Tuesday, March 15, 2016
NPB 2016 Season Outlook: Pacific League
The Pacific League came off a season where it dominated the Central League head to head. Talent is not a problem,
In our Lions OenDEN podcast episode, we discussed the league in audio format, but here is our breakdown of everyone including the Saitama Seibu Lions.
Most people are going to say it's all about one team and the rest of the league is playing for the losing rights to them. Understandably, the talent in one area has a larger gap than the rest. The last playoff spot is up for grabs, but the consensus is that there is one great team, one good team, and the rest are fighting for positioning.
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
The defending Japan Series champions are looking for a three-peat. They lost Lee Dae-Ho, but have plenty of talent to make up for this.
Strengths: Rotation, bullpen, power hitting, defense, depth
An argument can be made that they're well-rounded everywhere on the roster. Softbank is also one of two teams to have a third-team at the ikusei level where they develop guys. The rotation was already rich prior to 2015, but Rick Van Den Hurk gave them another jolt for the second half. They can afford to play an eight or even 10 man rotation if they want to.
Offense has the reigning MVP in Yuki Yanagita while 3B Nobuhiro Matsuda returned after considering a jump to MLB. While the power production could go down with Lee in MLB, there shouldn't be a problem getting on base and hitting for average with the load of talent they have.
Weaknesses: Hangover? Stranding runners
If we want to be picky, the catcher position is a hole offensively with Toru Hosokawa and Hiroaki Takaya. There are close games they have lost due to stranding runners on base, but this also means they are still a threat no matter how bad they play.
Signings: P Tsuyoshi Wada (returning from the Cubs), P Robert Suarez
Expectations: Some people are already booking their tickets to Fukuoka in October. The level of talent compared to the rest of the Pacific League is unmatched and they have what it takes to win again. The rotation doesn't have many ace quality starters, but the depth of No. 2 pitchers is fine. It's also helpful to inflate some power numbers with a fence that's moved in, making it easier to hit home runs. It should be unanimous among prognosticators that the Hawks finish in first place.
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
After having a decent 2014 season where they won a playoff series, some thought 2015 would be where they fall back to earth. Instead, they took a leap and established themselves as the second best team in the Pacific League.
Strengths: Hitting, speed, defense
The Fighters have plenty of guys who can get on base from Daikan Yoh, Takuya Nakashima, Haruki Nishikawa and a very young Daiki Asama. They even have power hitting with Sho Nakata and Brandon Laird, who both had at least 30 HRs last year.
They make teams pay when they're on base, stealing at will with the speed they have on the roster. There's plenty of youth combined with great defense in the field, meaning they can never be written off. Kensuke Kondo is also one of the better kept secrets in Japan, where he would also hit for average and do well among catchers.
Weaknesses: Rotation and bullpen depth
Shohei Otani gets all the attention for being the most talented pitcher in Japan, but do they have quality depth behind him? Luis Mendoza is respectable, Mitsuo Yoshikawa is a one-season wonder, Kohei Arihara is the reigning Pacific League rookie of the year by default and their new signing Anthony Bass is an uncertainty. There's some good middle rotation pitchers, but can there be a quality No. 2 behind Otani?
As for the bullpen, they will need better depth to take over before Hirotoshi Masui comes in to close. It's a sketchy middle relief unit and they'll need to hope some of their younger players improve for 2016.
Foreign signings: P Chris Martin, P Anthony Bass
Expectations: The Fighters are a good team who can display a great use of fundamentals on the field. Can they be a great team to challenge the Hawks? That question will remain for the season as their rotation and bullpen need to get better in order to compete at a championship caliber level. Hideki Kuriyama is a very smart coach and knows how to get the most out of his players.
Chiba Lotte Marines
The Marines were projected as a bottom tier team last year, but shocked many by finishing in third place and winning a playoff series against the Fighters. Was last year a fluke or do they build upon the decent year they had given their expectations?
Strengths: Roster balance, Outfield
The Marines are a team with depth where there are no significant holes in the lineup. Their outfield had a great season from Ikuhiro Kiyota and a consistent year from Katsuya Kakunaka. There's plenty of players to use in the outfield, but only three can play at once. Their rotation also has balance with a solid year from Ayumu Ishikawa and a rebound season from Hideaki Wakui. Jason Standridge also provides stability in the middle while the back end isn't too shabby either.
Weaknesses: Lack of great players
This isn't taking away from what they did in 2015, because they have above average players on the roster. The question is, do they have championship level players on their roster? They're going to be rebuilding on the infield by getting younger with guys like Taiga Hirasawa and Shogo Nakamura taking over. Chiba let Luis Cruz and Toshiaki Imae walk in order for the rebuild (or possible reload) process to begin. Yamaico Navarro should also contribute to the power numbers when he gets back from his suspension, but the defense could take a hit with the raw players on the infield. Ishikawa could be established as an ace, but their rotation has mostly No. 3 or No. 4 pitchers at best and it's uncertain if Wakui can repeat the season he had in 2015.
Signings: IF Yamaico Navarro, P Jason Standridge
Expectations: Chiba should be in contention for the third playoff spot, but it's doubtful they can overtake the Fighters or Hawks in the regular season. There's enough talent to not be in the cellar, but is it good enough to be in the upper echelon of NPB teams? They can finish anywhere from third to fifth. One thing is for sure: No one would want to see them in a best 2 out of 3 series.
Saitama Seibu Lions
The Lions had a great start to the first half of 2015, but a record-breaking losing streak of 13 losses combined with mediocrity did them in.
Strengths: Power hitting, Defense
The Lions have plenty of pop with Takeya "Okawari-kun", Ernesto Mejia, Tomoya Mori and Hideto Asamura all capable of hitting a least 20 home runs for a season. It's possible that new 1B Hotaka Yamakawa can be another power threat in the lineup. Can Shogo Akiyama have a similar year for 2016 after a record-seeing single-season hits record established?
Outfield arm strength shouldn't be a problem, but range could be a small issue for the right fielder. Infield defense is mostly good, but shortstop could be raw with Shuta Tonosaki taking over at SS.
Weaknesses: Rotation depth, bullpen uncertainty
The back end of the rotation overachieved statistically without Takayuki Kishi for two months. However, talent and opposing teams adjusting caught up to them in the second half. Tomomi Takahashi did terrible in the closer role and lost his job by the time the season ended. When the back end of the bullpen was a strength to start, everything fell apart when there was no closer and middle relief was already a problem.
An argument can be made where the defense won games and the pitcher's job was to put the ball in play. They were dead last in striking out opposing batters last season.
Signings: RP C.C. Lee, SP Andy Van Hekken, IF Shogo Kimura
Expectations: The Lions have the offensive power to do damage against anyone, but the pitching staff is too much of a concern to many. If they can pitch like they did in the first half of 2015, there's a chance they can make noise in 2016. It will be up to the bullpen as a factor to make or break them this season. This also has the making of a lame duck type of season for manager Norio Tanabe, where they have Tetsuya Shiozaki lined up to take his spot.
The Buffaloes had a load of expectations in 2015, but it all crumbled with a high number of close losses, resulting in their manager being forced to resign in the middle of the year. They promoted Junichi Fukura, who was their head coach (bench coach equivalent) as he takes over for the 2016 season. Expectations could be lowered for 2016 after they signed a lot of free agents the previous year.
Chihiro Kaneko, Yuki Nishi and Brandon Dickson are an impressive Big 3 for a rotation. Even Daiki Tomei should be a respectable middle rotation starter. With three pitchers who are capable of being aces, they will remain in games and stay competitive.
Weaknesses: Bullpen, inconsistent offense, defense
The bullpen blew several games in the first half and the team was playing meaningless baseball by the time it was June. A minor issue is attention to detail, where it's one error or one at bat as the team comes up short in a game. There's talent on this team to do damage, but Yoshio Itoi and Takahio Okada had down years. If Masahiro Nishino and Tony Blanco are healthy, it will bolster their offense.
Foreign signings: IF Brent Morel, OF Brian Bogusevic, P Pat Misch, P Erik Cordier
Expectations: Orix has a new wave of foreigners on the roster, but not all of them will be playing with Dickson and Blanco expected to be two of the four spots allowed. This team should compete for the postseason, but can they get it together on offense let alone defense? The rotation carried them in 2015, which is why they can't be written off in 2016.
The reason they can't be trusted is Fukura as a manager. Like the Lions, putting the pieces together has this as a lame duck year with Fukura as a short term solution. So Taguchi is currently the farm manager and it's possible that this is a "caretaker" type of season as a transition so he could be the next in line.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
The Eagles are entering a new era with Masataka Nashida as their new skipper. Some may view this as an unattractive hiring, but he is capable of turning things around. Previously, they had a younger manager in Hiromoto "Dave" Okubo, who cost them games by trying to steal bases with the wrong personnel. Since winning the 2013 Japan Series, the Eagles haven' recovered after losing several players from that team.
Strengths: Back end bullpen
Kam Mickolio will be healthy for them and Yuki Matsui will remain the closer for 2016. If the Eagles have a lead entering the 8th and 9th innings, they should secure a win on paper.
Weaknesses: Offense, rotation depth
Rakuten had the worst offense last season among Pacific League teams. The level of talent was an obvious issue, but there could be improvements if Nashida's approach works. Rotation depth is flawed outside of Takahiro Norimoto and there isn't much supporting cast.
Signings: IF Toshiaki Imae, IF Japhet Amador, OF Jonny Gomes, P Radhames Liz, P Jake Brigham
Expectations: Imae should help them offensively and there is plenty of foreign options to choose from. But like Orix, they won't be able to play them all with Kenny Ray in their rotation, Mickolio in the bullpen and Zealous Wheeler being part of the infield. They need to hope Ginji Akaminai is healthy while their first round draft pick Louis Okoye should be intriguing.
Nashida is a smart manager who can improve the team offensively as his track record shows with the Fighters. However, 2016 will be a year to focus on individual performances as they won't have the personnel to compete in the short term.
Here's our breakdown featured on the Lions OenDEN podcast episode.
Central League breakdown
Follow us on Twitter @GraveyardBall
Posted by Christian Gin at 11:00 AM