Well, we’re now 3 games into the 2008 Central League season, but here’s the season preview. (Here’s the Pacific League preview for 2008.) There’s been lots of player movement, relatively speaking for Japanese pro sports, new impact players moving within CL, coming over from the PL (pretty much a one way street), and overseas, from both Asia and the Americas.
2007 Record: 78 – 64 – 2 (.549)
2007 RS – RA: 623 – 556
Coming: Kazuhiro Wada, Maximo Nelson, Tomas De La Rosa
Going: Shinya Okamoto, Kosuke Fukudome
Last season’s Japan Series champions lost Fukudome. Theoretically, losing a career 305/397/543 hitter from your lineup should be devastating, but the Dragons won the postseason without him anyways. What is it with star players getting injured and missing half the season before they go to the majors? Ichiro, Johjima, and now Fukudome. Anyways, the Dragons acquired Wada from the Lions via free agency to fill the hole, Wada’s OBP and SLG have been declining for the past 5 seasons (from .428 and .632 to .370 and .473). He’s no longer the great power threat that he was, but this is no surprise with his age. He’ll still be adequate though, much like Norihiro Nakamura that the team picked up from the blacklist scrapheap last year to man third base. The team’s got solid pitching and defence, led by one of Japan’s top pitchers in Kenshin Kawakami, closer Takuya Iwase, and the doubleplay combo of Masahiro Araki and Hirokazu Ibata, all key parts to a successful championship defence.
2007 Record: 74 – 66 – 4 (.529)
2007 RS – RA: 518 – 561
Coming: Satoru Kanemura, Keiichi Hirano, Takahiro Arai, Scott Atchison, Lew Ford
Going: Osamu Hamanaka
The team that managed to vastly outperform its Pythagorean expectation (.460, 66 – 78 ) by an amazing 10 games thanks to short term maximum gain use of its vaunted bullpen JFK trio Jeff Williams (65.1 IP, 66 K, 16 BB, 4.1 K/BB, 0.96 ERA(!), 42 HLD), Kyuji Fujikawa (83 IP, 115 K, 18 BB, 7.2 K/BB(!), 1.63 ERA, 46 SV), and Tomoyuki Kubota (90 GP(!), 108 IP, 101 K, 32 BB, 1.75 ERA, 46 HLD) in high leverage situations. Though it’s a wonderful strategy (JFK won 15 comeback games together) in the short term, but Williams is in his mid 30’s and Fujikawa and Kubota are in their late 20’s, so it’s probably a matter of time before their arms fall off. Luckily, the team added slugger Arai from the Carp, but you can expect his 290/351/480 line to see a decline after moving from a hitter’s paradise to a pithcer’s park and he’s on the wrong side of 30. Depending on how much Arai’s offense declines by, the Tigers may be forced yet again to press JFK into action often during the season in order to make the playoffs (finish in the top 3).
Tokyo Yomiuri Giants
2007 Record: 80 – 63 – 1 (.559)
2007 RS – RA: 692 – 556
Coming: Marc Kroon, Alex Ramirez, Seth Greisinger, Soichi Fujita, Adrian Burnside
Going: Jeremy Powell
Yomiuri made the biggest splash of the offseason (as usual) by signing away the BayStars’ closer Kroon, and Swallows’ slugger Ramirez and ace Greisinger (only 1 year removed from success in the KBO). Much like the Yankees, this is by far the highest scoring team in the league, and has a strong closer, but its Achilles heel is the weak middle relief (which the team did not address in its offseason moves, as Koji Uehara is moved back into the rotation, but that’s his place as staff ace) and aging lineup (Seung-Yeop Lee and Michihiro Ogasawara are coming off surgeries). With so many players brought in from other teams, the team’s spiritual hopes rest on the 19 year old Sakamoto, the 1st round pick of 2006 high school draft. But you can’t expect a kid hitting .268/.325/.377 in 2-gun (minors) to succeed in NPB, expect him to be sent back after the Giants figure out he needs much more seasoning and less media pressure. I also expect a significant drop from Ramirez’s walk year performance, but this was a luxury bet that the Giants could afford to take. I expect this team to cruise through the regular season, feasting on weak pitching of the pennant race grind, then get shut down by superior pitching and defence of the opposition in the postseason, yet again. (Pythagorean expectation of .608 and 88 – 56 also shows that the team was dropping close games while blowing out inferior opponents.)
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
2007 Record: 60 – 82 – 2 (.423)
2007 RS – RA: 557 – 673
Coming: Colby Lewis, Ben Kozlowski, Mike Schultz, Scott Seabol
Going: Hiroki Kuroda, Takahiro Arai
The Carp have passionate supporters, but losing your ace (Kuroda to the Dodgers) and cleanup hitter (Araki to Hanshin) from your already woeful team isn’t going to help matters at all. The club hopes that some of the newcomers will turn out well, as the ability of its overseas scouts to find good imports have been historically the team’s strong point. Seabol looks to be a good candidate to take advantage of tiny Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, as he slugged about 300/350/550 in the PCL from 2003-07. Lewis starts the season in the rotation and his minor league numbers of 8.59 K/9 and 2.75 BB/9 are promising, but he’ll have to keep the fly balls in the park. Kozlowski’s numbers are less impressive and he starts the year in the bullpen. Shigenobu Shima doesn’t look likely to bounce back too much from his drop in production as he’s already on the wrong side of 30, and none of the players are high OBP types, so just young slugger Kenta Kurihara and Seabol can’t be expected to carry the offence, though that’s what it’s shaped up to be. This will be another long season for the freshwater fishies.
2007 Record: 71 – 72 – 1 (.497)
2007 RS – RA: 569 – 623
Coming: Hiroaki Ohnishi, Mike Wood, Dave Williams, Travis Hughes, J.J. Furmaniak, Larry Bigbie
Going: Katsuaki Furuki, Hitoshi Taneda, Marc Kroon
Is this the least inconspicuous team? The Hamasters lost Kroon to league rival Giants, but otherwise the player movements are unexciting, maybe except for the fact that Hughes is a 6’5” giant towering over everyone in the field, especially from the top of the mound, but his career 4.11 BB/9 in the minors does not bode well. And Bigbie may be running away or blacklisted from the majors depending on who you talk to, he’s a career .726 OPS and .789 OPS in the majors and minors respectively, and he should be able to take advantage of the comfortable confines of Yokohama Stadium. The club significantly overshot their Pythagorean expectation (.455, 65 – 79) by 6.5 games and with no significant additions to the roster, so I expect definite regression, especially with Kroon gone. Slugging thirdbaseman Shuichi Murata (improved every season in OPS from 788 to 929 from his debut in 2003) and pitchers Hayato Terahara, who managed a full workload for the first time in his career after coming over from the Hawks, and veteran Daisuke Miura, with his immaculate pompadour, are the players to watch for on this team.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
2007 Record: 60 – 84 (.417)
2007 RS – RA: 596 – 623
Coming: Kazuki Fukuchi, Yoshitaka Hashimoto, Takehiko Oshimoto, Keizoh Kawashima, Chang-Yong Lim, Daniel Rios
Going: Shugo Fujii, Hajime Miki, Alex Ramirez, Seth Greisinger, Brian Sikorski
The Swallows suffered similar losses as the Carp, in having both the staff ace Greisinger and revived slugger Ramirez signed away by the Yankees Giants. But the team hopes to fill these holes with Daniel Rios who hopes to repeat Seth’s successful transition from the KBO where he went an incredible 22 – 5 in 232.2 IP of 2.07 ERA in 33 GP (I guess KBO teams use something similar to the MLB style 5 man/day rotations, unlike in the NPB where a 6 man/7 day rotation is the norm, so starters only get about 25 starts per season). His K-rate had been decreasing and it’s well below Greisinger’s, so he’ll have different challenges in adjusting to Japan. Lim looked great with his late breaking fast pitches coming from a submarine delivery, it should take NPB hitters a while to figure if him out, if ever. In fact, he has taken over the closer’s job from Igarashi who strained his thigh in his first appearance in 2 seasons after a return from elbow surgery. Lim looked sharper anyways, but this doesn’t help the club. The team’s poor bullpen was probably more the cause than pure unluckiness when it comes to undershooting of its Pythagorean expectation last season (.477, 69 – 75). A combination of healthy Igarashi and successful Lim is needed to return the bullpen to competency.
The birds likely won’t miss Ramirez because his 2007 was probably a walk year fluke (see link on Giants preview), and hopes that his hole can be filled by a healthy Adam Riggs who can OPS above .850. Aaron Guiel will continue to be the King of Three True Outcomes (Walk, HR, or Strikeout), although BA obsessed fans are wish for more, you can expect a line similar to his 2007 of 245/381/493, which makes him the second most valuable hitter in the lineup, only behind the awesome hit machine Norichika Aoki. The youngster has added power to his stroke bringing his SLG up from .417 to .508 in his 3 full seasons (and his OPB was a truly awesome .434 last season, even though his 202 hit rookie year still gets highlighted more by the fans and media), and he will be rightfully hitting in the 3rd spot this year. The middle of the lineup is as good as any, but unfortunately it can’t be said the same about the rest. So the new manager Shigeru Takada is instituting a small ball strategy, but to achieving success with that will require a true shut down bullpen which the Swallows don’t have… unless Masaru Satoh develops into a useful lefty out of the pen along with Lim baffling NPB hitters all season long. Though, the strategy does mesh well with the now pushed back outfield walls and the new slower turf.
The Swallows started off the year perfectly by sweeping the Giants in the annual Tokyo derby season opener. But the Giants should come around soon to battle for 1st with the Dragons. Tigers should be positioned for the 3rd and final playoff position, but wishful thinking has all the stars aligning for the Swallows and overtaking the popular Hanshin team. BayStars and the Carp will battle to get out of the basement. And Chunichi Dragons are again the most likely team to emerge with the CL crown in the postseason to attempt their defence of the Japan Series title, even if they finish behind the Giants again in the regular season.