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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