Thursday, March 1, 2018

NPB Preview 2018: Central League


The 2018 NPB Season will kickoff soon as we're currently in the state of exhibition baseball (known as Open-sen). To help with anyone who has a baseball itch and is craving the sport, here are some thoughts on the Central League.

We will break down each team with good, bad, uncertainty and more. However, we will not make a prediction of which place they come in. Predictions will be on the podcast as this piece will have more of a projection or idea where each team is expected to finish.

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Tokyo Yakult Swallows:  

The Swallows are coming off a nightmare season of historical lows. At on point, they lost 14 out of 15 games, where the one non-loss was a tie. Numbers were putrid and forgettable in an awful season. This team wasn't even given a fair chance, as the injury bug hit everywhere from positions players, bullpen and starting pitchers. They were decimated everywhere.

Strengths: Starting pitching

Yasuhiro "Ryan" Ogawa regained form after a bad 2016, but was used as a closer in one of the worst games of the year. David Buchanan is a nice piece as he carried the team and will stay for this year. First round pick Juri Hara had a promising season as well and on paper, there are pieces in the rotation for the long run with Naruki Terashima being the big draft pick from 2016.

Question marks: Offense, middle relief, health

The offense was absolutely unwatchable where injuries hurt the unit, but Tetsuto Yamada was healthy all season and had his worst career year. Wladimir "Coco" Balentien got over the normal hump of hitting more than 31 HRs, but even he was out for some time. Tomotaka Sakaguchi was the lone consistent player on offense for the team.

Can things get better? There's nowhere to go but up. There was a lack of power from the team outside of Yamada and Balentien as no one came closer to 10 home runs in what is a bandbox ballpark. Everything went downhill for the bullpen when closer Ryo Akiyoshi went down with an injury and finishing a game was uncertain. Health was the biggest weakness overall last year as the team was low on depth by season's end.

Notable additions and Foreign signings: OF Norichika Aoki, P Jordan Norberto "Armengot", P David Huff, P Matt Carasiti, OF Shotaro Tashiro, Manager Junji Ogawa, C Munetaka Murakami

Key losses: None

Armengot has experience in NPB with the Dragons while J. Ogawa is back after being the predecessor to Mitsuru Manaka. Ogawa worked in the front office in the last three years as this tenure will be more of a caretaker role. By signing Tashiro, the Swallows are desperate for any healthy bodies after last season.

If the Swallows hit on these signings, at least their pitching could keep them competitive when the rotation already has some pieces. If anything, seeing the past (Aoki) and present (Yamada) together on the same team gives everyone a nice sentimental feeling and the former can improve the offense, but does can he be the leader on what was a bad team?

Expectations: This team is going through a rebuild by hiring Ogawa. On paper, they have Head coach Shinya Miyamoto lined up for the long term, but Ogawa is there to take the bullet as this team will go through plenty of losses.

In 2015, everything went right. The 2016 season had unwatchable pitching with an adequate offense. Last year, it was backward where the starters did their jobs, but injuries decimated the offense.

If Yamada rebounds and the team stays healthy, maybe there's a chance for A-class, but the Swallows need to hit on all their import signings. Too much has to go their way for them to be a playoff team.

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Chunichi Dragons 

The Dragons went through their first year of an open rebuild in 2017 by avoiding the cellar. They only made a slight improvement in wins from 2016, which isn't saying much.

Strengths: OF Yohei Oshima, back end of the bullpen

Unfortunately for the Dragons, there's no individual unit that stands out, rather it's just individuals themselves. Katsuki Matayoshi and Shinji Tajima are the backbone of the bullpen while Oshima is a solid hitter.

Question marks: Uncertainty

The Dragons are throwing in players left and right, specifically in the rotation where as many as eight or nine guys can go if they want. There's interesting pieces with the young Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Yuya Yanagi being the recent first round draft picks.

This team has failed to draft or develop their recent draft picks from a previous regime and held on to their veterans too long. The good news is that the team is getting younger, but can these guys develop?

Additions and Foreign Signings: P Onelki Garcia, OF Steven Moya, OF Zoilo Almonte, P Dillon Gee, C Shota Ono, P Hiroshi Suzuki, P Daisuke Matsuzaka,

Key losses: OF Alex Guerrero, P Jordan Norberto

As a legend for his name and history, Matsuzaka has drawn all the headlines for a player who has only played one ichi-gun game from 2015-2017. On the field, expectations have to be minimal. Ono will likely be the starting catcher as he was their big free agent signing. Chunichi's OF imports could help an offense that needs a band aid.

Expectations: Shigekazu Mori is in his second full year of being the manager after taking over in the middle of 2016. Like J. Ogawa for the Swallows, he should be viewed as a caretaker with the Dragons having someone else lined up for the future.

Is this a lame duck year for Mori if they feel farm manager Michihiro "Guts" Ogasawara is ready to go? On paper, the Dragons are still rebuilding and don't have what it takes for A-class, but unlike the Swallows, they have a one year head start. The Dragons are already at a franchise high for longest length in B-class in history. That alone can't be good, but most spectators will say Chunichi is another year away from being ready for postseason contention.

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Yomiuri Giants

Thanks to a franchise-record 13 game losing streak in 2017, the Yomiuri Giants experienced B-class for the first time since 2006. They've only experienced back-to-back B-class seasons once in franchise history, going from 2005-2006. This would be historic if they repeated this feat again.

Strengths: Veterans, rotation, bullpen

Tomoyuki Sugano and Kazuto Taguchi can carry the load in the rotation without trouble. On offense, Daikan Yoh hopes to be healthy for the full year after missing the first two months. Casey McGehee proved to be a good pickup and Hayato Sakamoto is consistent at SS. Scott Mathieson and Arquimedes Caminero are also a solid back end duo for the 8th and 9th innings.

Question marks: Front office, lack of youth?

There's questions about how the Yomiuri office ran itself last year after making one pivotal move. They took Caminero off to make room for Luis Cruz, meaning the Giants forced Mathieson at closer for 10 days. It was one of many negative domino effects which led to the team's 13 game losing streak. Most recently, they unprotected Hayato Takagi, who was selected by the Saitama Seibu Lions as free agency compensation for the signing of Ryoma Nogami.

Yoshitaka Katori took over their front office in the middle of the season last year. He's the first former player to be running the Giants, as in the past it has always been corporate businessman/journalists. The Giants have plenty of farm players, but they're often blocked by many veterans in front. Most recently, they drafted multiple catchers in the 2017 NPB Draft. Is that a vote of no confidence in Seiji Kobayashi long term?

Key Additions/Import signings: P Ryoma Nogami, OF Alex Guerrero, P Taylor Jungmann

Key losses: P Hayato Takagi, 3B Shunichi Murata, P Miles Mikolas

The Giants threw money at a free agent again with Nogami and Guerrero joining the fold. Mikolas cashed in on his NPB experience signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, while the Giants chose to let Takagi go when signing Nogami. On paper, Guerrero should help their offense right away and could even hit 40+ HRs after hitting 35 in a pitcher's park.

Expectations: The Giants are the "National Team" of Japan, meaning expectations are always sky high. This team is capable of getting back into A-class, but they'll need to earn it. The front end of each unit is solid, there just can't be incompetence on the back end and the offense must take a big step forward. Guerrero is supposed to do that, something which lacked in the first two months prior to interleague play.

Nationally, people expect them to win the pennant every year, but this Giants team is only an A-class contender in my book with no higher finish than second place. The pitching will need others to step it up and maybe the depth can improve to cover the loss of Mikolas, but to get to a pennant? Seems unrealistic.

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Yokohama DeNA Baystars

The Baystars appeared in their first Japan Series since 1998 and were very close to forcing a Game 7 as they barely came up short. However, the identity of an Alex "Rami-chan" Ramirez team has been mediocrity, followed by getting hot in the postseason.

Strengths: Starting pitching

Track record is looking really good for Baystars first round picks since 2014. Closer Yasuaki Yamasaki, Shota Imanaga and Haruhiro Hamaguchi have all helped their team with the latter two in the rotation being solid building blocks. With Shoichi Ino and Kenta Ishida already there as well as Joe Wieland in the fold, the trajectory for the latest first round pick Katsuki Azuma looks good.

Question marks: Bullpen, inconsistent offense

Rami-chan tries to take advantage of any upperhand he can find. Whether it's preparing a player differently or going with a lineup that works against the opposing pitcher, he'll look into all the numbers and details.

Offensively, the Baystars are very home run dependent where it beomces important for someone like Jose Lopez or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to hit the long ball. Toshiro Miyazaki is also coming off a Central League  batting championship year. Was that a little fluky with some overachieving? Maybe.

The middle relief to get to Yamasaki was the largest problem for the Baystars and they're hoping some imports can band aid this unit. Spencer Patton was adequate, but Tomoya Mikami and Kenjiro Tanaka were not the greatest.

Key additions and import signings: IF "Yamato" Maeda, P Edison Barrios, IF Neftali Soto

Key losses: None

Yamato was their big pickup domestically, costing P Yuya Onaka as compensation going to the Hanshin Tigers. Crazy enough, Yamato might not be playing much as he must earn his starting time. Barrios is a Softbank Hawks castoff who spent last year in the Independent BC Challenge League. If he can regain form from 2015, it would be huge.

Expectations: After going to the postseason twice, the Baystars should have championship expectations within and from the media. The only problem is, can they put in a solid regular season together? Having come off a trip to the Japan Series, the talent is there and this should be the first time in a long time that people are taking this team seriously for a pennant.

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Hanshin Tigers

The Hanshin returned to A-class after a one year hiatus where Tomoaki Kanemoto experienced postseason baseball in his second season as manager. They're looking to build off this and take the next step.

Strengths: Front end rotation and bullpen

After having a shaky bullpen in 2016, Kanemoto had plenty of options as a middle relief bridge to closer Rafael Dolis. Marcos Mateo, Akifumi Takahashi, Suguru Iwazaki, Tsuyoshi Ishizaki and Kentaro Kuwahara all spent time as part of a solid unit. Of course 2018 is a new year, but they had an amazing 2017.

Randy Messenger continues to be the ace as he is close to reaching a 9th year of service time, meaning he counts as a Japanese player for roster reasons without the foreign import rule. Takumi Akiyama was a good complementing piece while the ageless Atsushi Nomi carried the load in innings. This rotation could be even better if Shintaro Fujinami can work on his control, but the Tigers are capable of "bullpenning" their way through games.

Question marks: Offensive inconsistency, Bunting habits

Takashi Toritani had a rebound season, Shun Takayama regressed, Kosuke Fukudome isn't getting any younger, Yoshio Itoi was injured and Yusuke Oyama is still raw and very young. Kanemoto played guys who didn't receive as much ichi-gun time under his predecessor Yutaka Wada and it helped for the long run. Masahiro Nakatani, Hiroki Uemoto and Ryutaro Umeno all logged in plenty of starts as a result.

Others who contributed include "Shunsuke" Fujikawa and Kento Itohara. The Tigers are hoping Fumihito Haraguchi and Fumiya Hojo could also do something long term considering both took a step backwards in 2017. Kanemoto also forced Oyama to continue playing as he's "his guy" being the first round pick of 2016. Will he keep bunting and reduce the possible runs?

Key additions and import signings: IF Willin Rosario, P Yen-Ching Lu, P Diego Moreno

Key loss: IF "Yamato" Maeda

Given his success in Korea, Rosario is the import with arguably the highest expectations in NPB. He's supposed to make an instant impact with power and more, but will Kanemoto give him a fair leash?

In response to the loss of Yamato, Toritani is moving to 2B. Should be interesting seeing a legend move around the infield after being a shortstop for long time.

Expectations: Like the Giants, supporters in Kansai always have high expectations for their team. Objectively speaking, they have a legit case that they should be contending for a pennant, something they haven't won since 2005. Rosario needs to bring the pop, as only Nakatani reached the 20 HR plateau in 2017 while a few were not far off.

With the bullpen being elite and the rotation /offense capable of getting better, they should be right in the hunt.

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Hiroshima Carp

The Carp won the Central League Pennant for the second consecutive year. Some injuries and shortcomings in the Climax Series gave them an earlier exit than they hoped.

Strengths: Offense

From Yoshihiro Maru, Seiya Suzuki, Toshihiro Abe, Kosuke Tanaka, Brad Eldred and an aging Takahiro Arai. the Carp have an embarrassment of riches on offense. They have speed, can hit the gaps and a balance of power. Didn't even need to mention how solid Ryosuke Kikuchi is with his bat, while he's more known for his defense.

 Question marks: Rotation, Bullpen

The Carp bullpen is where inconsistency deceives the numbers. Takeru Imamura looks like a good piece, but can he close out games consistently? The Carp have the players from Ryuji Ichioka, Ren Nakata, former closer Shota Nakazaki and Jay Jackson. They're all inconsistent as with most relievers on a given night. Can they get an identity in crunch time and find a better rhythm? Hiroshima hasn't been tested often in those close games because of their offense.

The rotation overachieved last year with kids like Akitake Okada and Kazuki Yabuta being thrown in and doing well. They could regress after last season's amazing regular season. Kris Johnson hopes to rebound after being injured most of 2017 and having a down year.

Key additions and foreign signings: P Leonel Campos

Key losses: None

The Carp are hoping to develop from within their academy where Xavier Batista made an impact in his short time. Alejandro Mejia was also a late signing from last year.

Expectations: For a team that has won the pennant twice, there's no reason they can do it again for a three-peat. Offense is there and the pitching has a foundation. If the pitching can maintain the success it had from 2017, they'll be dominant for years to come and could run away with the pennant again. Of course their core players need to be healthy if they want to make the Japan Series again like 2016 as Seiya Suzuki was missed.

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Overall: 

Two teams are rebuilding, four teams are in the hunt for A-class with three of them having an argument for the pennant. This should be a very open competition and while head to head games matter most, no one can overlook the bottom feeders as that can also make a difference. The Dragons are typically good at defeating one opponent as they can annoy someone down the line.

Fasten your seatbelts everyone. This race for the pennant shall be a bumpy ride.

Pacific League 2018 Preview

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