Team Japan’s Hoshino GM and manager has made his final decision on the makeup of the Japanese National baseball team that will take to the field in Beijing. He emphasized intangibles like experience and previously playing together as a team (19 of 24 from the Asian qualifiers last autum return to the team) more than their current performance this season. We’ll see how this’ll pan out in the tournament, but Japan definitely has some holes because of this decision (but it may turn out to be a brillian move in a short tourney, who knows.) All players are from NPB, unlike Korea or Taiwan which has overseas based players from NPB or MLB minor league systems.
Let’s look at the players performance so far to date and their career in some cases.
Starters (some of them will be used as middle relievers, undoubtedly, as the team didn’t select any middle relievers)
Kenshin Kawakami (Chunichi Dragons) 2.31 ERA, 101.1 IP, 103/22 K/BB.
Struggled early in the season with a mysterious injury but seems completely recovered and his dominant self now, definitely should be one of the starters.
Yu Darvish (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) 1.88 ERA, 148.2 IP, 142/31 K/BB, 8CG.
The best pitcher in Japan, period, and the country’s ace. He should be pitching against the powerhouse teams during the Olympics.
Yoshihisa Naruse (Chiba Lotte Marines) 2.66 ERA, 105 IP, 80/20 K/BB.
Another starter having a standout season with great control.
Tsuyoshi Wada (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) 3.97 ERA, 99.2 IP, 75/25 K/BB.
Having a subpar season by his standards, likely bullpen material in Beijing.
Toshiya Sugiuchi (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) 2.69 ERA, 134 IP, 145/20 K/BB.
Outperforming even Darvish and is having the best season so far in NPB. His 2.06 FIP as of 7/14 is by far (0.29) the best in Japan.
Masahiro Tanaka (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) 3.37 ERA, 120.1 IP, 98/35 K/BB
Youngest member of the team at 19. His teammate Hisashi Iwakuma is having a lights out season, so I’m not sure why Tanaka was chosen over him, still got awesome raw potential, but Olympics is a short tournament to be testing out such young talent. More prone to giving out base on balls as well when compared to other starters, likely bullpen material here too, and could be very effective in short use.
Hideaki Wakui (Saitama Seibu Lions) 3.32 ERA, 122 IP, 89/36 K/BB
Slipped up a bit this year from his constant progression since his debut (7.32, 3.24, 2.79 ERAs in 2005-07). Probably will be used as a reliever unless Japan’s going to use more than 4 starters (Darvish, Sugiuchi, Kawakami, Naruse. A 3-1-3 schedule with rest days, that seems unnecessary).
Koji Uehara (Yomiuri Giants) 6.46 ERA, 39 IP, 25/12 K/BB.
A mystery selection considering his poor season (though he’s done better since returning from injury and being used as a setup man, but still don’t be surprised to see Uehara lose a game or two for Japan if used in high leverage situtations. He was brought along more for his international experience probably, but still there were so many more better qualified relievers to choose from like Kubota and Watanabe of the Tigers for example, and Oshimoto and Matsuoka who are sporting ERAs under 2 for the Swallows right now, but Hoshino went with the old familiar faces.)
Hitoki Iwase (Chunichi Dragons) 2.83 ERA, 35 IP, 29/8 K/BB
Dragons veteran shutdown closer. Though he often sported sub-2 ERAs in years past, so he’s not as rock solid this season.
Kyuji Fujikawa (Hanshin Tigers) 0.86 ERA, 42 IP, 62/9 K/BB
Absolutely the best reliever in Japan and Hanshin’s zero man closer, has been sporting K/9 well over 9 since 2005 with low number of walks. His high heater is unhittable.
Shinnosuke Abe (Yomiuri Giants) 264/333/432 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 313 PA, 9 HR
Best catcher in Japan when considering offence, but hasn’t been performing this season like his usual .850 OPS self, he could be another player dragging the team down if Hoshino insists on using him constantly, but he’s got international experience.
Akihiro Yano (Hanshin Tigers) 292/309/388, 237 PA, 3 HR
Turning 40 this year, and has lost his power that he had earlier in this century, probably on the team more for his veteran presence as Abe might be used as DH (though, there’s a logjam there too with the overflowing OF, barring Morino’s injury.)
Tomoya Satozaki (Chiba Lotte Marines) 274/359/439, 223 PA, 11HR
Solid catcher and WBC veteran, starting catcher? Then again Hoshino prefers familiar CL players over PL players it seems (he managed both the Dragons and the Tigers) .
Takahiro Arai (Hanshin Tigers) – 1B/3B, 314/383/484, 360 PA, 8 HR
Turned himself into a gap hitter from a homerun hitter with his move from the bandbox Hiroshima park to the spacious Koshien. He’s having his best OBP season to date, and this will be very valuable to the team because Japan doesn’t have huge sluggers (well, maybe except for GG).
Masahiro Araki (Chunichi Dragons) – 2B/OF?, 249/291/307, 385 PA, 24 SB
Capable of being a fifth OF and is an amazing at 2B. He posted .750 OPS in 2004-06 but this year’s numbers are identical to last year’s and at only age 30. Might be used as a defensive replacement for Nishioka.
Shuichi Murata (Yokohama BayStars) – 3B, 303/358/600, 349 PA, 26 HR
Probably Japan’s best option at 3B, even though 17 of his 26 homers so far has been hit in the friendly confines of Yokohama Stadium (a hitter’s paradise with the close fences).
Shinya Miyamoto (Tokyo Yakult Swallows) – SS, 329/370/384, 328 PA, 3 HR
Long time captain and spiritual leader of Team Japan. The 37 year old is performing well enough to warrant a spot on the limited 24 man roster (NPB uses a 28 man roster). His OBP is well above his career average of .325 which could be a fluke or he could have just become wiser at the plate. His ever decreasing fielding range means he shouldn’t be used as a defensive replacement though (but I fear Hoshino’s going to do that based on Miyamoto’s past reputation when he was an awesome shortstop).
Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Chiba Lotte Marines) – SS/2B, 306/366/469, 375 PA, 9 HR, 16 SB
Usually a shortstop but played second base in WBC, and is probably expected to do the same at Beijing. His OBP is consistent with his numbers from the last 2 seasons, but the 23 year old appears to have gained some power (not unexpected player development curve) which is great.
Munenori Kawasaki (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) – SS, 327/358/402, 408 PA, 16 SB
Part of double play combo with Nishioka at WBC. The 27 year old is performing well in line with his 2006-07 levels and with his international experience he should do well. But if the team goes for the bat at shortstop they’ll use…
Hiroyuki Nakajima (Saitama Seibu Lions) – SS/3B?, 345/404/576, 364 PA, 17 HR, 16 SB
Having a breakout season with the bat and can run as well, his weakspot is his defensive game with poor range. If Hoshino’s smart, he’ll start Nakajima at SS and bring in Kawasaki as a defensive replacement late in close games. There are rumours that Nakajima has been practicing at third (played 20 games there back in 2003), and his bat and legs may be worth replacing even Murata, but then again playing out of position in a short tournament is probably unadvisable. He’s playing third today with Seibu in the day game against the Marines, no doubt to prepare for the Olympics.
Masahiko Morino (Chunichi Dragons) – OF/1B/2B/3B, 302/383/525, 211 PA, 8 HR
Versatile player with pop who can also play infield, missed part of season earlier with an injury but appears to be back in full health now, though he’s still an injury risk along with Uehara.
Norichika Aoki (Tokyo Yakult Swallows) – CF, 339/410/570, 284 PA, 11 HR, 21 SB
Also missed part of the season earlier with an injury but is absolutely tearing the cover off the ball since his return. The 26 year old is a clubhouse leader in Tokyo along with veteran Miyamoto, and his defensive skills and speed are impressive and his power game is constantly developing too. His spot as starting centre fielder hitting in the third spot is assured.
Atsunori Inaba (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) – OF/1B?, 317/388/533, 343 PA, 12 HR
The 35 year old has somehow developed a power game this late in his career (career SLG .469, but over .500 since 2006) and can also man first base.
Takahiko “G.G.” Sato (Saitama Seibu Lions) – RF, 316/384/584, 359 PA, 20 HR
One of the few true sluggers on the team, he spent some time in A ball before returning to Japan and having a breakout season in 2007 and is doing even better this season. He was a late addition to the list of potential Team Japan players because the team brass weren’t sure if his 2007 was a fluke. In a way he does have international experience so I hope Hoshino will use him regularly (even as DH), but I fear the starting lineup will be CL heavy what with his tendency to go with familiarity and having never been involved in PL ball. He’s also a capable right fielder but doesn’t have the reputation.
Every position on Team Japan has at least one player who can backup the position, so that is a wise move with the limited roster space. Despite Hoshino’s preference for familiar CL faces that have international experience, the team appears to be well balanced. Hopefully starters being used as relievers won’t cause many problems.
Obvious omissions from the team are Tomoaki Kanemoto (Hanshin Tigers) who leads NPB in OPS at the moment at .996, and Nobuhiko Matsunaka (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, .973 OPS) who are both advanced in age and maybe Hoshino wanted Kanemoto to continue his consecutive innings played record(?) but Matsunaka was a crucial part of the WBC champion team in 2006 when he was an on base monster, but then again Arai’s defence may be more important in a short tournament and he’s not shabby with the bat either and was the sacred cleanup hitter in the 4 spot during the Asian qualifiers last autumn in Taiwan. Hisashi Iwakuma (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and Tetsuya Utsumi (Yomiuri Giants) are decent sized omissions on the pitching side, the former’s pitching motion is always a balk risk so that may be the reason for him, and the latter doesn’t have significant international experience as far as I know, but the pitchers that were chosen either have international experience or long track record of success in NPB.
The team will gather on 2 August, have warmup games against the Yomiuri Giants farm team (5 Aug), PL selects (8 Aug), and CL selects (9 Aug) before heading over to China for the Olympics where they open play against one of the gold medal favourites Cuba on 13 August.