Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Seibu Lions 2017 Opening Day roster announced


The Saitama Seibu Lions and the rest of NPB announced their 28-man opening day rosters for the 2017 season. Like anything, this will only be the guaranteed rosters for March 31.

Here is our reaction to each unit:

Pitchers:

#14: Tatsushi Masuda
#15: Tatsuya Oishi
#16: Yusei Kikuchi
#18: Shinsaburo Tawata
#20: Ryoma Nogami
#23: Shogo Noda
#29: Hirotaka Koishi
#35: Kazuhisa Makita
#47: Brian Schlitter
#48: Shota Takekuma
#50: Kentaro Fukukura
#54: Brian Wolfe

The biggest surprise of this bunch is Kentaro Fukukura making the cut as he was mostly a reserve in ni-gun. He is likely the final arm in the Lions bullpen for mop up duty. Kikuchi is the opening day starter while Tawata, Wolfe and Nogami are expected to be starters. Schlitter could be a setup man while Masuda is the closer. Makita can take all bullpen roles while Koishi will eat up some innings.

Oishi should be a righty specialist and Takekuma can face lefties, but expect both of them to have an expanded role building off last season. Noda, who worked in Australia last winter, can be another lefty specialist.

Frank Garces or Ken Togame could be activated when they are scheduled to start on a six-game week. The next six-game week won't be until April 25 at the earliest. With only two pitching import spots used, a third spot is open for either Garces or Alexis Candelario, but both of them can't be on the roster with Wolfe and Schlitter already there. Kona Takahashi will likely come up as well.

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Catchers:

#27: Ginjiro Sumitani
#37: Masatoshi Okada
#49: Tatsuyuki Uemoto

Tomoya Mori will be out for a month as he recovers from a fractured elbow. Sumitani should be the starting catcher, but Uemoto will be a solid pinch-hit option. Okada can bunt and serve as the backup as he got significant reps in the preseason due to Sumitani being with Samurai Japan at the WBC.

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Infielders

#3: Hideto Asamura
#6: Sosuke Genda
#8: Naoto Watanabe
#32: Kyohei Nagae
#33: Hotaka Yamakawa
#44: Shuta Tonosaki
#60: Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura
#99: Ernesto Mejia

Asamura begins his captaincy with a new double play partner on the infield. Genda, a third round draft pick from last October, becomes the team's starting shortstop. He will be the first rookie starting SS on opening day since Hiromichi Ishige (1981). Yamakawa and Mejia will likely trade spaces between 1B and DH while Okawari-kun moves back to 3B.

Nagae is a solid defensive substitute while Watanabe can be plugged anywhere as a utility infielder. Tonosaki will likely be a pinch runner until a pitcher becomes activated.

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Outfielders

#1: Takumi Kuriyama
#51: Fumikazu Kimura
#55: Shogo Akiyama
#61: Shotaro Tashiro
#65: Shogo Saito

Kuriyama and Akiyama will start in LF and CF, respectively. Kimura will likely be the opening day starting right fielder as Yuji Kaneko recovers from shin splits. Saito can be a late defensive sub while Tashiro is a pinch runner.

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Overall:

Genda is the man the Lions are hoping for to be an instant impact in 2017. He won the job after a solid preseason and camp. There's plenty of fielders down in ni-gun who could get a look. If anyone is struggling, don't be surprised to see someone like Keisuke Honda or Katsunori Hirai get a look.

At some point in 2017, we should see first round draft pick Tatsuya Imai make his debut as long as he's healthy. It will only be a matter of when. Like anything, enjoy the ride. This season coming ahead should be interesting.

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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tsuji's Lions will be judged by their defense for 2017


The Saitama Seibu Lions will begin their new era and 2017 regular season on Friday, March 31. Our expectations for the season are rather moderate, as we stated on our latest Podcast Episode.

Last season, the Lions were already dead by the time it was the All-star break. Their season was arguably over at the end of June, where the Lions would go on a downward spiral and a stretch that had a record of 10-31. It was the walkoff in Hiroshima where Tatsuyuki Uemoto blocked the plate which was the beginning of the end.

Defense was the largest issue of the season as a whole, where the Lions led the league in errors having 101. That number was likely beaten to death among both the media and the Lions' front office.

Enter Hatsuhiki Tsuji, once a Lion from the Golden Era, remembered as a player for his defense as the team's second baseman. He spent nearly a decade as a coach where most of it was with the Chunichi Dragons. Tsuji's managing experience is minimal, where he managed the farm team in 2007 and won the Western League.

Most recently, Tsuji was the strategy coach of the Dragons before his hire with Seibu. This Friday will be his first official game in a Lions uniform since 1995.



Tsuji's plan has been straight to the point. With "Catch The All" being the motto, つかみ獲れ (Tsukami Tore) is written below, encouraging to "grab" it. Not only can this be interpreted for everyone to play defense and catch the ball, but it should be a chance given for the young players to seize the opportunities they're given. 

While there are set players who still start, Tsuji has no loyalty to anyone considering this is a roster he inherited. 

In-game decisions will have ups and downs, given that this is Tsuji's first time as an ichi-gun manager. However, he has put full focus on the defense, which was something he was asked about in his introductory presser. 

We're expecting that errors number to go down, as the Lions have the talent to fix this. Third round draft pick Sosuke Genda will be the first opening day starting SS since Hiromichi Ishige, something that hasn't happened in 36 years. Genda will be expected to carry the load as he won himself the job through preseason and camp. 

The rotation is the largest concern, given the loss of Takayuki Kishi. Yusei Kikuchi needs to be the No. 1 pitcher or even ace that he has been viewed as since being drafted out of HS. Shinsaburo Tawata has to avoid a sophomore slump, while 20-year old Kona Takahashi is still raw.  

Ryoma Nogami and Ken Togame can eat up some innings, but Brian Wolfe can take the middle of the rotation as long as he is healthy. What do Frank Garces and Brian Schlitter bring to the table? Both players need to stay at the ichi-gun level in order to compete for A-class.  

The Lions bullpen will be a strength behind Tatsushi Masuda and Shota Takekuma. If Schlitter can fix the location troubles he had in the States, he could be a setup man. Tatsuya Oishi and Hirotaka Koishi are also expected to carry a load.  

Offense will be its usual self, having plenty of power. However, it isn't slump proof and they can't afford to have a full month with no offense. The team as a whole must recover from a back-breaking play that has lost a game in the past. 

In all of this, Tsuji must turn around the defense and the spectators should look at this first and foremost. He will learn on the fly like most managers in NPB and its likely he will be bunting more than what Norio Tanabe did. 

We here at Graveyard Baseball expect a competitive team. The goal should be to get to A-class, but we'd be happy if they compete throughout the entire 2017 season without faltering out of the race. Their defense needs to Catch The All, but it will be up to the rotation if they want to get to the next level. 

Regardless of this team's record, they won't be boring. With Tawata, Takahashi and Tatsuya Imai playing, watching young pitchers develop will remain interesting. If anything, the long term goal for this year will be to see them grow as the season goes on.  

Ganbare Raionzu! / 頑張れ ライオンズ!

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Putting The USA's WBC Run Into Context



No matter what the USA does on Tuesday in their semifinal matchup against Samurai Japan and whether they go on to win the tournament or not, I think it's fair to say that this United States team deserves a lot of credit.

If they lose to Japan, the national media will likely fail to give them any credit and I myself don't like their chances after Jim Leyland has told Chris Archer to stay home but nonetheless, this team has done a lot. What they have done is raise the level of USA national teams in major international tournaments. As I said before the tournament started, the USA never really had much success in international competition and there's no doubt that merely a semifinal appearance has already raised the average just a little bit.

Yes, the United States has progressed to this place in the World Baseball Classic before, but that run was much different than this version. In 2009, the US benefited from a softer road to the Championship Round after the Dominican Republic was eliminated by the Netherlands in the first round.

The 2009 squad was also mercy rule'd by Puerto Rico but then they recovered by later eliminating that same Puerto Rico team with one of the more memorable moments in WBC history with David Wright's walk-off that cemented his status as "Captain America." It was also hard to take that team seriously when manager, Davey Johnson was a slave to his players' MLB executives, which indicated that the US considered winning a secondary goal.

This team has done all the opposite, they've put together a much stronger squad, Jim Leyland has played the best players for the most part which has upset Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, they survived a brutal Pool E to get to Los Angeles, and most importantly: the USA stars have done some memorable things whether that's Giancarlo Stanton's rocket against the Dominican Republic or Adam Jones robbing Manny Machado in the same game.

It's one thing to compile a group of stars, it's another to see them perform and for the most part, they've done that. We can't predict what will happen in the next WBC, but maybe in four years time, players like Mike Trout will decide to join the USA and maybe MLB executives will finally start to relax their collective stance on the tournament.

Now let's talk about their victory on Saturday night that eliminated the Dominican Republic. I don't think anyone would argue that it was USA Baseball's biggest win since David Wright's walk-off in 2009, but let's also remember that David Wright's walk-off took place in a half empty, Pro Player Stadium (now a football stadium with a roof). Not to mention the fact that the only people watching that game were the ones who had MLB Network and not many people had that channel in their cable bundle in 2009 as opposed to 2017.

Saturday night's victory took place in front of a sold out, partisan USA crowd at Petco Park. Plus, this Dominican squad was arguably the tournament's most talented team and were the favorites to repeat as champions. So with all that in mind, I think it's fair to say that the victory went even further. I'd say that the victory against the Dominican Republic was the biggest one for an American national team since the 2000 Olympics Gold Medal game where Tommy Lasorda's squad took the gold medal against a heavily favored Cuban team. It was in that game where Ben Sheets pitched a complete game, 3-hit shutout to win gold for the United States. If the US go onto win the tournament, that victory will probably surpass the gold medal victory since it will probably be more memorable and improve the popularity of the WBC in the USA.

On the other hand, this team is in a tough spot because if the US win the tournament, you'll have people who'll say, "Well, of course they won." but let's not let that ignorant school of thought dictate the talking points about this American team. Either way, I'm happy to say that I was wrong about the United States in this tournament and I'm looking forward to an epic matchup between the USA and Japan on Tuesday night where I'll be in attendance and struggling with divided loyalties between my country of birth and pride in NPB as a whole.

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Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring Koshien 2017: Schools with Seibu Lions connections


6 different schools represent a total of 10 Saitama Seibu Lions players
The 2017 Spring Koshien tournament will begin soon. As a result, it's the first meaningful baseball event within Japan, not counting the World Baseball Classic.

Call it Japan's March Madness, but Spring (Haru) Koshien is more of an invitational without the value being as low as the NIT. It's not the worst competition to be part of, but most schools are selected by a committee with few automatic bids unlike how the Summer Koshien has every school earn their way.

Spring Koshien was where Shohei Otani and Shintaro Fujinami dueled each other in the first round, where the media has attempted to make it a rivalry every since. It's also where ESPN made Rakuten Eagles pitcher Tomohiro Anraku famous while he was in high school.

A total of 32 teams are selected for this event as it starts before the NPB season. Here is the list of schools included that have a Saitama Seibu Lions connection.

Note: I've only included players, no coaches.  

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Sakushin Gakuin (Tochigi): P Tatsuya Imai

Imai was the 2016 Summer Koshien champion and his team will participate in this year's Spring edition. Sakushin Gakuin has become a recent powerhouse since 2006, dominating Tochigi prefecture. It's likely that Imai knows majority of this team. He was the Lions 1st round draft pick last fall. Sakushin Gakuin is playing in their first Haru Koshien in five years.

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Maebashi Ikuei (Gunma): P Kona Takahashi

Kona Takahashi became a legend when winning as a Junior in the 2013 Summer Koshien tournament. He was drafted in 2014 by the Lions in the first round and has already had two shutouts in his young career. Takahashi turned 20 earlier this month and like Imai, is expected to be a future ace of the team where the the long term will hinge on both pitchers.

Maebashi is making their second appearance at Haru Koshien and its their first in six years.

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Shizuoka (Shizuoka): OF Shohei Suzuki

Suzuki was drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 NPB Draft straight out of Shizuoka High School. The Lions think he can be a future leadoff hitter in the long term. In the rookie introduction, Suzuki said he hopes to hit .300 and have 35 stolen bases at the ichi-gun level in the future. Like Imai, Suzuki presumably knows majority of this team since he just graduated.

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Osaka Toin (Osaka): 2B Hideto Asamura, C Tomoya Mori, 3B Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, C Masatoshi Okada

The Lions main trio of Okawari-kun, Mori and Asamura are well-documented for their time at Osaka Toin. Asamura and Mori both won Summer Koshien titles in 2008 and 2012, respectively. Osaka Toin is a main powerhouse in Japan and they will usually get into this tournament by name recognition.

Of this group, Okada was the only one of the four to not be drafted straight out of high school. Okada was teammates with Asamura at one point, but went to an Industrial League team before being drafted in 2013 by the Lions in the same class as Mori.

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Fukuokadai Ohori (Fukuoka): P Tatsuya Oishi

Oishi is more remembered for his baseball career at the University level in the Tokyo Big6 League at Waseda University, but he attended this school in Fukuoka while in high school. With the Lions, he was drafted in the first round of 2010 and was considered the most sought out player in his class.

At the NPB level, he battled an injury and hasn't lived up to the hype, but in 2016, he had a more expanded role as a right specialist out of the bullpen. He will have exceptions for the Lions in 2017 as a reliever. Fukuokadai Ohori is appearing in this tournament for the first time in 26 years.

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Hotoku Gakuen (Hyogo): P Ichiro Tamura

Tamura was drafted by the Lions in the 6th round of the 2016 NPB Draft. Like Oishi, he went to a University in the Tokyo Big6, but went to high school elsewhere. Hotoku Gakuen is located directly in Nishinomiya, Hyogo, which is the city that Koshien stadium is in. Logically, this school can't be that far away compared to say, a school in Sapporo. Hotoku Gakuen is making their first Haru Koshien appearance in three years.

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The first game will begin on Sunday, March 19 (Saturday evening on March 18 in Pacific Time).
Here is the full field as written by our friend Edwin Dizon. First round analysis can be read here. You can follow him here @Eigokokoyakyu for more information on each school.

If anything, have fun, this tournament is still in the historic Koshien Stadium, meaning the Hanshin Tigers have to play a handful of games away from their traditional home for this event.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Japan facing the Netherlands was an Instant Classic

Photo credit: The Associated Press
If you didn't watch Sunday's Japan/Netherlands game, you owe it to yourself to find five hours of your time to watch it. The game best demonstrated why the World Baseball Classic is a great event that's loaded with passion and different styles of baseball.

From the second inning, we knew that the Tokyo Dome would be a theater for a masterpiece that all spectators will never forget. Just when we all thought that Samurai Japan would blowout the Oranje after they exploded to a 5-1 lead thanks to a 3-run home run from Sho Nakata in the top of the 3rd, the Dutch exploded for a four run inning of their own capped off by a 2-run home run by Coco Balentien that clanged off the left field foul pole. Balentien included an elaborate celebration and the Dutch poured out of the dugout to celebrate with him. These celebrations are a welcomed sight to the new generation of baseball fans and thankfully, so far there hasn't been any retaliation regarding the celebrations that have been a regular occurence in this year's WBC.

The outburst from the Dutch indicated to everyone that the sleepy offense the Dutch put together in round one had finally awakened and pitchers across the tournament should be put on high alert. With the offensive outburst from both squads, Rick van den Hurk and Ayumu Ishikawa were pulled each after 3 innings. Both managers knew the importance of this game so emergency action was needed.

Then there was the show that Kodai Senga put on in his two innings of relief. The Netherlands' first six batters had been no match for the pitch-to-contact style of Ayumu Ishikawa and Japan's manager, Hiroki Kokubo could get through the 4th with Yoshihisa Hirano pitching to the bottom of the Dutch order. In the 5th, the top of the Dutch order was impending with Andrelton Simmons and Kokubo responded by bringing in Kodai Senga who was unhittable in his only relief appearance against Australia in round one. Senga, nursing a 6-5 lead, surrendered back to back hits by Simmons and Jurickson Profar with the dangerous Xander Bogaerts due up and Coco Balentien on deck. Senga showcased his pitching repertoire by ringing up Bogaerts and then making Balentien whiff at a nasty slider thrown to the outside for out No. 2. Senga would complete the Houdini by getting Didi Gregorious to groundout. Senga would then get another scoreless inning of relief in the 6th.

Ishikawa's struggles coupled with Senga's dominance begs one looming question: Should Japan start Kodai Senga in either the semifinal or the final? One of the concerns that Christian and I had for Samurai Japan was whether or not they had enough elite pitching talent without Shohei Otani to compete with the stacked lineups of teams like the Dominican Republic. The Netherlands was probably the best test to see if Japan's pitching could survive a solid lineup and what happened with Ishikawa is probably a concerning sign. Sure, Ishikawa is probably not Japan's best pitcher but there are probably only a handful of guys on Samurai Japan's roster that consistently miss bats against the elite teams in this tournament. Senga is one of those guys and though I like the idea of using him as a relief ace, he might be better served as a starter in the Championship Round in LA.

From then on, Japanese pitchers allowed baserunners in the 7th and 8th innings an thanks to plays like this from Ryosuke Kikuchi, they staved off the threats. With the lack of clean innings, the nature of the game was always full of tension and it all felt like the important game it was supposed to be.

Then came the bottom of the 9th, and the answer about who was going to close for Samurai Japan in such a close game was answered with Takahiro Norimoto stepping up to the rubber. Norimoto seemed like a good choice to close out the Dutch, especially given that he has electric stuff and is among NPB's best strikeout guys.

Norimoto would get Jurickson Profar to strikeout to start the bottom of the 9th but then he would lose a full count battle to Xander Bogaerts by surrendering a walk. Coco Balentien would then single and Bogaerts would race over third with only one out. Then Didi Gregorious lined out to Norichika Aoki in left for the second out. Just when you thought Norimoto was going to get out of it, Jonathan Schoop grounded one off the glove of Ryosuke Kikuchi and into centerfield to tie the game. It was time for extra innings and there would be more drama in the top of the 10th.

With the Dutch's lack of pitching depth becoming apparent, Japan would get have runners on second and third with one out thanks to a single from Seiji Kobayashi and a double from the pinch-hitting Seiichi Uchikawa. Dutch manager Hensley Meulens would bring in Tom Stuifbergen who had been pitching in the Dutch League for the past 3 years. Stuifbergen would intentionally walk Kikuchi to load the bases with Norichika Aoki due up. Aoki would ground into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play and Curt Smith, the Dutch first baseman, might've pulled his foot off the bag, but nonetheless the drama of the game continued.

Kokubo brought in Kazuhisa Makita to pitch the 10th and he had an easy 1-2-3 inning which was the first one from the Dutch since the 4th inning. With the end of the 10th inning, the international tiebreak rules made their debut at the World Baseball Classic. I didn't know what I would think of the wacky scenario, but as it all played out, it just seemed like a necessary catalyst to secure an outcome of the game. I wouldn't like it if it decided the championship game, but I'm fine with it in the early rounds. With the Japanese starting the top of the 11th, Kokubo made Seiya Suzuki bunt over the two baserunners in the traditional Japanese tactical sense. I'm not sure if I would've done it, considering Japan was the away team but it seemed to have done its job. Sho Nakata would continue his big night by singling home both runners to make it 8-6. Hayato Sakamoto would follow it up with another single and just when we all thought Japan would tee off with the tiebreak rules, Tetsuto Yamada grounded into an inning-ending double play.

I felt that Japan might regret not scoring more than just two, especially with the Dutch middle of the order up once again but Makita's submarine style baffled Dutch hitters and they were unable to put any runs across. Japan was victorious.

Words cannot do this game the justice that it deserves. There were so many great moments from two of the best teams in the entire tournament and everyone needs to see the game in full color to really grasp how spectacular it was.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Graveyard Baseball Podcast: Lions ŌenDEN Episode 16


This is the 16th episode of our Lions ŌenDEN podcast. Christian and Wes return with a full discussion on the Pacific League and the Saitama Seibu Lions.

In detail, they break down the team, each Pacific League team and dip into a little bit about the Central League. Once again, we apologize for any errors or mispronunciations that might have taken place.

Intro @ 00:00

All-Things Seibu Lions (position players and pitchers) @ 1:40

Lions 2017 Schedule Quirks @ 26:20

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles talk @ 28:55

Chiba Lotte Marines talk @ 33:00

Hokkiado Nippon-Ham Fighters talk @ 37:40

Fukuoka Softbank Hawks talk @ 43:15

Orix Buffaloes talk @ 49:30

Pacific League Predictions (Where do the Lions finish?) @ 54:42

Central League Talk @ 58:12

Award and Japan Series winner predictions @ 1:05:07

Shoutouts and Closing @ 1:07:30




Click here if the embed doesn't work. Click here to download.

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Monday, March 13, 2017

English NPB experts predict the Seibu Lions for 2017

The English speaking NPB experts believe Hotaka Yamakawa will be important for the 2017 season. 

Japan Baseball Weekly released their Podcast episode previewing the Pacific League for the 2017 season on Sunday (in USA time). You can listen to the full episode here by clicking on the link. The episode is also available on iTunes. 

In the second half of the episode, John E. Gibson of the Japan News and Yomiuri Shimbun, Jim Allen of Kyodo News, Claudio Rodriguez of Béisbol Japonés and Jason Coskrey of the Japan Times discussed everything regarding the Pacific League with projections in the standings.

Where did they have the Lions?  We'll show you where they have them finishing in the Pacific League with a few notes of what they said. 

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John E. Gibson (@JBWPodcast): 2nd

"The Lions are more like a family that goes to the neighborhood diner. The mom is smoking, the kids are running around the restaurant and the father is trying pick up on the waitress. They don't seem organized."

-Believes Yusei Kikuchi is a No. 3 pitcher at best.

-Likes rookie SS Sosuke Genda believing he can play defense.

-Expects a lot out of Hotaka Yamakawa.

-Is very high on Tatsuya Imai and Shinsaburo Tawata in the long term.
"Somehow, some way, the Lions (who have averaged 68+ wins in the last five seasons) figure out a way to get to 70 wins and sneak into a playoff spot. I have them finishing 2nd because I'm crazy."
-Thinks the Lions will be a surprise team with pitchers emerging, whether its from an import like Brian Schlitter or Frank Garces, or someone drafted within the last three years.

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Jim Allen (@JballAllen): 4th

"The Lions are an 'old school' Japanese team where the new manager comes in and has a goal/plan and they stick to it."
-Expects defensive improvements from manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji as he has emphasized it since coming in.

-Sees Tsuji as a well-organized coach and manager from his time with the Chunichi Dragons. He was a farm manager for one season, but spent most of his coaching career in Nagoya with the Ichi-gun.

-Thinks the Lions can score plenty of runs because of Yamakawa and Asamura.

-Brought up how the last three rookie managers to take over the Lions would win the Pacific League Pennant in 2002, 2004 and 2008 with Haruki Ihara, Tsutomu Ito and Hisanobu "Nabe-Q" Watanabe, respectively.

-Believes the Lions can be a credible No. 2 team, but has another surprise team for 2017.
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Jason Coskrey (@JCoskrey): 4th
"The offense is a one trick pony and it's hard to hit every day of the season. How many teams can score that many runs and overcome this pitching staff that's had problems? Tawata can get better. After Kikuchi and an improved Tawata, who's really good on this team? Kona Takahashi has the potential, but I don't see the pitching there."
-Likes Yamakawa, echoing the rest of the group.

-Doesn't like the idea of Tsuji coming in and advocating more bunting. Thinks the Lions aren't built for that.

-Is very high on Yusei Kikuchi.

-Thinks the defense will be a work in progress and believes Genda will help out.

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Claudio Rodriguez (@BeisbolJapones): 5th
"They have the potential to be a really good team. They have guys who can hit the ball well (Ernesto Mejia, Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura). My thing for them is always the pitching. They have guys who can put some innings, [but they] lack pitching consistency."
-Not convinced with the team's rotation, as it can only last for 2-3 months at best.  


-Thinks the loss of Takayuki Kishi will hurt them most. 

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Talking Points After WBC Match-Day Two



After two days of the 2017 World Baseball Classic, we've seen a lot of great baseball and there are plenty of conclusions and overreactions to take from the action in Tokyo and Seoul. Here's just a few of them.

1. Israel Appear to be this Year's Underdog Story

Much like Italy in 2013 and Holland in 2009, this Israeli team has a ragtag group that has grinded their way to victories and at this point, are almost certainly moving on to the second round in Tokyo. A collection of career minor leaguers, quad-A players, and even a major leaguer coming out of retirement (Jason Marquis) have played with a terrier-like spirit with great defense and a grinding at-bat approach that has served them well in a tournament where pitch counts involve so much of the in-game strategy.

Let's not sugarcoat Israel too much though, this team does have some major league talent on the roster, especially Sam Fuld who's probably one of the best defensive outfielders in MLB when healthy. I was big fan of  Fuld when he played in Oakland and after a serious shoulder injury, he's now looking to use this tournament as a springboard into a new job. There's no reason to think that he won't be some MLB club's fourth outfielder by the time this tournament is over, especially after this catch against Korea. Fuld represents a group of players who have used the WBC as a way to showcase their talents along with Chien-Ming Wang who did it in 2013 to reignite his MLB career and to a lesser extent, Roger Clemens in 2006.

How far can Israel go? We'll know more when they go up against Holland in their final round one game. Pitching depth will likely be their downfall when they head to the Tokyo Dome, but on any day, this Israeli squad is up for an upset.

2. Korea Leaves The WBC Toothless

Whenever there's a nice underdog story, there's a favorite's letdown on the other side of it. At least their 2013 WBC exit was an elimination based on run differential. In two games, the Koreans have scored a grand total of one run in their first two games against Israel and Holland.

Sure, this team could've used Jung-ho Kang in their lineup, but scoring one run against Israel is just pitiful, especially when a watered down Taiwan team scored seven the next day against them. As my partner Christian Gin pointed out, Korea was a team that would've brought in massive crowds if they had made a run to the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium. There's no doubt that it's a disappointment especially because we all would've liked to see Japan and Korea renew their baseball rivalry, but I guess we're going to have to wait until the 2019 Premier 12 and the 2020 Olympic Games.

3. Cuba Seems To Lack Elite Talent

I chose not to believe the reports that MLB has sucked the life out of the Cuban national team and they've only played one game, but I think there's a lot to take from Cuba's 11-6 loss to Samurai Japan. Japanese hitters seemed ahead in the count all night to Cuban pitchers as they induced 7 walks and spanked 5 extra base hits which led the way to 11 runs. Watching the radar gun, the Cuban pitchers seemed more reliant on finesse than brute strength with nobody hitting the mid-90s.

Overall, there were a couple position players that stood out for Cuba, mostly their centerfielder Roel Santos who made two spectacular plays in centerfield that kept Samurai Japan from making the score even more lopsided but for the most part, the team does not have anyone who screams "Future Major League Ballplayer." It's unfair to make conclusions after one game, but I don't see Cuba advancing to the championship round.

4. Japan's Raw Talent Makes Up For Their Manager's Miscues

We'll see how long Japan's talent can make up for their manager Hiroki Kokubo's shortcomings, but so far so good for Samurai Japan. Before the tournament, there were reports that Kokubo was going to leave Hiroshima Carp star defensive second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi on the bench in favor of putting Tetsuto Yamada in the field, but last night Kokubo put Yamada at DH and Kikuchi at second base with the latter responding by bailing out starting pitcher Ayumu Ishikawa with a first-inning double play. That was probably the only good move that Kokubo made on the night, he made a head scratcher in batting Norichika Aoki third in the order while also playing him in centerfield and he seemed way too concerned with Nobuhiro Matsuda's exhibition struggles by placing him 8th in the order. Luckily for Kokubo, there were runners on base aplenty and Matsuda delivered in his opportunities with runners on base going 4-5 with a home run and four RBIs and Aoki made two spectacular plays in centerfield to bail out Japan's pitchers.

For all we know, if Shogo Akiyama was playing in centerfield, maybe those plays wouldn't have looked so spectacular but for the most part, Aoki rewarded Kokubo's faith. One big concern for Japan will be their bullpen that looked rather leaky, but Kokubo has plenty of options, it's just a matter of him finding the right ones with the toss of a dart.

5. Holland's Golden Generation Puts On A Show In Their Opener

I coined the Oranje's Golden Generation earlier, and they made me look good with a comfortable 5-0 win over host Korea. It started early from Jurickson Profar who launched a missile that makes me wish there was Statcast at Gocheok Sky Dome. A home run like that just reminds us all why Jurickson Profar was the number one prospect in all of MLB heading into the 2013 season and it's unfortunate that injuries and positional obstruction have derailed his promising career up to this point.

 Defensively, Andrelton Simmons and Jonathan Schoop turned three double plays and they made all of them look easy. Andrelton Simmons is probably the best defensive shortstop in all of MLB and it's fantastic that he's committed to this tournament. Even one of their lesser known players contributed to the victory as Randolph Oduber hit a two-run home run to put the exclamation point on their victory. Oduber spent several years in the Washington Nationals organization where he only reached the level of AA, he now plays his ball in the Dutch league and if these contributions continue from players like Oduber, the sky is the limit for the Honkbal Oranje. I'm skeptical about their pitching depth and that will be tested as the tournament goes on but so far, so good for Holland.

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Saturday, March 4, 2017

USA Baseball Is Equivalent to England in Soccer


There's a popular line when it comes to soccer: "The English invented the game, but the Brazilians perfected it."

Maybe in baseball, the line should be: "The Americans invented the game, but the Dominicans perfected it."

The truth is, when it comes to international competition, the Americans have really never dominated baseball. The first time there was actually an Olympic Baseball Tournament was in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Before then, baseball was simply a demonstration sport where exhibition games are played to draw up popularity and the winners of the games are not added to the medal count.

From 1992-2008, baseball had a tournament at each Summer Olympiad and here were the results.

Barcelona 1992

Gold: Cuba
Silver: Taiwan
Bronze: Japan

Atlanta 1996

Gold: Cuba
Silver: Japan
Bronze: USA

Sydney 2000

Gold: USA
Silver: Cuba
Bronze: South Korea

Athens 2004

Gold: Cuba
Silver: Australia
Bronze: Japan

Beijing 2008

Gold: South Korea
Silver: Cuba
Bronze: USA

Maybe I mispoke, according to the Olympics, it's the Cubans who perfected baseball. I will add that the Dominican Republic only qualified once for the Olympics in 1992 where they finished 6th. We'll see what happens during the tournament in 2020 before we pass judgment on that fact. When you add all the results up, the USA is the 2nd most successful nation in terms of success as they are tied with the Japanese for the most medals with 3, but the USA has won one gold which puts them over the top.

Yes, Tommy Lasorda's 2000 squad won gold, but let's not forget that England has won one World Cup as well in 1966.  England has has only been to the semifinals once since then. The USA also failed to qualify for the games in 2004, which is a lot like England failing to qualify for the 1974, 1978 and 1994 World Cups.

USA Baseball's results at the first three World Baseball Classic events have seen the USA fail to make the championship round in 2006 and 2013 while having their best finish in 2009 which was fourth. That sure seems a lot like England.

Let me clarify that yes, the USA produces more MLB players than any nation, but speaking just in terms of international results, this dominance in baseball that we've all naturally believed just simply hardly exists, much like England.

I'm sure many who read this post will certainly bring up the excuses about the USA never bringing their MLB players to the Olympics or the typical World Baseball Classic excuses that only the USA seems allowed to use. They all seem to mirror the scapegoats that the English media uses when England bows out of each World Cup, "They were all exhausted from the long club season."

Then when the topic of the amount of competitive nations in soccer is compared to baseball, the USA again seems more and more married to England in soccer. Put simply, eight different countries have won the World Cup, while only 4 have won the major international baseball tournaments (USA, Japan, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic) so with that in mind, maybe it's not so crazy to call USA the England of baseball.

If only there could be a popular song that spawns due to the USA's lack of international baseball success like this one for England.

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Friday, March 3, 2017

Report: Ginjiro Sumitani added to Japan's WBC roster


Samurai Japan made another change in store to their roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Rakuten Eagles catcher Motohiro Shima has a lower body injury and has not participated in any preseason game with his Pacific League team. 

The door suddenly opened for Ginjiro Sumitani to take Shima's place on the roster. Sumitani, 29, has been known as one of the best defensive catchers in NPB. He is a hole in the lineup when it comes to hitting, never having a batting average of over .220 in his career. 

Sumitani has won the Gold Glove award twice in 2012 and 2015, as well as being part of Japan's national team during the 2013 World Baseball Classic and Premier 12. 

The Saitama Seibu Lions finished training camp in both Miyazaki and Kochi prefectures, but Sumitani said he has been "preparing" in the event he could be playing for Samurai Japan. 

He officially joined a mix that includes Shota Ono of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Seiji Kobayashi of the Yomiuri Giants. Sumitani would already have the most experience in international play among the three catchers, but has the worst bat. 

Hiroki Kokubo now has a decent option off the bench if he were to pinch hit Kobayashi or Ono for a game, then replace the catcher position with Sumitani for defense. Otherwise, Sumitani should not be a starter or have an at-bat as Ono is a better option with this trio. 

The loss of Shima means that Samurai Japan has lost a well-rounded catcher, but added a strong defensive replacement. Sumitani becomes the third Lion to join Samurai Japan's roster as Shogo Akiyama and Kazuhisa Makita became members when the listing was announced. 

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

2017 World Baseball Classic: Economy needs four specific teams in Championship Round


The 2017 World Baseball Classic will take place and begin on March 6. For the championship round (final four), it will be in Dodger Stadium.

Unfortunately, this 2017 edition of the WBC could be the final one in history, as rumored by the media. There's plenty of factors as to why the WBC could be gone. Some feel that its rather pointless, similar to how the World Cup of Hockey took place last summer before the NHL season.

In general, there is apathy towards the WBC in the United States of America. Sure, it's easy for parts of the world to pay attention. Japan will obviously have followers no matter who is playing while South Korea also has interest.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said he hopes to keep the WBC going, but it will also be up to the MLB Player's Association in order for that to happen.

One of the big hits towards this tournament is the injury of Shohei Otani as he recovers from hurting his ankle. Otani would have drawn a following knowing that he has MLB potential and could have showcased himself to the world in the tournament.

Crowds are going to be sparse minus when Samurai Japan is playing at home in Tokyo Dome. However, the attendance for the final in Dodger Stadium as well as the ratings on television should factor as to whether the WBC goes beyond 2017.

With all due respect to the 12 other teams participating in this tournament, only four specific teams making the final four at the same time would be the best case scenario for the economy and future of this event. Here are the four teams who need to make the Championship Round in Dodger Stadium in order to create a case of having the WBC for the long run:

Japan


Japan's team would obviously help the economy given the talent and intrigue that the roster brings. there is no Otani, but the given their history in the WBC of two championships and one other championship round appearance, they will easily draw a crowd in Los Angeles and bring a unique perspective to baseball with their players.

On paper, Japan is likely to make it to the Championship round. It's no cupcake run, but the talent they have combined with the competition in the rest of the field should be enough.

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Korea

There are plenty of those with Korean descent residing in Southern California. KBO is also the second largest league in Asia, which could give another market to a country that likes baseball. In 2009, Korea faced Japan in the finals in front of 54,000 at Dodger Stadium. It wouldn't hurt if they make a run and recreate a final from eight years ago.

Korea's team has plenty of good talent, but not great or elite level players compared to years in the past. They will likely advance out of Group A into the second round, but it's anyone's guess as to whether they can make it to Los Angeles where they aren't favored.

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U.S.A. 

The ratings would rocket if the USA made a run like in 2009 to the Championship round. Attendance will likely be minimal throughout the first two rounds, but people would start watching if the team was winning. As earlier said, the pride is rather apathetic towards this event. Several players are more concerned about the 2017 regular season and possibly postseason if they're on a contending team that they won't be participating.

By even making the semi-finals, it would at least draw some casual followers rather than almost no one. U.S.A. has an uphill battle, but the talent is on the roster in order to make this possible.

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Mexico

Despite all of the talent on the Dominican Republic, the economy needs Mexico to surprise the world and make the championship round. While soccer is the more dominant sport in the country, Mexico can draw more of a crowd in San Diego and Los Angeles than any other team from Group C and Group D. If supporters can pack the Rose Bowl or Levi's Stadium, they would at least have a presence for baseball compared to others.

Mexico is in the group of death and it's unlikely they make it past the second round. However, games are not played on paper and it would be a perfect scenario if Adrian Gonzalez and others can carry the team to an improbable run.

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Overall

It's not a coincidence the four host teams for the opening round are who need to be there in the Championship Round. This is an underlying way of telling everyone that the committee wants these four countries in the Final Four.

When the Championship round was in San Francisco for 2013, only 35,000+ showed up for the final. Attendance was not what it could've been had other teams been there. Japan had a disappointing semi-finals loss to Puerto Rico while the Dominican Republic won the whole thing as the favorites.

A Championship Round with Mexico, U.S.A., Japan and South Korea would be the best-case scenario for the economy and the future of this tournament. If this doesn't happen, we will likely see a smaller attendance and TV ratings compared to what it could be with these four countries.

Cuba has an interesting intrigue with how mysterious the group of players are while Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are more talented, but they won't draw the ratings or tickets that the other four will.

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Group A Analysis

Group B Analysis

Group C Analysis

Group D Analysis

Samurai Japan roster Analysis

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