Wednesday, March 7, 2018
NPB Preview 2018: Pacific League
Since the turn of the 21st Century, the Pacific League has mostly owned NPB by winning the Japan Series. Of the 18 Japan Series in this millennium, the Central League has only won six times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2012).
After looking at the Central League in a previous post, we'll take a look at the Pacific League. Once again, no true predictions will be in this post as we have it on our podcast, see this more as a projection.
Chiba Lotte Marines
The worst case scenario happened as the Marines had all the looks of a last place team from hitting and pitching. On paper they can't go backwards from being in 6th.
Strengths: Balanced depth, Rotation, future infield
The Marines have plenty of options when it comes to pitching thanks to drafting several pitchers in the last few drafts. It's enough to be adequate and steady. They also drafted their infield of the future with Taiga Hirasawa and Hisnori Yasuda being first round picks from 2015 and 2017, respectively.
Question marks: Lack of star power, rotation ace, power hitting
The Marines can have a lot of average or above average players, but there are only a few championship caliber guys on their roster when looking at it on paper. Hideaki Wakui is a shell of his former self, while Daichi Suzuki and Katsuya Kakunaka are complementary pieces.
Their biggest issue is finding a player who can hit 20 home runs, something that was lacking in 2017. Willy Mo Pena was their HR leader with 15 as he only played in the second half of the season and he isn't returning. They really miss Alfredo Despagine of the Softbank Hawks after he signed with them last offseason.
There is a lack of elite talent currently on the Marines, but there could be someone developed if a prospect rises to the occasion.
Notable additions and foreign signings: Tadahito Iguchi (as a manager), P Tanner Scheppers, IF Matt Dominguez, P Edgar Olmos, P Mike Bolsinger, OF Francisco Peguero, IF Tu-Hsuan Lee, P Kenji Otonari
Key losses: Manager Tsutomu Ito (Other lost foreign players weren't as notable)
Chiba took a bunch of flyers on players given they have nothing to lose. We're in a new era with Iguchi retiring as a player and being the team's manager. He already removed any player being a captain saying that everyone needs to step it up. By signing so many players, there is a better chance someone can emerge from the pack.
Expectations: The Marines were mostly a boring team through majority of the season until August, where they competed. They're going to need Shogo Nakamura to continue from his strong second half and pitchers like Tomohito Sakai must step it up.
Ayumu Ishikawa is their best pitcher on paper, but even he had a brutal 2017 after a questionable World Baseball Classic. There are plenty of rotation and bullpen options, just someone needs to stick. With a lack of star power, they can't be taken seriously for a pennant, but A-class is possible if Iguchi's leadership brings new life into the team and their pitching can carry their questionable offense, something it did from 2015-2016.
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
After winning it all in 2016, the Fighters took a major step back where injuries hurt, but the pitching and hitting took a natural regression for their fall. In 2016, everything went right, but 2017 had everything go wrong for a fifth place finish.
Strengths: Youth, speed, defense
Manager Hideki Kuriyama knows how to get the best out of his players and some kids are capable of stepping it up. Majority of their players are fast enough to beat out throws and the defense will likely improve with some of their starters from last year.
Question marks: Pitching, catcher
The rotation lacks an ace and even a front end starter. Their bullpen also has uncertainty as they lost their closer. Who takes the void? Plenty of farm players. The Fighters also rotated as many as five different guys at catcher as it was a revolving door in 2017.
Key additions and foreign signings: C Shinya Tsuruoka, OF Oswaldo Arcia, P Bryan Rodriguez, P Michael Tonkin, P Nick Martinez, IF Kotaro Kiyomiya
Key losses: P Shohei Ohtani, P Hirotoshi Masui, P Chris Martin
Coming off a bad season, the Fighters took more flyers on foreign imports compared to the past. Tsuruoka also returns after a stint with the Softbank Hawks. Obviously it's very easy to bring up Ohtani going to MLB and the Los Angeles Angels, but their closer situation remains uncertain too without Masui.
Kiyomiya will have all the hype in the world given his first round pick status and being on the radar out of high school. How much will he play? He will be viewed as the main attraction for the long run.
Expectations: There's too many question marks in their rotation and bullpen to take them seriously for A-class. Even if Ohtani was there, the supporting cast isn't adequate enough to stay above mediocrity. Kohei Arihara and Kenta Uehara were the recent first round picks who need to show they can be a front end starter. Arihara lacks the stamina while Uehara is unproven.
A rebound year from Sho Nakata would help to complement the power hitting Brandon Laird. The development of starting players like Kazunari Ishii and Go Matsumoto would also do the Fighters wonders. This usually stay relatively young as a whole as they don't keep their veterans, but someone needs to step it up in order to take them seriously in 2018.
In the big picture, the Fighters are looking to move out of Sapporo Dome as it isn't profitable. The Fighters even partnered themselves with the Texas Rangers to help understand the logistics of getting a new building.
They're looking to have their own stadium in the future and have their sights set on two possible locations. One potential site is in Kita-Hiroshima (north Hiroshima), which is right outside Sapporo itself. On paper, they're rebuilding, but also wanting to build a stadium for themselves.
The Orix Buffaloes are mired in mediocrity, but gave their fans a tease in the first two months playing decent baseball. Everything began to fall off once the summer rolled around and the team was all but eliminated in August. It was a step forward from coming in last place in 2016.
Strengths: Rotation, raw talent, power hitting
Orix has arguably the best rotation depth in the Pacific League behind the defending champions. Chihiro Kaneko, Yuki Nishi, Brandon Dickson are a solid top three while Takahiro Matsuba, Daiki Tomei provide depth options. Taisuke Yamaoka is coming off a solid rookie year and shakaijin first round pick Daiki Tajima will likely be slotted into the rotation too.
Yuta Kuroki was promising for a second round pick last year and was the setup man before he fell off. Masataka Yoshida has also shown he can hit well when he's playing. Stefen Romero and Chris Marrero also proved to be decent foreign signings as they added more pop to an already well-known Takahiro Okada.
Question marks: Front office, Manager Junichi Fukura, bullpen depth
Orix had a civil war involving executives Yasuyuki Kato and Ryuzo Setoyama which lasted until the end of the 2016 season. Kato left and Setoyama stayed around for 2017, but the latter has also left his position and neither guy is with the organization.
Since then, Hiroyuki Nagamura and Shigetoshi Hasegawa are the current leaders in charge of the baseball operations. While these are new faces, Fukura still holds his position as manager and they have not hired someone else. Fukura is a manager who should really be an assistant, but it has laid a problem of leadership and more by not having a new skipper in charge.
The players like Fukura, but will he develop and take them to the promise land? It's not likely. The front office has taken a guy like Nishi off the roster for 10 days after he has a bad game, not due to injury. They're often run in a manner where they think things can turn around overnight.
It's possible they may even rush back a player before he's 100% after an injury. This is what sums up this Buffaloes team with incompetence with several moves being eyebrow raisers.
Key additions and import signings: P Andrew Albers, P Hirotoshi Masui
Key losses: P Yoshihisa Hirano (to the Diamondbacks)
Orix hit on their signings last year by keeping Romero and Marrero around. Masui will replace Hirano at closer on paper and with Kuroki, it should be a decent back end to their bullpen.
Expectations: Orix has the talent to compete for A-class, but the front office and management can hold them back. They've only been a playoff team twice in the Orix Buffaloes era in 2008 and 2014. Could they get there? The rotation has what it takes as well as the team being talented, but incompetence from Fukura and others are a reason to have doubt.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
The Eagles had their first season of A-class since Masahiro Tanaka left the team and won it all in 2013. They even won a playoff series against the Saitama Seibu Lions in the first stage of the Climax Series. With the third year under Masataka Nashida, the team hopes to continue moving forward.
Strengths: Mix of veterans in rotation, power hitting
Takahiro Norimoto, Takayuki Kishi and Minabu Mima are a solid 1-2-3 for the rotation and all have experience in the postseason to carry them. Carlos Peguero, Japhet Amador and Zelous Wheeler can all hit at least 20 home runs with at least one of them reaching 30.
They also have the usual suspects on offense with Eigoro Mogi, who can be an MVP candidate if healthy and a solid starter in "Ginji" Akaminai.
Question marks: Speed, bullpen
Not a single Eagles player had more than seven stolen bases last year. They'll have to hit it in the gap to have an extra base hit or score a runner from first. Reserve pinch runner Kenji Tanaka and Wheeler tied for the lead with seven. It's possible there's depth on the bench, but for their starting nine players? We're not likely to see many steal attempt, which was good compared to the 2015 when previous manager "Dave" Okubo forced the issue.
The bullpen is hit or miss before Yuki Matsui locks up the 9th inning. Frank Herrmann was good enough to stay around and Yuhei Takanashi was a good piece, but it was a tale of two halves for hte bullpen where the first half was good and second half was not. In the playoffs, all middle relievers stepped it up for a few games, before the Hawks eliminated the team after the Eagles were up 2-1 in the series. Chia-Hao Sung proved to be a decent weapon late in the year.
Key additions and import signings: IF Naoto Watanabe, OF O'Koyea Dickson, P Hiroki Kondo, IF Masaki Iwami
Key losses: OF Kazuo Matsui
Matsui won't be missed on the field, but it's possible his leadership could be. The Eagles signed some minor depth with Watanabe and Dickson, but the starters are already set. It will be interesting if first round pick Kondo can make an early impact and Iwami has a shot to dethrone someone at first base in the long run.
Expectations: With the first half this team had, they're capable of contending for the pennant. The question is, can they put it together for a full season? They're going to need a solidified bridge before Yuki Matsui comes in the game, but the rotation and pieces are there despite a lack of speed.
Saitama Seibu Lions
The Lions have their first A-class season for the first time since 2013. They came off a 13-game winning streak and had new players emerge after having a disastrous 2016 season.
Strengths: Hitting, speed, power, defense
Everyone knows how the Lions are. They have players who can hit for average and get on base (Shogo Akiyama, Hideto Asamura), hit home runs (Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura, Hotaka Yamakawa, Ernesto Mejia) but now, they have a bonus with speed.
The emergence of Sosuke Genda and Shuta Tonosaki complement Yuji Kaneko as having three players with at least 25 stolen bags last year, which the team led NPB in this stat as a whole. Genda had plenty of errors on the stat sheet, but his defense has helped the Lions take away many base hits and help run prevention.
Question marks: Bullpen, rotation depth
The Lions pitchers after Yusei Kikuchi become a little murky. Ken Togame has a trend to do well in an odd-numbered year, but not so well in an even-numbered year. Shinsaburo Tawata has shown he's only good in the second half thus far, while Brian Wolfe isn't getting any younger.
For the bullpen, Tatsushi Masuda is the closer, but the Lions are looking for middle relief to be the bridge. Both units have plenty of options and choices, but they need to find out who can take the spot after being solid in both departments last season.
Key additions and import signings: P Hayato Takagi, P Neil Wagner, P Fabio Castillo, OF Kazuo Matsui, P Hiromasa Saito
Key losses: P Ryoma Nogami, P Kazuhisa Makita, P Brian Schlitter
The Lions lose Nogami to free agency as the Yomiuri Giants picked him up. However, they were able to claim Takagi as compensation and he could easily go in the rotation or bullpen if needed. On paper, the Lions want Castillo in the rotation while Wagner goes to the bullpen. "Kaz" Matsui is back with the Lions for the first time since 2003 and is more of a player/coach this time around. He'll mentor the young players while also playing in a handful of games.
With Makita and Schlitter gone from the bullpen, the Lions need someone else to take the 7th and 8th innings. Schlitter in particular had a poor finish to 2017 which led to being let go.
Expectations: The motto for the Lions is "Catch the Flag" in reference to the pennant, something this organization hasn't done since 2008. After going on a surprise run and finishing in second place, the Lions hope to take claim on a pennant in the Pacific League.
This is also likely to be Yusei Kikuchi's final season in Japan, where the team said they would post him if he had 10 wins in both 2017 and 2018. He's already halfway there and the Lions hope to develop an heir in the long run. The offense is elite, but can the run prevention from the pitching do well enough to out-perform their hitting?
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
The Hawks established a new dynasty in NPB by winning their third Japan Series championship since 2014 and fifth since 2011. It was only a magical 2016 from the Fighters which prevented a possible four-peat.
Strengths: Pitching, well-rounded defense and hitting
The Hawks have options all over their organization for the rotation and bullpen. Every player has to earn his right for ichi-gun playing time, making it more impressive for any ikusei who worked their way up. Kodai Senga, Yuya Iida, Takuya Kai and Shunta Ishikawa were all former ikusei that were part of the 28-man roster. Shota Takeda is looking to rebound, Rick Van Den Hurk is a mainstay, Nao Higashihama carried the load and Tsuyoshi Wada is injured.
Once again, this team can reload as Kai took over at catcher being one of the best defensive arms behind the plate in NPB. Yuki Yanagita could've been the league's MVP, but closer Dennis Sarfate won this award for setting a new saves record. Seiji Uebayashi emerged as the RF last year while Kenta Imamiya is one of the best defensive shortstops in NPB. Veterans Nobuhiro Matsuda and Seiichi Uchikawa are still important to the lineup while Alfredo Despaigne continues to bring more pop.
Question marks: Is this team hungover?
Winning can be easy to do when you're talented, but a championship hangover usually happens for any team in sports. It's a new season, but the Hawks are built to continue doing damage. Even when they lose, it's because they strand runners on base, not because they were flat.
New additions and import signings: IF Yurisbel Gracial
Key losses: None
The Hawks didn't have make changes after having another Japan Series title. Any recent draft picks will need to work their way up the hierarchy if they want to make themselves known. One of the biggest reasons for their success is being able to stack it with more players, increasing their chances of finding a diamond in the rough. If a guy works his way to the ichi-gun after being draft by Softbank, we often call their farm a factory.
Expectations: It's possible even more players come out of the factory like how Ishikawa, Uebayashi and Kai did last year. Anyone remember Seigi Tanaka being the most hyped up draft pick in his class? He has yet to play an ichi-gun game and won't unless he earns it.
The Hawks will continue to be the Hawks unless injuries decimate them. They have enough pitchers in their organization to give at least one to each team and still be good. Only a mental hangover can hurt them as they're the favorites once again to win the Pacific League pennant.
One team is openly rebuilding while the rest of the field is capable of being in A-class. Two teams emerged into A-class for 2017 after having been in B-class for 2016, meaning the Pacific League is wide open behind the consensus favorite Softbank Hawks.
Anything can happen and any teams behind the Hawks hope that is the case.
Central League Preview
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Posted by Christian Gin at 9:36 AM