The Saitama Seibu Lions ring in a new 2023 season being the end of one era and starting another.
Gone is Hatsuhiko Tsuji who retired and entering is Kazuo Matsui who has been the man in waiting ever since he returned in 2018.
There are plenty of storylines to look at from the roster construction and players hoping for success individually and as a team.
Here are some things to look for in Matsui's first season as skipper:
Kaima Taira as a starter
One of the offseason subplots was Taira holding out during salary negotiations in hopes of becoming a starting pitcher to take the next step in his career. It's possible he has MLB aspirations in the future and entering a rotation will do this.
In preseason, he did his part with no issues, but it will be interesting to see if he has the stamina to go for 6-7 as a starter vs being a setup man or closer.
Yamakawa in a contract year
One of the scariest things entering 2023 is knowing Hotaka Yamakawa has domestic free agent rights when it's over. With the narrative of the Lions not being the best organization to play for and several wanting to walk for non-fiscal reasons, is he the next to join this club?
It also means he has to play well for 2023 to be a target. While he was the first half MVP on offense for 2022, he cooled down in the final months and the Lions struggled to hit. A one man show of Yamakawa isn't sustainable to be relevant and someone else needs to step it up even if we aren't thinking about him walking.
Kazuo Matsui's approach
As with any new manager, Kazuo Matsui's style isn't known until he's in charge of games. He saw farm manager experience from 2019-2021 and knows the organization from top to bottom as a result of seeing several guys in ni-gun.
Being a leader takes a lot and as a younger mind compared to Tsuji, it will be interesting to see how he does as a skipper.
Many have anticipated this era the moment he was brought back as a player/coach in 2018. If anything, at least he isn't thrown into the fire with some years of grooming and experience before being in this position.
New faces and foreigners
The Lions only kept two imports from 2022 in Dietrich Enns and Bo Takahashi for this season. IF David MacKinnon, OF Mark Payton and P Jesus Tinoco are hoping to be impact players and at least two of them will need to be ichi-gun regulars in order to be relevant for 2023.
Offensively, the Lions were below average. Both Payton and MacKinnon don't describe themselves as power hitters, but if they can contribute with doubles, getting on base and slap hitting, that would be a best case scenario. Don't measure either person by home runs.
In a minor pickup from the active player draft, Naomasa Yohkawa was plucked from the Hanshin Tigers as a reserve infielder who could matchup in select situations. Expect him to be a specialist against left-handed pitchers.
Yaku Cho was the compensation selection from Orix as the team lost Tomoya Mori. He could be a spot starter or reliever.
Catcher position should be balanced
Tomoya Mori walking in free agency looks like the biggest blow to the team since Shogo Akiyama left for MLB. However, the defense should be improved as Mori regressed behind the plate from his peak seasons.
Sena Tsuge and Yuto Koga were drafted for a reason and both catchers shouldn't be a liability behind the dish. Offense unfortunately won't be as threatening as Mori, but this isn't the biggest hole on offense compared to another unit.
The outfield needs stability
This is an elephant in the room that's been ongoing since Akiyama signed with the Cincinnati Reds. There's hope Gakuto Wakabayashi can be healthy, Shohei Suzuki could retain an ichi-gun position and first-round draft pick Takuya Hiruma can be an impact rookie.
No matter who is starting, the Lions need someone to earn a regular starting job and keep it all season. Last year, they were hoping Brian O'Grady would do this, but his regression after July led to a benching in September, forcing a scramble for someone else. It would t hurt if Mark Payton can stay on top for one of those three positions.
Can Kona Takahashi be a true ace?
Many don't like the Lions as a whole for not having anyone with MLB potential. They don't strikeout anyone consistently in the rotation and Kona Takahashi is viewed as a front end starter on most teams.
This off-season, Takahashi said he wants to pitch in MLB someday and the Lions talked about how he has to earn a possible posting. Not many take Tatsuya Imai and Wataru Matsumoto seriously either.
An argument can be made they're only good at run prevention due to Sosuke Genda and Shuta Tonosaki on the infield.
This applies to the bullpen as well from Yoshinobu Mizukami and Keisuke Honda as setup relievers.
The Lions recent draft picks could help a team if they're on the ichi-gun sooner than later. The aforementioned Hiruma needs to do something for 2023 to be a successful year.
P Minato Aoyama could be in the bullpen if he earns a spot. It's possible IF Ryosuke Kodama could be a defensive replacement or pinch runner with his speed. It didn't hurt Kodama had reps at SS with Genda at the World Baseball Classic.
Maybe an ikusei gets promoted the way Natsuo Takizawa and Shinya Hasegawa were in 2022.
Japan Baseball Weekly had their annual prediction podcast episodes for both the Pacific and Central Leagues.
Here's what everyone had to say about where they expect the Lions to finish:
John E. Gibson (Yomiuri Shimbun): 6th
Gibson believes the Lions have lost more than they gained with Mori no longer there. Not a fan of Kona Takahashi trying to carry the rotation. It's going to cost them.
Jim Allen (Kyodo News): 3rd
Allen has the most optimistic tone of the bunch, primarily thinking the outfield has potential. He thinks Kazuo Matsui will bring something good to table.
Claudio Rodriguez (Beisbol Japones): 4th
Rodriguez expects regression is expected and doesn't like the offense. However, he expects the pitching to keep the team competitive and not a complete collapse.
Jason Coskrey (Japan Times): 6th
Coskrey says the pitching data from 2022 is too much of a fluke to repeat. Lots of uncertainty with Matsui being inexperienced.
The Softbank Hawks are the clear-cut favorites being a loaded organization. Despite some offensive ups and downs, the return of Ryoya Kurihara should put them over the top.
The Orix Buffaloes lost Masataka Yoshida to MLB, gained Mori and still have a top pitching staff in baseball. Offense is still below average with a lack of pop, even when it had Yoshida last year. Everything has gone right for the team in the last two years, making up for all the shortcomings in the past.
If they can be above average in offense, Orix is a lock for A-class.
The Chiba Lotte Marines have a new manager with uncertainty ahead. While the starting pitching should be great, can the offense take that next step? Plenty of position players need a breakout season for relevance after being a disappointment in 2022. They should be more than just a Roki Sasaki show.
The Rakuten Eagles stripped manager Kazuhisa Ishii of his GM duties as he only has an on-field role this season. The rotation is mostly old and some could argue they have the best offense in the PL, but Ishii's leadership and managerial skills have shown games aren't played on paper. Could this be the end of Ishii?
The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters have a new ballpark and should take a step up from year one under skipper Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Offensively they have some power and some above average pitchers. They're going to need a breakout season from Kotaro Kiyomiya to make a push for A-class, but the youth could easily have them sneak up on the competition.
1. Softbank Hawks
2. Orix Buffaloes
3. Chiba Lotte Marines
4. Saitama Seibu Lions
5. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
6. Rakuten Eagles
I see problems with the Lions offense to repeat having a winning record from 2022. Marines finally take a step forward on offense while the Hawks return to being the class of the Pacific League.
Nothing would be surprising from 2-6 unless the Fighters just sprout up to second place. There's enough parity and lack of offense in the PL for anyone to claim A-class.
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