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Friday, June 26, 2020

Series Wrap: Baystars v Dragons @ Yokohama Stadium, June 23-25; Baystars set Dragons alight in series sweep

After a hoodoo shaking 2-1 series win over the Swallows in the opening weekend, the Dragons were taken back to earth very quickly with a short trip on the Fukutoshin line out to Yokohama. While Yuya Yanagi and Takumi Yamamoto put up valiant efforts to keep their team in the hunt, but Yuichiro Okano was given a rough introduction to the NPB with a less than glorious start on Thursday. 

Game 4
Baystars 3-0 Dragons

Yuya Yanagi made his first start of the year against the team that he almost signed for back in the 2016 draft. Tyler Austin and Toshiro Miyazaki were the destroyers for the Baystars as Austin went 4-4 with and RBI and Miyazaki hit the nail in the coffin solo homer in the 6th. 

The Dragons managed to match the Baystars in hits with Yohei Oshima going 4-3 in the lead-off spot. The team however was unable to convert their any chances as Haruhiro Hamaguchi went 8 1/3 innings in a quality start. Yanagi threw 6 innings for 8 strikeouts, but wasn't economical with his pitch could as he threw 120 pitches in only 6 innings. Hiroshi Suzuki had 2 clean innings with 2 strikeouts to mop up the game but ultimately the Dragons line-up would not respond to an otherwise decent outing from their starter. 

Game 5
Baystars 3-2 Dragons

The diminutive Takumi Yamamoto was given his first run in the opening rotation at the tender age of 20 years old. The youngster from Takarazuka in Hyogo prefecture put up 5 steady frames that were disrupted by a go ahead homerun from Takayuki Kajitani. The Dragons had opened the scoring in the 2nd inning with Shuhei Takahashi's first homerun of the season in front of his hometown crowd. 

Despite mustering 10 hits, the lack of cutthroat ability with runners in scoring positions meant the team would lose out in a close game.

Dayan Viciedo, Toshiki Abe, Yota Kyoda and Yohei Oshima all had mutl-hit games but it was the misfiring middle-order sans Ryosuke Hirata that didn't put things together while Issei Endo and Zoilo Almonte in the 2 and 3 spots went hit-less. On a different day, keeping a team to 3-runs would have been easy to defeat, but early season form hasn't been encouraging yet. 

Game 6
Baystars 10-2 Dragons

My big hope for an immediate impact in the rotation, Yuichiro Okano, was shot down in flames as his introduction to NPB was a rough one. The Dragons started the game with Yuya Gunji behind the plate for his starting debut to create the first Dragons rookie battery since 2016 with Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Takuya Kinoshita. They also proved to be the first battery to make their NPB starting debut together since spring of 1937.

The Baystars took 5 runs off 5 innings including a homerun given to Tyler Austin in the 1st inning with a juicy chest high meat ball. Yuya Sakamoto on the mound for Yokohama was in good form as he took 5Ks in 6 innings keeping the Dragons to just one hit. Whilst Okano gave up 5, the relief pitching wasn't much better as fellow rookie, Yuki Hashimoto gave up 2 more in 2 innings despite 4Ks (a 2-run homer to Kajitani) while Hiroshi Suzuki faired even worse with a 3-run dinger given up to Toshiro Miyazaki. 

The Dragons clawed back 2-runs through a Yohei Oshima hit and a Toshiki Abe homer, but it was all too little too late as the pitching staff let the team down.

The Analysis
Overall, the first two games were winnable but the key cogs in the line-up just didnt' fire when required. Oshima is batting .400 through the first 6 games of the season; you can't expect much more from a lead-off hitter. Almonte conversely is currently hitting .263 with Viciedo averaging .231. Fukuda and Hirata similarly haven't done what has been required either. Not a great look from your clean-up hitters.

Yoda looks to have been platooning Fukuda and Almonte which looks good on paper, but Almonte is a switch hitter so you'd assume he could be a regular but I think the manager is doing his best to fit two of his better hitters in the line-up as often as possible. Fukuda can be so dangerous when he's on but it seems like he's only hot for a couple of months a year. Let's hope he can find his bat after warming up over the opening 2 series. 

The rotation will go through a second turn in the next home series against the Carp where Yudai Ono faces up to Daiichi Ohsera who has been somewhat of a thorn in the Dragons side the last couple of years. (What's a few complete game shutouts between friends?) The Dragons have however been good against the Carp at home, so this should be a good contest if Ono has found his feet. 

News from the Front
* Dragons golden boy, Akira Neo looks like he'll get a promotion to the top team for the first home series of the year after doing pretty well on the farm going 16-5 over 5 games batting 3rd and fielding at second.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Series Wrap: Swallows v Dragons @ Jingu Stadium, June 19-21; First opening series win in 8 years

The Dragons opened the 2020 season with the first good impression they've made to the year in 8 years as they took 2 games off the Swallows at Jingu with one convincing performance and one not as much so. 

Friday night's game was a slug fest as both team aces gave up hits like a pitching machine. 35 hits in total for the first game of the season marked a somewhat surreal beginning to the year. Dayan Viciedo's first homer of the year seemed to start things off well but a Tetsuto Yamada homer in the bottom of the same inning saw the Swallows take the lead. 

It was to be a topsy-turvy, close, affair and it took the Dragons until the 7th inning to get back on parity as Yota Kyoda and Shuhei Takahashi drove in 3 runs. Into extras, it was the Dragons that would come out on top as a Donoue grounder and a Abe single put the away team two in front. Toshiya Okada would load the bases in the bottom of the 10th to make for a tense ending, but he would finish in style, striking out young prodigy, Munetaka Murakami to end the game. 

It was a night for hitters. More than usual for Jingu. Yudai Ono only got through 4 innings after giving up 6 earned runs but the bullpen was able to hold it together for the rest of the game with only Hiroshi Suzuki giving up further runs. Ono just didn't have "it" on the day but luckily the team still pulled though. 

Saturday's game was a different tale as the batters quietened with Ryuya Ogawa and Kazuki Yoshimi on the mound. Yoshimi put in a solid 5 innings which were tarnished by 3 runs given up through 2 homers to Yamada and Murakami. The Dragons were able to claw 2 runs back but ultimately couldn't match the long-ball prowess of the Swallows middle-order. Shuhei's and Takuya Kinoshita's multi-hit games were just about the only thing to write home about in a relatively disappointing performance. 2019 #2 pick, Yuki Hashimoto made his professional debut in this game pitching a clean inning of relief.

The series decider would be decided by Kodai Umetsu's stunning performance on
the mound. The righty hurler threw a peachy 7 innings for 5 strikeouts looking to get impressive spin on his fastball, keeping the Swallows out of contention. Kyoda's 2-4un homer in the 2nd made life easier for Umetsu earlier, while an additional run added in the 6th made things comfortable where Umetsu himself scored. Credit must go to the Swallows too however as Hiroki Yamada pitched pretty well despite the homer given to Kyoda.

Overall, you can only be happy with the result. Ono exploding was perhaps not the greatest thing to watch but given he seems to require rhythm more than and other Dragons pitcher, I think we'll see him settle a little later on. Kazuki Yoshimi, despite being billed as someone with a good record against the Swallows, basically did was I expected would happen, ate a few innings for too many runs. My guess is that next week against the Carp, his spot will be taken by Shinnosuke Ogasawara. 

The Dragons will stay in the Kanto region to face the Baystars in Yokohama before the team have their home opener against the Carp on the weekend.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Opening Day 2020: We're back, baby.

The NPB is back after a lengthy delay due to the effects that COVID-19 are having across Japan and the world at large. Some players are still stranded overseas (most notably Yurisbel Gracial and Alfredo Despaigne of the Hawks) but we're all set for a start tonight at 18:00 JST.

The Dragons start their season with a 3 game series at Jingu Stadium against the Swallows, followed by a series against the Baystars, in Yokohama, from Tuesday. The first home series will be against the Carp on the 26th. 

How things will happen is a bit different to the regular season. The Central League has scrapped the Climax Series to save time and fit in more regular season games while the Pacific League will have a shortened version of. Interleague has also been scrapped. In the Central League it will be first past the post that goes to the Japan Series just like the days of yore. Games are also limited to 10 innings so we won't see any 12 inning ties like we have in the past, once again in an effort to save time and keep players fresh. International players will also be given another space on the roster for the time being so cool-off times become less of an issue. Teams can have up to 5 international players on their roster but only 4 can take the field in one game. Overall, 120 games will be played meaning a reduction of 23 games (plus the Climax Series). 

The Dragons themselves will be raring to go with Yudai Ono given opening day duties for the first time in 3 years. 2019 saw Shotaro Kasahara open things up while 2018 was a younger Shinnosuke Ogasawara. Ono has looked good enough in pre-season and it looks like Kazuki Yoshimi and Kodai Umetsu will be backing him up in Tokyo over this weekend. In the back-end of the rotation, we'll likely see a combo of Takumi Yamamoto and rookie Yuichiro Okano with the 6th spot still a bit up in the air. Yuya Yanagai and Shinnosuke Ogasawara are the likely candidates to fill that role. We'll still have to wait and see what the back-end of the rotation looks like, but it's possible that Yoshimi might be shifted to take spot starts with the aforementioned duo slotting in to his old spot. 

As for the roster, two rookies have made it to starting day with Yuki Hashimoto working out the bullpen and Yuya Gunji behind the dish. Takuma Kato looks the most likely to get a work out on opening day, but we'll probably see Gunji at some point in the near future. Hashimoto, let's face it, will probably see some work on Saturday after 5 good or 3 terrible innings from Yoshimi. Luis Gonzalez, Raidel Martinez, Zoilo Almonte and Dayan Viciedo all make the opening day roster with Moises Sierra missing out. Enny Romero is still injured.

The roster however has come together as follows but keep in mind there are still at least 2 starters that will be registered later for the games against Yokohama.

Pitchers: Yuki Hashimoto, Katsuki Matayoshi, Yuya Yanagi, Kazuki Yoshimi, Toshiya Okada, Yudai Ono, Kodai Umetsu, Daisuke Sobue, Hiroto Fuku, Hiroshi Suzuki, Luis Gonzalez, Raidel Martinez

Catchers: Takuya Kinoshita, Yuya Gunji, Takuma Kato

Infielders: Yota Kyoda, Shuhei Takahashi, Toshiki Abe, Shun Ishikawa, Nobumasa Fukuda, Naomichi Donoue, Dayan Viciedo

Outfielders: Ryosuke Hirata, Yohei Oshima, Issei Endo, Masataka Iryo, Masaru Watanabe, Zoilo Almonte, Kengo Takeda

A pretty well rounded team with no big suprises. Shun Ishikawa coming in as a pinch-hitter seems to make sense while Hiroshi Suzuki gets a chance to prove himself as an NPB level reliever again. Otherwise the team looks much like it did last year with the additions of Gonzalez, Gunji and Hashimoto. Matayoshi's stocks have risen again and he'll be back supporting the middle-back end of the bullpen. 

Overall, who isn't excited to just see some baseball!? There won't be any crowds, but there will be plenty of people looking on with the MLB still on hold and the Japanese fans hungry to see their teams back in action. With COVID-19 still doing the rounds in Japan there's no certainty that the teams will be able to play the full 120 games in any case, but at least the foot is out the door.

*Yakult Swallows vs Chunichi Dragons @ Meiji Jingu Stadium, starts on 19th June at 18:00 (JST).

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Trading Block: Fishing for new talent in the outfield

Latest News

As with every blog post, I'd like to start off with some bulletin points regarding team news and the league at large:

  • All bets are off for the start of the 2020 season as COVID-19 spreads through Japan, particularly Tokyo. 
  • Shinji Tajima will undergo Tommy John surgery, possibly being ruled out for any type of games in 2020. 
  • One unnamed player has been in isolation due to fever with the team keeping tabs. News today was that the player's temperature had returned to normal.
  • Shuhei Takahashi and Toshiki Abe are now sharing the same apartment building. 
  • Having been in isolation with his family, Kazuki Yoshimi has said that he has an even greater appreciation for the family that supports him saying it will give him further inspiration to come back stronger on the field. 
  • Former players Hirokazu Ibata and Motonobu Tanishige were guests on a panel show last month that quizzed them what they would do if they were the Dragons manager this year with some really interesting insights. Worth checking out if you Japanese is up to scratch. Tanishige in particular is quite frank about how much better the team is now than when he left as manager in 2016.

Trading for the future

This is an article that's come to mind from watching former Lotte catcher, Tomoya Satozaki talk about potential trade candidates at each club in the NPB on his YouTube channel. I definitely like some of his ideas, but I doubt his rigor when it comes to his selections. Satozaki selected Shota Ono as a possible trade piece, something I vehemently disagree with, so I want to put forward a few candidates along with some clubs/players that might want to do a deal. 

My main thinking when devising these possible trades is largely going to be based on trades that represent equal value for both sides and will likely be better value than just a lottery ticket for either side. I'm going to suggest a high, medium and low profile trade that could get the Dragons what they need going forward.

Before we get into things, I want to argue a couple of points. There are a number of areas where the Dragons have strength. That is largely on the corners of the infield as well as the pitching staff. Trading from these areas to bolster positions like second-base and the outfield I think is imperative. If you understand this as my thought process, you might see where I want to go with this. 

#1 Nobumasa Fukuda - IF/OF

This is going to be a super unpopular choice, but given the options Chunichi have in outfield and infield, I'd argue Fukuda is someone that could be let go for the right price. While an OPS leader for the team in 2019, Fukuda was not able to solidify a spot in the line-up. Shuhei locked down third-base this year while a number of options exist for left field. While the Dragons lack a power bat, Fukuda is entering his age 32 season and could be a sneaky choice to grab a decent player from any number of clubs across the NPB. As a fan I would hate to see Fukuda go based on the entertainment he gives with batflips alone, but in terms of the team now and going forward he may not have much more to give.

Possible trade partner: Yokohama DeNA Baystars

Fukuda is definitely someone the Baystars would be keen on. A power bat that would replace the outgoing Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, and someone that could potentially play third when Toshiro Miyazaki has down time with the bat. Fukuda hit .421 in Yokohama in 2019 with 3 homeruns albeit in only 23 PAs which shows he can hit in that stadium. Add to the fact he's a local and it makes sense that the Baystars would be keen to add him to their roster. 

The question is, who do we get out of it? In terms of second base options, the Baystars have a dearth of talent in the middle, but outfield might be more encouraging.

Possible trade pieces: Masayuki Kuwahara, Taiki Sekine, Tomoya Mikami

To be quite honest, this will probably have to be a 2:1 trade except for Kuwahara, to get value for the Dragons. The Baystars are unlikely to give up some of their biggest pieces to get Fukuda particularly as some are much younger. I think a deal involving Masayuki Kuwahara or Taiki Sekine plus a pitcher would be an alright haul for the Dragons. 

Kuwahara would have to be a 1:1 trade, but as a former golden glove outfielder, he fits the bill for the Dragons perfectly. Kuwahara has largely second-fiddle to Kazuki Kamizato in recent times and at a tender 26 years old, Kuwahara still has a sparkling career ahead of him. While he hasn't been great with the bat since 2016, given opportunities to sparkle again he may well make it back to his best. If the Dragons haven't been trying to work on a trade for Kuwahara the last few years, they really should be now. An easy successor to Oshima, trading Fukuda for Kuwahara makes a lot of sense. 

Taiki Sekine could just about be taken for a player of lesser value, but the Gifu-born outfielder put up some of the best results for a Baystar on the farm in 2019. Sekine batted .329 with a .946 OPS to try and force his way into the first team. He also had a very successful winter league season in Mexico. Sekine has been out of favor with the Baystars, but given he can play centre-field and is also a hometown player for the Dragons, he seems like a handy pick-up. At 24 years old,  he lowers the average age of the outfield and gives another possible successor for Yohei Oshima. 

Tomoya Mikami would be the sweetener for this deal for me. Another Gifu-born player, Mikami was a pretty solid part of the Baystars bullpen but has had some issues lately. He had a 5.79 ERA with the top team last year, but I think he still has something left in the tank. He's 31 this year and would give the Dragons more options in the bullpen.

Kuwahara I think has to be the main target here. He's at a good age and has good pedigree as a possible successor. Sekine would be another good pick-up but you could perhaps aim for a slightly less valuable chip to snag him other than that a move for Sekine and Mikami for Fukuda could work too.

Long term however, I think this is the kind of move that could be made particularly if you're happy with plugging up left with an international outfielder for the forseeable future and you're happy with what Takaya Ishikawa and Masami Ishigaki bring as back-ups to Shuhei Takahashi.

#2 Katsuki Matayoshi - RP

Matayoshi has been on the down-slump since the tail-end of the 2018 season. The 2020 pre-season has looked promising for the former all-star, but you can't help but think there's not much more in the tank for Matayoshi. He's certainly a bounce back candidate and his ceiling has high leverage reliever written all over it, but as with all bullpen arms, there are good and bad years. Matayoshi is if nothing else, an experienced campaigner that would slot quite well into a challenging team as someone that could do a job just about anywhere in relief and could make the odd spot start. For the Dragons, Matayoshi is probably not in the equation as a confirmed contributor this year, so there's a bit of room to move him. But should you move him on, you open yourself up for being bitten if he does come back to form. 

Possible trade partner: Giants

Given the lack of depth the Giants have in their pitching, a switch to Tokyo would make sense for Matayoshi. The Giants also have significant depth in outfield and second-base that the Dragons could get someone that helps them more in the long-run. Like with the Baystars, it's going to be hard to find a player of equal value so either a 2:1 trade again or a 1:1 + cash will likely get rid of Matayoshi. Three guys I think that should be on the radar are utility man, Akihiro Wakabayashi and displaced outfielders, Shinnosuke Shigenobu and Shingo Ishikawa

Wakabayashi had a bit of a breakout season last year largely due to an injury to regular second-baseman, Naomi Yoshikawa. However, now with Yoshikawa fit and the rest of team largely settled, Wakabayashi has nowhere he can really play. Outfield appearances would also be stifled by regulars as well as youngsters coming up so a switch to a club where he could get more opportunities makes sense. The Dragons could use depth in the second-base area while any type of utility player is also welcome. At 26 y/o, Wakabayashi still has a number of years where he'd be useful to the team while guys like Abe, Donoue and others fall off. He only hit .239 in NPB last year, but certainly has some room to grow.

Shigenobu can play left or centre-field, is a nimble player that is in probably a similar mold to Oshima without the A+ defense. A common theme to many of my selections will be this ability to play center-field where the Dragons don't have a lot of depth. Despite the large amount of options in the outfield at the Giants, Shigenobu still played a career high 106 games hitting .268 with a relatively unimpressive .643 OPS. The fast running Chiba native would probably find more success in the larger confines of Nagoya Dome and could be a good pick-up. 

Ishikawa moved to the Giants in a trade for Taishi Ota who went to the Fighters. He has been little more than depth for his team over the last 3 years but had a handy .773 OPS over 76 PA in NPB last year. A little bit more potential pop than the other options, Ishikawa is probably more restricted to a corner outfield role.  He hit over .300 on the farm which was the best of any player for the Giants with over 100 PA. Someone that could maybe be a successor for Ryosuke Hirata, or at the worst Atsushi Fujii, Ishikawa would be a handy pick-up. 

Conclusion: It might be hard to pry away Shigenobu or Wakabayashi, but given teh salary outlay, either makes sense. Given the need for depth in outfield and second base for the Dragons, it would make sense to go after Wakabayashi first and foremost as he provides options at both positions however as a successor to Oshima, Shigenobu is likely the best option.

#3 Shota Suzuki - SP

To be honest, if this club can get anything out of a trade for 2013 top pick, Shota Suzuki, they should take it. Suzuki was a bright talent when he was drafted and to date is the only player to turn pro from his high school, St Christopher's. Suzuki looked like he was going to make a keen go of things in 2017 when he won his first game and went 5-5 over the course of the season, it just hasn't clicked for the 6th year pitcher. He's only 25 this season, but injuries, including a common blood circulation issue in his throwing arm, has derailed his development. Suzuki further lost his jersey to Daisuke Matsuzaka last year and failed to make any first team appearances. That being said, he's still a former #1 pick and he's still young which gives the possibility of some upside yet to come. 

Possible trade partner: Nippon Ham Fighters

To put it lightly, the Fighters pitching staff is a shambles. It's possible that even someone like Suzuki, could make an impact of some kind with their team. Who could the Dragons possibly get in return though? The options are limited but someone like Daiki Asama or Yuya Himeno could possibly be a decent pick-up in return.

Asama was billeted with some decent potential as a corner outfielder having a solid rookie season. He has more recently at third base but his stocks have taken hits recently and he only played 13 games last year. Still very young at 23, Asama has plenty of years ahead of him to get better. The Fighters may want to hold on to him just because of that age and possible future ahead of him, but he would fit well into the future plans of the Dragons.

Himeno has a lower profile than Asama, and would probably warrant another piece from the Fighters to get a deal through. Himeno however is a 23 y/o that just has lottery ticket written all over him. A former switch hitter, now just a right-hander, Himeno is a "might as well" pick. He only hit .222 on the farm last year but who knows what happens with some experience and a different environment. 

Conclusion: The only way I see Himeno going in a trade like this is if the Fighters kick in some cash or send someone else as well which seems unlikely. Asama I think would be a good pick-up but the Fighters may well want to hold on to him for depth, that being said, he would provide depth for the Dragons likely in right-field if Hirata misses time due to injury and could well be the long-term successor in that role. 

If I was to pull the trigger on all three trades, I'd have Kuwahara, Wakabayashi and Asama on my team. Kuwahara gives a clear successor to Oshima who can also keep the pace defensively. Wakabayashi gives options at second base over Abe and Dnoue while Asama provides options in right that are probably a bit more interesting than Atsushi Fujii and Issei Endo. 

Trades are very tricky to work in NPB, but I think the options I've provided above are relatively realistic given the relative outlays. Due to time constraints, I've only picked one trade partner for each player, but the reality is likely far more complex than that. Not to mention the individual ties between managers can often be deal breakers in this case, it's hard to see all of these deals coming to fruition even with roots in reality. 

I hope you've enjoyed the thought exercise. Let me know if you have any ideas on who you might trade for to better the team.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Latest News & 2020 Position Player Outlook: Catcher

Latest News

As of last week, the NPB has had it's first confirmed cases of coronavirus, that of Tigers trio, Shintaro Fujinami, Hayata Ito and Kenya Nagasaka. Not only this, but overall infection numbers for COVID-19 are climbing everyday in Japan with a 1-day record high of over 130+ cases on Saturday in Tokyo alone. As such, the NPB has put the the season, understandably, on indefinite hold saying that they will be "flexible" with the opening day dates. 

As a result of the Tigers cluster of COVID-19 cases, a number of Dragons players were put into self-isolation as it came on the back of a practice game played at Nagoya Dome. Ryosuke Hirata apparently reported to having a fever that died down pretty quickly. Given Hirata is a high school sempai of Fujinami's from Osaka Toin, it would be no surprise if they were in close contact during the series. 

Dragons players/staff were wearing masks in the
locker room last week. C/- 中スポ
Nagoya Dome staff have gone into disinfectant overload as well is wiping down any areas the Tigers players may have been in contact with. 

Between the 4th and 7th of April, Dragons players and staff will be avoiding the Nagoya Dome and Nagoya Stadium facilities while also self-isolating. Players and staff have also been asked to avoid eating-out for this period of time. From the 8th, players will train at Nagoya Stadium in staggered time periods with smaller numbers of players to avoid infection. As players from both 1-gun and 2-gun will be training in the same place, it is expected training sessions will be more compact with more frequent rest times.  Unsurprisingly there are no practice games with other teams planned for the month of April. 

During his short time away from training, 2019 #1 pick, Takaya Ishikawa has said he will work on the mental side of this game with a tennis ball in his room with a view to increasing his focus. Yota Kyoda, Dragons player rep, has asked for players to take care of themselves during this downtime in an effort to avoid infection by COVID-19. 

Position Player Battles

With the season being put on hold, there's still a lot of room for speculation as to whether or not we'll have a season. The chance of a shortened season seems increasingly more likely with suggestions for a reduced Climax Season or Interleague series floated as ideas for keeping the same regular Pacific-Central League games as in previous years. Whatever the case, we will probably see some form of baseball this year, albeit in a very shortened form. As such, I'd still like to take time to look at some of the battles in the field for regular positions. Some are quite intriguing battles and some are utter cluster cookies in terms of same-same but different. I'll be kicking this off with catcher and then further looking at the outfield and infield in separate posts.


Perhaps the most intriguing battle is the one that has been ongoing for the best part of 6 years. After Motonobu Tanishige's retirement and general wind-down, the Dragons have been in search of a regular catcher behind the plate. There have been a few pretenders over the past few years with two of the more "regular" catchers now no longer with the club. Shota Sugiyama looked like he was going to stake a claim in 2016 with a team-leading OBP, but new management saw his stocks dive with investment going into Masato Matsui and the free-agency signing of Shota Ono. Shigekazu Mori leaned on his veteran catchers, but since the introduction of Yoda's new Jedi Council, a shift toward a younger player that can do it all has been the focus. As such, Matsui was traded to the Orix Buffaloes mid-season last year while Sugiyama was released from the team. Ono has had a reduced role and due to injury concerns may never be the player the team had hoped for. 

Matsui and Sugiyama start in greener pastures in 2020.

From last year, Yoda and his team have sought to give experience and auditions to a number of catchers. Last year, Takuma Kato saw the lion's share of attention behind the plate but his blocking, game-calling and hitting tools are all suspect. The team were however to keep opposition runners at bay with few wanting to game Kato's bazooka arm. With the 3-catcher system the Dragons carry, Takuya Kinoshita the aforementioned Ono and Kota Ishibashi all saw some time behind the plate with no one player standing out. Kinoshita has long been billed as a solid catcher that can hit, but hasn't shown he can hit, while Shota Ono is the last of the experienced catchers with the team that has seemingly missed the boat on the fight for the regular catcher's mask. Kota Ishibashi, is, quite frankly, a bit too young to be considered a full-time regular, but showed great promise in his first season in professional baseball with leadership skills beyond his tender 19 years. 

That was last year, but what about this year? The main thing that has changed has been the addition of Yuya Gunji, Keio University's star catcher in 2019, to the fold. The catching coaches have hailed Gunji as a possible opening day starter and this then throws the competition at the position into disarray. Please note the below ages represent how old the players will be in 2020.

#NameAgeBatsThrows2019 GP
Shota Ono
Takuya Kinoshita
Yuya Gunji
Takuma Kato
Kota Ishibashi
Iori Katsura

Catcher is a position where you have to look at the long term particularly in the absence of a quality first-team starter. The Dragons have rarely had this problem throughout their history with a neat continuation of regular catchers starting with Tatsuhiko Kimata in 1965 and ending with Tanishige in 2015. Given the extraordinary circumstances, the Dragons need to look at least mid-term, by that measure, it's going to be crunch time for one of either Kinoshita or Katsura this year. Katsura in particular will likely get released at the end of the year if he doesn't show some progression this year. The only thing I see as a certainty this year is Ono's veteran presence being used later in games. Other than that, it's very open.

Let's have a quick evaluation of each player and their various skill sets;

#NameGame CallingArmBlockingHittingExperienceOverall
27Shota OnoADADSC
35Takuya KinoshitaBBBCBC
44Yuya GunjiBABC+CC
52Takuma KatoDSCCBD+
58Kota IshibashiAAAC+DC
68Iori KatsuraBC+C+CBD+

These are fairly subjective ratings but I've based in on what I've researched and seen in games. I've assigned values of 1-5 based on the individual skills to calculate and overall score (D=1, S=5). As you can see, there's no one that really stands out based on how I currently view the staff. In terms of roundedness, Gunji and Ishibashi are probably going to be the best choices but both have their limits with experience. Ishibashi has an extra year on Gunji in terms of familiarity with his pitching staff, but Gunji has an extra 4 years of college experience on Ishibashi and also higher leverage experience at the summer koshien as well as in the Big6 University League.

Is the future of the Dragons in the hands of one of these youngsters?

If you want to go with more experienced hands, then Takuya Kinoshita is probably the best rounded. Katsura could yet surprise, but essentially hasn't done anything of note in close to 4 years due to injury and other misfortune. Last season's regular catcher Kato is not without his flaws either and even though he has a rocket arm, he still receives signs from the bench, has difficulty blocking pitches and also can't seem to hit very well (aside from some hot patches, although this isn't exclusive to him). Shota Ono, whom I've touched on earlier, is something that can certainly calm things down, but you can't expect him to hit a go-ahead double or throw-out anyone faster than Kosuke Fukudome. 

The Dragons backroom team really have an unenviable task of choosing where they want to go with this position but so far, Gunji, by some reports, was brought in to be an immediate challenger for Kota Ishibashi. Ishibashi, in my opinion, showed immense potential in 2019 on the farm and with the first team. Given that he's the only catcher of his age bracket, it makes sense to bring in someone closer in age to push him to be better. 

How I see this position to likely play out is, once again a 3-catcher system where we see all 6 guys get some time here and there with the first team. I think it makes sense to leave Ishibashi on the farm for the majority of the year to get as many reps as possible with the odd run of starts in 1-gun when opportunities arise. I think we'll otherwise see a trio of Kato, Gunji and Kinoshita start the season with Ono popping up here and there to provide leadership. Kato could be cut at the expense of that leadership if they start with two relatively inexperienced players and the team have shown they are willing to cast him aside if not doing well, as in spring training this year. 

My prediction this year is that Gunji is going to be the main catcher this year with 80+ appearances. Given his projected and current ability, he has about the same floor as anyone else but with a much higher upside.I also think we'll see more of Ishibashi with around 20-30 appearances behind the plate. The rest I think are divvied up among the other 4.

The only thing preventing Gunji from hitting the ground running is his rapport with his catching staff. Building rapport and a good relationship with his pitchers as well as getting his head around calling games against NPB players will make or break his year. Lucky for him, he's got plenty of time to study video and once training goes back on Wednesday, to work with his pitchers in the bullpen.