|Can the Lions rotation be healthy with Takayuki Kishi?|
Here is a look at the rotation candidates for the upcoming season:
Takayuki Kishi: Kishi is the ace without question for the Lions. Despite being injured for the first two months of the season, he still showed he is the best pitcher on the team. He also ended the season with an injury and hope to be healthy for 2016.
Andy Van Hekken: Van Hekken is a Holland, Michigan native (not the Netherlands or Holland the country) who is remembered for pitching a complete game as a Detroit Tigers September callup rookie in 2002. After bouncing around farm team organizations, his career took off in South Korea while in the KBO for the last four years. Van Hekken doesn't have the velocity, but looks like a solid control pitcher who can also field. As the Lions' most expensive pickup of the offseason, he should be pegged as the No. 3 starter.
Yusei Kikuchi: Kikuchi had a solid rebound year after recovering from an injury in 2014. Besides Kishi, he was the other reliable arm who could strike out batters. After Norio Tanabe said he wants 15 wins from Kikuchi, it's safe to say he will start in the rotation. Update: Yusei Kikuchi has been named the Opening Day Starter.
The Lions were having several players come in for relief at the end of 2015. The rotation becomes uncertain after everyone collapsed at the end of the year. The players listed in this section should be playing, but we don't know if they will be starters or not. They also aren't guaranteed to be on the opening day roster.
Kona Takahashi: Takahashi got his baptism of fire late in the 2015 season, but had some flashes of promise which included a complete game shutout against the Chiba Lotte Marines. He even won the Pacific League pitcher of the month for August. It's possible that he could start the season in ni-gun, but with the high first-round investment, he will play a significant number of games in 2016.
Ken Togame: Togame came in and won his first home game in nearly two years after spending the 2014 season injured. He was rewarded as an All Star for 2015, but fell off in the second half like the rest of the Lions pitchers. He particularly gave up a high number of home runs and while they were mostly solo in the first half, they became damaging in the second half of the year. Togame is currently in the ni-gun camp, but the former first-round draft pick should see time.
Chun-Lin Kuo: The young pitcher from Taiwan had a rough go-around in his first season playing in Japan. It was his first time playing baseball at the professional level, only appearing as an amateur during international competitions prior to 2015. Kuo should be in the rotation at the start of 2016, but projects as a back end starter with ground ball capabilities.
Kazuhisa Makita: Makita was the opening day starter in 2015 due to Kishi being hurt, but the bullpen collapse forced a decision to make him the closer, a role he once held in 2011. This move backfired and he saw time in the rotation again, but wasn't the same as a result. He began spring training camp with influenza and didn't make the trip to Miyazaki at first. It's possible they make him a bullpen candidate in the event they like someone else.
Ryoma Nogami: Nogami had a respectable first half, but couldn't close out once the second half began. The Lions had him in as a spot starter and long reliever by the time the season was over. He could be a decent No. 4 starter, but nothing spectacular. With his regression to the bullpen last year, it wouldn't be surprising if he remains in the bullpen.
Shinsaburo Tawata: Tawata is the Lions' first round draft pick from last fall. The team sees him as a starting pitcher and he could help right away. If there are question marks with the rotation, we could see his NPB debut earlier than expected.
Shota Takekuma: The Lions had Takekuma get an extended look in an intra-squad game. Being known as a lefty specialist last year, it's possible that he's a rotation candidate. Takekuma has eight career starts and has been with the team since 2008.
Isamu Sato: Sato was a draft pick from 2012 who spent his rookie season in ni-gun as a starting pitcher.
Yasuo Sano: Sano was the first 2014 draft pick to make his ichi-gun debut last season as a spot starter for one game. A second-round draft pick, he received extra work in the winter in Australia's baseball league. It's unclear if the Lions view him as a starter long term or a reliever, but he did pickup starts in Australia.
Makoto Aiuchi: Aiuchi was also a second round draft pick and served a team suspension to remain in ni-gun for 2015 after some off the field troubles. He was a frequent starter in ni-gun. His jersey name is registered by his first name as "Makoto" and unfortunately he recently was sent to the ni-gun camp after an elbow injury.
Keisuke Honda: Honda is more famous for sharing the same name of a soccer player on the National team, as well as AC Milan at the club soccer level. The Lions view their 2015 sixth-round draft pick as a long term starter candidate.
Koki Fujita: Fujita was drafted out of high school in the ninth round last fall. He is another long term starting pitcher waiting in the wings.
Hirotaka Koishi: Koishi has been a starter in ni-gun, but only seen time with the ichi-gun in relief.
From looking at who is available vs. who can be a starter, anything can happen. Here's how I predict the rotation vs. what I want to happen:
Prediction: Kishi, Makita, Kikuchi, Van Hekken, Kona Takahashi, Kuo
Preference: Kishi, Kikuchi, Van Hekken, Kona Takahashi, Togame, Kuo
The one thing I believe in, is that for whomever struggles, Tawata will be waiting in the wings to take his place. It wouldn't be surprising if Tawata's NPB debut comes as early as late April barring no injuries. At the latest, he should be given his "baptism of fire" no later than June.
I would have a tight leash on Togame and Kuo if I was managing. It's possible that Kuo could be useful in middle relief as he showed flashes last year in that situation, but I think they're invested in him to be in the rotation.
Another preference is that I'd rather have Makita in the pen as the "bullpen ace". His submarine abilities could be good in middle relief, as long as he isn't closing to be a change of pace for opposing batters. I predict Makita is in the rotation solely under the belief of how their mound is build at Seibu Dome. Some pitchers complain that it's as hard as a rock and flat, but former Lion and current Softbank Hawk Dennis Sarfate said that it was built for Makita in an interview. With this in mind, he most likely goes to the rotation.
As a result of the Lions' draft class from last fall, the options are open for Tanabe to choose who he wants with more depth.
Other positions in the series:
Manager Norio Tanabe
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