Wednesday, March 9, 2016

2016 NPB Season Outlook: Central League

With the 2016 NPB regular season upon us, it's the time of the year where people make predictions as well as write every thought they have regarding the new season. For us, this is no different as we spoke about the Central League at the end of our Lions OenDEN podcast episode.

Here is our breakdown of how we see the Central League as a whole with strengths and weaknesses for each team:


Last year, the Central League was mediocre from top to bottom after Interleague play, as every team had a losing record at one point in the second half. Some can make the argument for balance, but in reality, each team had too many flaws to pull away until September. The Tokyo Yakult Swallows were the best of the bunch as they won the pennant (regular season title in Japan's terms).  

Hitting was down, meaning pitching stats were rather inflated by Central League standards. Majority of parks in this league are hitter friendly, but the pitching ruled last year. Expect changes for the upcoming season.  


Tokyo Yakult Swallows:  

As earlier mentioned, the Swallows pulled away from being the "best of the worst" in the second half thanks to a great bullpen and offense. They had plenty of talent in 2014, but were in dead last due to a handful of injuries and bad luck. They made the turnaround of being worst to first in the Central League.  

Strengths: Bullpen, Offense

Yakult has the reigning Central League MVP in Tetsuto Yamada, who is coming off a season with "triple 3's" consisting of 30+ HRs, 30+ stolen bases and batting over .300 for the year. There's plenty of other talent including Shingo Kawabata, Yuhei Takai, a solid catcher in Yuhei Nakamura  Coming back from an injured season is Wladimir Balentien, who hopes to get redemption in 2016. 

For the bullpen, they lose Tony Barnette as he joined the Texas Rangers, but they have plenty of options for Mitsuru Manaka to choose from. Logan Ondrusek worked out well as a new import, Ryo Akiyoshi and Kentaro Kyoko could be candidates to close it out. There are also guys downstairs who can contribute.  

Weaknesses: Back end rotation depth

The Swallows front line starters were solid in Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa and Masanori Ishikawa, but the back side is questionable. Of course this is to be expected when the Swallows play in a hitter friendly ballpark. Veteran Shohei Tateyama returned from his third Tommy John surgery last year and was respectable when coming back. They also had a decent pickup in Hirofumi Yamanaka, who was a side arm pitcher that was hurt.  

Foreign signings: P Luis Perez, P Josh Lueke, P Kyle Davies

Expectations: The Swallows have the talent and depth to repeat again in the Central League. If there are no significant injuries, they should be a lock for the postseason. It's even a bonus if their foreign pickups can help their bullpen or rotation. 


Yomiuri Giants

The Giants no longer have Tatsunori Hara as their manager, as he stepped down after the team was eliminated in the Climax series. Longtime player Yoshinobu Takahashi has retired from playing and became the manager going forward. 

Strengths: Front line rotation and depth

The Giants hit a home run with their import signings last year in Miles Mikolas and Aaron Poreda immediately contributing to the rotation. The latter was a respectable No. 3 while Mikolas had an ace-like season to carry them. Tomoyuki Sugano still remains an ace. For hitters, there are plenty of options for Takahashi to choose from. The Giants high payroll allows them to stash talent, but who comes in? Luis Cruz was one of their big pickups as the Chiba Lotte Marines let him walk.  

Weaknesses: Middle relief, inconsistent hitting, manager uncertainty

The Giants had a down year offensively when there was plenty of talent on the roster. Things are bound to come up. Meanwhile, the middle relief was shaky before their closer Hirokazu Sawamura could come in. For Takahashi, he will have to learn on the fly even though he was a part time coach/player last season. As someone who played under Hara for his career, he should have some good tips on managing games.

Foreign signings: OF Garrett Jones

Expectations: Ryota Wakiya and Cruz were their big signings for the infield. If they can string offense together and rebound from a down 2015 season, they have what it takes to win the Central League. By name recognition alone, they are expected to make the postseason and have the rotation to do it.  


Hanshin Tigers

The Tigers are also entering a new era, with a change in the front office after the passing of Katsuhiro Nakamura in the middle of last season. They let their manager Yutaka Wada walk, hiring Tomoaki Kanemoto, who was doing color commentary in the broadcast booth after retiring as a player. This was an expected hiring from my spectators and sounds good on paper, but we will need to wait and see before we make any judgements. 

Strengths: Front Line rotation

Shintaro Fujinami and Randy Messenger are a great 1-2 punch. This could be the season where Fujinami establishes himself as possibly the best pitcher in Japan. Minoru Iwata and Atsushi Nomi were also serviceable in the middle.  

Weaknesses: Bullpen and manager uncertainty, offense

The Tigers rode a hot streak to get to the 2014 Japan Series, making the front office have the vibe that they were a contending team. In reality, they had a lot of close wins where everything went their way. Last season, this caught up to them as they had a season of mediocrity offensively. Kosuke Fukudome (yes, he's still playing) was the bright spot.  

They let longtime OF Matt Murton walk, leading to some new blood in the outfield. It's possible that first round draft pick Shun Takayama could make an instant impact for them. Hanshin will also need a better season from third-year import Mauro Gomez.  

The bullpen's back end was a strength with Seung-hwan Oh as the closer, but now it becomes up to their foreign signings to take the load. Oh signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in free agency and it was clear he wouldn't return after breaking a Korean law of gambling outside the country. Legal issues aside, it's possible that Oh had peaked in 2014 and the team needed a change for closing. 

This unit contributed to their poor run differential where they'd be blown out or winning close games. Like Takahashi, Kanemoto will need to learn on the fly and even he is expected some growing pains.  

Foreign signings: P Marcos Mateo, P Rafael Dolis, IF Matt Hague

Expectations: This is one of many teams with complete uncertainty everywhere from the bullpen, offense and manager. Given the competition and the strength of the Tigers pitching, they will compete, but where do they finish? Based on talent alone, they can finish as high as second and as low as fifth. If Dolis or Mateo make instant impact in the bullpen combined with what could be an improved offense, they would be in good shape for 2016. 


Hiroshima Toyo Carp 

The Carp came off a disappointing 2015 season where they were expected to contend for a championship. They arguably had the best rotation in Kenta Maeda, Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda for a Big 3 trio. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see this in the postseason, as they were eliminated on the last day of the regular season by the Chunichi Dragons. Maeda was posted and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Strengths: Front line rotation, overall talent

 Kris Johnson and Hiroki Kuroda will still make their rotation fine. Daichi Osera is expected to emerge, after he was a top draft pick in 2013. On paper, this could be a Big 3 if Osera develops and takes the reins. The position players have talent all over the field, with Ryosuke Kikuchi, Yoshihiro Maru, Brad Eldred and even new signing Hector Luna. For a veteran, Takahiro Arai also had a respectable season.  

Weaknesses: Bullpen, inconsistent offense

Last year, the offense would score in bunches, but could get shutout at times. They would give their fans a tease with some dominant games, but couldn't go on a run to make the postseason as they stayed in mediocrity. After a great 2014 season, several players like Maru didn't hit well in 2015. 

The bullpen was the nightmare spot for the Carp, with several blown leads and losses late in the game. Manager Koichi Ogata was forced to put Osera in the bullpen to strengthen the unit as a result. 

Foreign signings: OF Jason Pridie, P Jay Jackson, P Bradin Hagens

Expectations: The loss of Maeda obviously takes a hit to the rotation, but the Carp could be a better team overall if they get consistent offense and Luna provides stability at 3B. If their bullpen becomes much improved with the help of Jackson and Hagens, we could see them looking at a playoff spot. The talent is there to still contend, but it needs to come together. This also has the makings of a hot seat season for Ogata, who has gotten some blame for last year's shortcomings.


Chunichi Dragons

For a team who was expected to finish in dead last and be the worst among all teams with an aging roster, the Dragons had a better season finishing 5th with respectable offensive numbers. Manager Motonobu Tanishige has retired as a player and now has full time managing duties in the dugout. The team also got younger after a transition year with several veterans retiring.

Strengths: Front end rotation, outfield

Yudao Ono and Shunta Wakamatsu made a great 1-2 punch last year and the former is one of the best pitchers in the game today. Ricardo Nanita (when healthy), Yohei Oshima and Ryosuke Hirata are also consistent assets in the outfield. Don't let their numbers fool you, they hit well for Nagoya Dome standards, which is one of the ultimate pitcher's parks in NPB.

Weaknesses: Rotation depth, bullpen

The offense wasn't the problem for a pitcher's park, but rather the rotation being half empty/half full last season. Daisuke Yamai is a respectable mid rotation guy, but there is a lack of depth where the drop off is large in comparison to their front and back ends.

Their bullpen was another weakness after Koji Fukutani couldn't make the transition from setup man to closer. Fukutani and Katsuki Matayoshi should be good for the middle relief, but who is the closer?  Shinji Tajima did a respectable job to close out the year and Tanishige will have his work cut out for him on decisions to make.

Foreign signings: P Jordan Norberto, P Juan Jaime, P Drew Naylor (midseason signing in 2015), OF Dayan Viciedo

Expectations: They lost Hector Luna and had a middle of the road offense, but they were competitive enough last season to be a .500 team. The more impressive part is how they had a winning record against the Carp (15-9-1) which knocked them out of the postseason.

Their offense could be average, but if the bullpen improves like it did in the second half of last year combined with a better rotation, they could finish in third place at best. Tanishige did a good job learning on the fly the last two seasons and given the talent he had, they weren't as terrible as their 2015 record was. It might be a stretch to say the playoffs are coming in Nagoya for 2016, but they won't be a cupcake and could provide competitive baseball.


Yokohama DeNA Baystars

The Baystars had a hot first half where everything went right, then they fell back to earth after losing 12 consecutive games at one point last season. This is a new era, where Alex "Rami-chan" Ramirez takes over a squad looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 1998. With the Toronto Blue Jays making the postseason, this is the longest playoff drought among teams in NPB and MLB.

Strengths: Offense, Closer

The offense usually isn't a problem in what's a hitter-friendly ballpark. Jose Lopez proved to be a great signing to provide extra pop and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo had a quality season. Takayuki Kajitani is also one of the best outfielders out there. One bright spot from 2015 was rookie closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, who was thrust into the role with others injured. Coming off a rookie of the year award, he is hoping to repeat his success from last year.

Weaknesses: Rotation, Manager uncertainty

This team has some mid rotation starters at best with Yasutomo Kubo, Daisuke Miura and a decent Shoichi Ino. They're going to need to improve their pitching if they want to compete and not be dead by midseason.  Their first half was a smokescreen of everything going right, but it won't last based on talent. Ramirez brings new life to the team, but how does he manage on the field? We will have no idea until the games begin.

Foreign signings: P Zach Petrick, IF James Romak,

Expectations: There isn't a lot to like about this team besides some individual efforts and a handful of talented players. Offensively, they have a nice core, but it won't take them far as you can't hit your way into a playoff spot. This team has a chance to get out of the cellar, but the pitching will need to improve in order to do so.


For our actual predictions on 1-6, here's the link to our Lions OenDEN podcast episode (listen to the last 15 minutes or so).  Our Pacific League preview can be found here.


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