPB Regular season concluded with meaningful games until the final one took place. With some drama and other games in the last week, there was an exciting finish in both leagues even though the pennant in the Central was already decided.

Here are the final Power Rankings for 2019:

1. [^] (2) Saitama Seibu Lions (80-62-1, 14-7 since 9/1)

The Lions take a stunning run to end the 2019 season with a combined 31-17 in the last two months of the year to repeat as Pacific League Pennant champions. There is a long way to go to establish themselves as the best, but not having a first place standing until September 11 and hanging in there all season long is a real testament to how this squad pulled it off. Very few experts gave the Lions a chance at coming in first again given who they lost.

Biggest key in September was how the pitching peaked at the right time, as they didn't slug their way to wins. The Lions were also undefeated in games that Zach Neal started (13-0). Only thing stopping this team is the postseason, something they haven't excelled at in 11 years.

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2. [^] (3) Fukuoka Softbank Hawks (76-62-5, 12-9 since 9/1)

The Hawks had some ups and downs to prevent a pennant, but this group still competed with several farm players and will still be a threat in the postseason because they've shown they can get it done. Second base is the big hole in this team with Taisei Makihara while the rotation was dependent on Kodai Senga and Rei Takahashi, but this group could awaken come Climax Series time.

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3. [v] (1) Yomiuri Giants (77-64-2, 9-13 since 9/1) 

The Giants didn't need to anything after August and took their first pennant since 2014. Shun Yamaguchi carried the staff while Yoshihiro Maru lived up to the hype. We also say a big farewell to Shinnosuke Abe, who announced retirement this month while still being a solid part-time player. On paper, this could be a cake walk to the Japan Series, but there's a reason they play the games.

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4. [^] (7) Rakuten Eagles (71-68-4, 11-10 since 9/1) 

The Eagles had to fight their way to get in, but their gutsy outings led to their first A-class appearance since 2017. By splitting four combined games against the Lions and later beating the Softbank Hawks in come from behind fashion, they've shown they can't be written off. Their first half wins helped them get here. Starting pitching is there with Minabu Mima, Takahiro Norimoto and Takayuki Kishi all being healthy. Offense is inconsistent and slightly home run dependent, but who's counting?

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5. [^] (9) Hanshin Tigers (69-68-6, 13-8 since 9/1)

The Hanshin Tigers went on a six game win streak to earn the last postseason spot and finish in A-class for their first appearance since 2017. It wasn't easy, but it's clear to say every game counted from April to October. With a 16-8-1 record against the Baystars, this team could make a 2014 run if they can play the way they have in the last week of the season. Pitching was lights out to end the year and that always keeps them as a threat.

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6. [v] (4) Yokohama DeNA Baystars (71-69-3, 7-12 since 9/1)

The Baystars were backed in to A-class and didn't need to win much after having a hot middle of the year. Their largest salt in the wounds was watching the Giants celebrate the pennant in their own house when Yasuaki Yamasaki blew a save. The injury bug hit this team to prevent a possible pennant race, but it's clear the Alex Ramirez-led Baystars can still do damage with their pitching staff and streaky hitting. This will be the first time the Baystars host a Climax Series of any kind in their history.

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7. [^] (10) Chunichi Dragons (68-73-2, 14-9 since 9/1)

This Dragons team can only look back at the games their bullpen blew in the first half behind Hiroshi Suzuki and others. For a team that was close to the postseason, they were still so far and inconsistent to get there. Their biggest consolation? Controlling the last spot in A-class with games against the Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Carp. Yudai Ono had a resurgence year while also throwing a no-hitter and winning the Central League ERA title. Shuhei Takahashi established himself as a core player while the bullpen got better with time, but it was too late. The Dragons hold the longest A-class drought (2012) and they're not far off with a weakened Central League, but they need to put everything together for a full season in order to get in. Tsuyoshi Yoda has his work cut out for him.

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T8. [v] (6) Hiroshima Carp (70-70-3, 8-10 since 9/1)

The inconsistent Carp ended the season on a thud, being swept by the Chunichi Dragons in their last two games of the year. This team isn't far off from A-class, but a few players having a down year like Kosuke Tanaka didn't help. Now they will be seeking a new manager with Koichi Ogata stepping away. Should be interesting to see what happens in the offseason.

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T8. [v] (7) Chiba Lotte Marines (69-70-4, 10-9-1 since 9/1)

The Marines finally got over .500 at one point in the year, but couldn't make that run to A-class with some backbreaking losses. Their outfield blunders dropped them to being below .500 and with the lack of defensive plays, they came up short for the second straight year under Tadahito Iguchi. If anyone is looking for positives, it's Ayumu Ishikawa's second half where he was lights out. Even with the improved offense, the pitching and defense wasn't there for the full season which cost them the season and a Lions pennant party in their last game.

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10. [^] (12) Hokkiado Nippon-Ham Fighters (65-73-5, 9-11 since 9/1)

The Fighters were close to a pennant, being 1/2 a game behind the Hawks at the end of July, but a horrible August took them out of A-class altogether and the team can only look back at how their cold stretch killed them. Offense was the biggest issue in this span where Sho Nakata and others were not producing. With manager Hideki Kuriyama resigning, they'll be looking for a new skipper as well. The pieces are there, but one bad month cost them their season. At least Kohei Arihara established himself as one of the league's better pitchers.

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11. [v] (5) Orix Buffaloes (61-75-7, 6-16-2 since 9/1)

The Orix Buffaloes having a run in Interleague and August gave a slow death to their season after a dismal end to the year. Masataka Yoshida was great while the starting pitching was good even without Yuki Nishi and Chihiro Kaneko, but the offense was a black hole minus a few individuals. This group also lacks attention to detail when fielding and it's something Norifumi Nishimura will need to fix if they want to make A-class in 2020. A silver lining in all of this was taking the Marines out with them having a 15-9-1 record against them.

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12. [v] (11) Tokyo Yakult Swallows (59-82-2, 10-9 since 9/1)

The Swallows were the only team to have a losing record against all 11 other NPB teams while finishing in dead last. While they had a winning month to end the year, this team was buried since May and could never recover. Junji Ogawa stepped down and farm manager Shingo Takatsu will be the new skipper in charge. Everything from defense, pitching and offense went wrong, leading this group earning a last place finish in our rankings. Can't get any worse right?

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