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Thursday, January 5, 2023

Active Player Draft 2022: Shotaro Kasahara OUT, Seiya Hosokawa IN

Happy New Year. To commemorate the beginning of 2023, I'd like to recap on some old news. 

The first NPB 'Active Player Draft' took place on the 9th of December this year. Modeled on the MLB Rule 5 draft, this draft was established to ensure middling players could move to greener pastures to try to revive their stalled careers or get better opportunities elsewhere. It has been a mission of the NPB's Player Association of the past few years and this dumbed down version is the start of freer player movement between clubs. The clubs themselves still hold the power over players and can nominate three players they feel would benefit from this system. The Rule 5 draft however is more systematic in that roster allowances and organizational years are taken into account to determine who is eligible. Somewhat unsurprisingly the first step toward this kind of player movement still has clubs with reigns in hand. 

Some commentators have mentioned that this system is a glorified trade table but at least one good thing to come of this is teams have to move at least one player. In the future it is hoped that there will be more rounds to the Active Player Draft but it seems this year was conservative with clubs only opting for one round. 

Amongst all this, the Dragons moved on 2018 opening day starter, Shotaro Kasahara. The lefty has had heart problems that knocked about his development. An arrhythmia knocked him out for roughly a year after he had broken into the top team and he hasn't quite been the same since. A 4+ ERA on the farm last year is a far cry from the results he was putting with the first team in his second year as a professional. Some concern lies over the velocity difference between his change-up and fastball making some think he's just a left-handed Shunta Wakamatsu who similarly got dominated as he lacked a higher velocity fastball to mix with his change-up. Kasahara can throw a cutter as well to decent effect and, I think, has more to him than Wakamatsu but his development has somewhat stagnated. Talk around the Dragons team before he packed his bags was that he might be a bullpen option in 2023. This conversation is no longer necessary as the Dragons have turned Kasahara into outfielder Seiya Hosokawa. If we take into account this drafting and the previous trade with the Baystars, we've traded two lefty pitchers and an outfielder for an infielder. Baystars get Kyoda and Kasahara, we get Hosokawa and Sunada. 

Who is Seiya Hosokawa? Hosokawa has been a fan favourite of Baystars fan since he was drafted. A native of the Kanagawa area, Hosokawa hit 62 homers in high school before being drafted in the 4th round with the Baystars in 2016. Hopes have been high for the slugger with some expectation that he might have been able to turn it on and replace Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh when he made his move to the Majors, but it hasn't quite happened. Hosokawa has been good in spurts but overall not good enough to solidify a place the line-up for more than a few games at a time. In the end, Hosokawa is still only 24 years old, 9 months older than Kosuke Ukai who profiles perhaps similarly. Kasahara on the other hand at 27 is at a stage where he really should be a starter by now and have developed a role. On that balance alone, it might be safe to say the Dragons have traded for more potential upside. Hosokawa has hit 10+ homeruns for the Baystars every season bar one with a high of 16 in 2021. He won the homerun champion title in 2020 with 13 homers in 212 plate appearances. Hosokawa only hit 11 this year, but this is still significantly better than any Dragons hitter has done in recent years. It is worth noting however that the Eastern League is much more home-run friendly than the Western League where the Dragons' farm team plays. Either way, if Hosokawa can go some way to replicating this form in the Western League, he'll be sure to see plenty of chances with the top-team.

In terms of weaknesses, it's hard to really point at any one thing. His OPS gradually improved every year until 2022 where it went down 100 points from .968 to .834. A down year really with little explanation apart from an uptick in strikeouts. Overall, Hosokawa's consistency on the farm is relatively encouraging. That shift from the farm to the top-team seems to be the most difficult but with players like Keita Sano ahead of him in left-field, he has only been able to secure scattered appearances in right-field challenging the likes of Taishi Kusumoto and Kazuki Kamizato. Hosokawa did not do very well in his first-team appearances this year with only 20 PA and a single hit to his name. With Taiki Sekine also returning to favour under Daisuke Miura, it seems as though there's not much room to experiment with Hosokawa.

To see how this affects the roster, well, it adds a bat a removes a pitcher at the most basic level. But if we consider it in the context of the trade with Sunada and Kyoda as well, we've swapped a good defensive short-stop for a high potential, younger, power-bat while the pitcher trade is more or less just shuffling the deck with like for like lefties. 

Hosokawa adds more depth to the power-hitting stocks for the Dragons who honestly have lacked much in that department over the years. To restate, I think his best comp is likely going to be Kosuke Ukai with the two likely competing for those corner outfield jobs. Alongside Ukai and Hosokawa are the foreign bats of Aquino and Almonte while the other options in outfield like Kenta Bright and Hironori Miyoshi could yet still surprise with some hidden power of their own. I don't think adding Hosokawa moves the needle a whole lot for the Dragons, but considering Kasahara's value was rather low within the organisation and Hosokawa is young with upside, it's an agreeable move.  Hosokawa offers more upside than Kasahara currently presents but one could argue that point if we consider Kyoda as the other move in this transaction.

What this does open up potentially is the ability to drop or rest Aquino, and still maintain some potential power in the line-up. Similarly, Hosokawa could enter the competition for the left-field as well. Overall, I see this addition as one that increases competition for the outfield spots which I only see as a good thing. It also diversifies the options available to the team to be able to chop and change based on roster demands. There has also been some suggestion that Hosokawa could play first-base as well which could add more depth to an area that really doesn't have much to it.

In other more whelming news, on the 27th of December the Dragons announced they would be welcoming back catcher, Takuma Kato from the Chiba Lotte Marines after completing what is essentially a free agent signing. A trade was made with the Marines for no compensation. In some odd miscalculation, the Dragons found themselves short at catcher despite releasing long tenured Iori Katsura just after the draft. The team must have thought they would have been able to trade for someone better but in the end left the active player with only Hosokawa to show and no further trade deals made. Perhaps there was an impression another club was willing to give up a certain catcher but perhaps the right parameters weren't met or they simply changed their mind. Either way its probably the safest of back-up options as Kato is only one-year removed from working with the Dragons pitchers and will be familiar with many of them making the transition relatively simple. I don't think there's any expectation Kato will challenge for the first-team mask, but he will plug a hole in what looks more or less like a complete roster now.

While we're here, some comments made by Tatsunami to the media regarding recruiting:

  • In their pursuit for a foreign slugger, the Dragons apparently had Nomar Mazara as their top pick (someone I mentioned in one of my podcasts) while Luis Brinson, most recently of the San Francisco Giants, was their second choice. Mazara was more interested in returning to the MLB, while Brinson was also receiving interest from the Yomiuri Giants. Mazara certainly would have been my first choice as well, and it is a pity the Dragons missed out on him this time.
  • The second pick at the 2022 draft, Kaito Muramatsu, was apparently a last minute choice as the team were set on going after Tenri University's short-stop Atsuki Tomosugi. It was Tatsunami's last-minute close-up look at Muramatsu that tipped the scales with the Dragon's manager impressed with the hitting prowess of the Meiji University captain. Tomosugi ended up going to the Chiba Lotte Marines immediately after Muramatsu was selected by the Dragons.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

DragonSoulcast: Aristides Aquino signs on

 Literally the day after I release my last podcast, the Dragons announced their signing of former Cincinatti Reds slugger, Aristides Aquino. He signs on for big money which I hope will lead to big things. I break down the signing, what he best compares to and where he will fit into the team. 

I also make mention of the new uniforms the Dragons have announced which you can view here:

Monday, November 28, 2022

DragonSoulCast: We signed some more dudes; Calixte and Almonte edition

 As of a few days ago the Dragons have been active in bringing in more players ahead of the 2023 season. Former Royals and Giants utility, Orlando Calixte joins the team while Zolilo Almonte makes a surprising return after a 3 year absence. This however doesn't look to spell the end of the Dragons roster shake-up...

Friday, November 18, 2022

Emergency DragonSoulCast: Breaking down the two trades

 Hi all, I bring to you a new podcast based on breaking down the two trades that have occurred this week. We firstly had infielder, Toshiki Abe being sent to the Rakuten Eagles for veteran starter Hideaki Wakui while just today news broke of former rookie of the year, Yota Kyoda going to the Yokohama Baystars for lefty bullpen arm Yoshiki Sunada. Give it a listen and let me know your thoughts. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Yoshinori Ueda appointed 2-gun hitting coach

 I will be editing and uploading my draft review either tonight or tomorrow. My apologies for the delay. 

In the meantime some Dragons news, the team have signed a second 2-gun hitting-coach for the first time since the Shigekazu Mori regime. The only disappointment perhaps is that it is yet another retread. Yoshinori Ueda, who was part of the Dragons staff between 2009-2015 has been installed as a former left-handed hitting player to coach our hitters along. 

Ueda has a long career in coaching. After he left the Dragons in 2015 he joined Alex Ramirez's staff at the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. After Daisuke Miura cleaned house, Ueda moved on to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for two years before arriving back in Nagoya. Looks good on paper right? An experienced coach with connection and exposure to other teams? I would have thought so. But hang on, what was his position in these teams again? Base-running and outfield defence coach. Oh. Despite hitting being the biggest issue for the Dragons in recent years, they are bringing in a coach who has zero experience actually coaching players how to hit. Now, this is not to say that he doesn't have some nous when it comes to coaching hitters, but, so far, he has no experience doing so. 

Ueda's hiring reeks of more incestuous in-house hiring. While Ueda comes from another team, he still has the Dragons connection as a player and former coach. The Dragons love doing this but it severely limits the pool of ideas and reinforces the power structures in place. If you're used to the Dragons way, you're less likely to question it. A guy like Norihiro Nakamura was a bit of a mercenary and has always been a free thinker, so I'd like to take him away from this conversation, but by and large, particularly for the farm team, the Dragons like to hire from within. Kazuhiro Wada's hiring is just another example in a long line of coaching decisions made for seemingly sentimental reasons. I don't think Wada will be a bad coach per se, but I disagree with the logic of the search conditions. 

Out of the current staff members, it is only Shuji Nishiyama, Atsushi Kataoka and Yutaka Nakamura who had no previous Dragons affiliation before joining the team. In a similar vein to drafting local talents, there seems to be a very insular culture at the Dragons. The 2022 draft disproved this somewhat as, for the first time in a very long time, the Dragons did not draft anyone in their immediate catchment area. However, the staff recruiting policy seems to remain the same. The first box that apparently needs to be ticked is "Played for Dragons". I don't know if this is done as a way to maintain some form of uniformity in the ranks or if it's to ensure some kind of loyalty in spite of poor decision making. We'll possibly never no. The Dragons are of course not the only team to hire their own, but I feel it is done to such an extreme degree in with Chunichi that the team seem to be afraid of outside influence. Ironically, the longer this goes on the worse it is going to get. The connections coaches and players have will be limited to players and coaches that have always been with the Dragons. The fact the team don't chase after free agents from other teams only further impacts this. Add in the fact that the team rarely go after polished international signings as well and the influence of outside ideas really is waning. 

Awano was a big part of changing pitcher management.
Awano was a big part of revolutionising Dragons' pitcher management.

I understand that managers will often look to old classmates from university and the like as well to bring in new faces. Yoda did this with Hideyuki Awano. Awano brought with him former Hankyu team-mate Motoyuki Akahori and together the trio created one of the most formidable pitching staffs in Japan. The same could not be said for Takayuki Murakami however as he seemed to fail to make an impact on the team's hitting. Unfortunately, beyond this, many of the others of Yoda's staff were made up of former Dragons. 

We must therefore respect Hiromitsu Ochiai's personnel selections. Ochiai went out of his way to hire coaches who had nothing to do with the Dragons. Ochiai was responsible for bringing in Shigekazu Mori and Hatsuhiko Suji from the Lions. Of the 2006 staff, Shinji Hata was brought in out of the blue after a failed coaching stint at the Marines. Seiji Kobayashi was picked up out of the blue. Hideki Takayanagi was brought in from the Hawks via the Marines. Shinji Hara  had been coaching in Taiwan before being brought into the Dragons fold. Naoyuki Kazuoka, now still coaching with Orix, was a Tigers coach before his tenure. While there are plenty of coaches who previously had either playing or coaching experience with the Dragons before Ochiai appointed them, it is clear that Ochiai was a man with connections that wasn't afraid to go beyond the Dragons pool. 

Perhaps it is too much to ask of a manager like Tatsunami who spent his entire career at the Dragons. You would perhaps think that the connections he made during his professional career as a representative of his team, frequent all-star and Meikyuikai member would have yielded slightly better appointments. This is not to mention the various ex-baseball people he would have met in the close to 15 years he had as an analyst. 

This turned into a rant very quickly, however I think Ueda's appointment once again falls within the realms of imagination and is overall a disappointing choice. Given the issues that the Dragons have in developing hitters, it is suicidally irresponsible to not address this with a stronger move. While this would have been a first-team appointment, Takuro Ishii, one of the highest regarded hitting coaches in NPB was available last year. He joined Daisuke Miura's backroom at the Baystars. Surely however, this is the kind of appointment that needs to be considered if the team are to get back on the right track. Maybe luck or connection wasn't their with Ishii, but surely there are a bevy of other candidates. 

The appointment of Ueda is yet further evidence of a team lacking ambition and leadership. If the rumour is true that certain former players are avoiding coaching for the Dragons because they see it as a sinking ship, then I can't see how the ship is going to righted. In saying all this, I don't know how Ueda will perform as a hitting coach. He could be ready to take on the challenge and be excellent at his job. Who knows; we will have to wait and see. As usual however, I will maintain my skepticism.