The Saitama Seibu Lions bullpen is undergoing a few changes with the back end in particular being different. Gone are Kazuhisa Makita (Padres) and Brian Schliter (let go). Tatsushi Masuda is still the closer, but who provides the bridge for him?
Tatsushi Masuda: Masuda had one bad stretch in 2017, but has been a decent closer overall since having it in 2016. The Lions expect the same from him for 2018.
Shota Takekuma: Takekuma can be a lefty specialist and is one of the better middle relief options. He can go anywhere from the 5th to 8th inning if needed. Last year, he didn't impress as much to be a back end reliever compared to Schlitter and Makita and he hopes to take the reins this time.
Katsunori Hirai: Hirai came on and earned meaningful innings in middle relief as a rookie in 2017. His splits indicate he's solid against right-handed batters.
Tomomi Takahashi: Takahashi is coming off Tommy John surgery and we saw a glimpse of him at the end of the 2017 season. If he can regain his form from 2014 to the first half of 2015, the Lions would take it and he can be the setup man.
Tatsuya Oishi: The former highly touted first round pick of 2010 has shown he's a solid reliever with an effective slider. Oishi's biggest problem is health as he only appeared in a handful of games in 2017. An argument can be made he's the best option in middle relief against right-handed hitters.
Neil Wagner: The Lions will likely give their import a first look out of the bullpen. What Wagner does will depend on how he looks in camp and preseason. Best case scenario would be a guy to take the 7th or 8th inning, but they'll at least give him a chance at the start of the year based on how much they're paying him.
Some pitchers not listed here will likely get a look at the rotation and those who lose out will probably go to the bullpen. They will be mentioned in our starting pitcher piece.
Hirotaka Koishi: Koishi came off a bad year and only took low leverage innings in 2017. After having a career high in 2016 due to the team trailing often, the role for Koishi could continue to diminish. At best, he can draw a ground ball for a double play or eat up innings.
Shunta Nakatsuka: The Lions hope Nakatsuka can work on his control as he is the hardest thrower on the team. He worked down under in Australia for five weeks with the Melbourne Aces, but can he crack the ichi-gun? This will be only his second year with the team.
Shogo Noda: Noda nibbles quite a bit when throwing pitches, but can be effective at getting a ground ball. Entering his third year, he should be better and could also be a lefty specialist.
Tsubasa Kokuba: Kokuba was the 8th round pick in 2015. He has yet to pitch a meaningful inning for the ichi-gun as he only got a brief glimpse in 2016.
Takuya Toyoda: Toyoda failed to play an ichi-gun game in 2017 and being one of the older reserves, he's in trouble as this could be his final season with the team.
Kentaro Fukukura: Fukukura was part of the revolving door as a mop up duty pitcher. He'll likely need to work his way up with good low leverage innings if he wants a crack at the ichi-gun.
Chun-Lin Kuo: Kuo started with the team initially in 2015, but his control faded which led to his downfall in 2016. By putting his stock on the 2017 World Baseball Classic, he has one of the biggest uphill battles among Lions pitchers as he almost everyone passed him on the depth chart. His upside isn't as good as it once was as he just turned 26 this month. \
Tadasuke Minamikawa: The third year Shakaijin hopes to get more innings after only getting a few looks at the ichi-gun. He's in the same class as Shogo Noda and Kokuba.
Naoaki Matsumoto: Matsumoto was the 10th round pick of the Lions in 2015 and the ultimate underdog out of the Shikoku Island League. One scout liked him and the team felt it was worth a flyer. Like Toyoda, he's up there in age compared to the rest and it could be his last season if he can't make any impact at the ichi-gun level.
Ryohei Fujiwara: Fujiwara could be in for a pinch as he can miss bats. He isn't worth relieving for more than two innings unless it's mop up duty.
Koki Fujita: Fujita was the only high school pitcher taken in the 2015 draft by the Lions. He finally got a glimpse in ni-gun in 2017 after recovering from an injury.
Seiji Kawagoe: The second round pick of 2015 is on pace to be a bust. Kawagoe has not converted to pitcher as well after being a two-way player in college. It's possible he could switch to OF like Fumikazu Kimura if pitching doesn't work out.
Kaizo Yota: The submarine pitcher could be a depth option and is capable of playing in 2018. He's coming off an injury from college and will have to take it slow to start.
This unit has uncertainty on the back end before Masuda, but there are plenty of options available given the recent draft picks and more. It would be a huge boost if Wagner can crack the bullpen and stay there for the entire season, rather than get sent down after one month of being ineffective.
Tsuji will be experimenting along the way and hopefully he finds out who can be the best in middle relief as time goes on.
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