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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Future of the Chunichi Dragons : This year, next year and beyond

Now that the draft has finished and the post-season clean-out has all but happened let's have a look at the coming and goings and what the future is going to look like for the Dragons going forward. I'll be approaching this in 2 or 3 parts.

I've been crunching the numbers based mostly on age and position and have tried to see what the farm is looking like and what the team may look like in 5 years or so. As you might guess, there's still a fair bit that needs to be addressed but the old guard that featured so prominently in the 2014-15 season has been all but cleaned out with only Araki, Yamai and Iwase remaining of the veterans that took part in the 2007 Japan Series win.

There's still some ways to go with recruitment but to get the ball rolling, let's have a look at the in's and outs following the 2017 Draft and second round of senryokugai notices.

As you can see here, there's been a fairly big clean-out. For those that haven't been keeping tabs on my twitter or on the news, there's probably a few surprising names on this list. The biggest surprise in the first round of senryokgai notices was probably Ryosuke Nomura who was drafted #1 in 2014. It's rare for #1 picks to get turfed so early in their career but there hasn't been any signs of improvement from Nomura in recent years. Nomura was however not the only former #1 to go out the door as Kazuyuki Akasaka joined him on the scrap pile. Akasaka was originally drafted as a pitcher but injuries forced him to change to the outfield. He never quite converted and was hence rendered dispensable. Other names on this list are really no surprise if you consider their age and the kinds of numbers they've put up on the farm.
Yagi, Iwasaki, Nomura. Gone.

The second round of notices released after the draft contained two names that were perhaps a little surprising to see. Junki Kishimoto was only upgraded to a first team contract earlier this year after being with the team on a development contract for a few years but with 3 new pitchers coming in and limited opportunities available on the farm, it was deemed time for he and Kaneko to pack their bags. Kaneko was another 2014 pick that also hasn't really worked out the way anyone was hoping.

As for other releases, Valdes, Rondon and Araujo have all be confirmed to have not been offered new contracts for next year. Valdes can perhaps consider himself a little hard done by considering the amount of good work he put in particularly in the first half that earned him an All-Star call-up. Unfortunately, his age and reported demands for a 2-year deal saw him out the door. Rondon and Araujo however never looked like getting offered new deals. Araujo reportedly was not very well liked and Rondon had major control issues.

That brings us to the home run king, Alex Guerrero. The Dragons want to keep him and have been chasing him but Guerrero and his agent Scott Boras have been holding out for more money which the Dragons just can't seem to provide. By all accounts, Guerrero says Nagoya is his first choice, but if other teams offer more money, he's leaving. Mori is reportedly going to meet with Guerrero this off-season in the US to have a final set of negotiations but it appears as though the former Dodgers slugger will be heading off to "greener" pastures. Softbank Hawks seem like the most likely suitors in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants also mentioned, but a return to the MLB is not off the cards either. For all intents and purpose however, let's say he's gone.

The only retiree this year was Masahiko Morino who just couldn't find his bat this year. On the farm in 2016 he was averaging over .300 showing that he could offer something and did find some opportunities in the first team. This year he platooned DH with Guerrero in inter-league but that was about the entirety of his involvement as he struggled to hit either in the big leagues on on the farm. We will however keep seeing the Doala look-a-like on the farm however as he's been officially unveiled as the second team hitting coach.

All in all, we have 14 players out on their bums. Now let's have a look at who has come in so far and who we might be looking at.

Apart from the draft, the rest is speculative based on rumours and news that I've seen. 

4 right-handed pitchers were drafted this year to fill out the farm and the first team bullpen. Hiroshi Suzuki was of course the top pick who should slot right in, while the rest are very much ones for the future. 

For stop-gaps, the Dragons are rumoured to be after Yuya Kubo (Baystars), Hisashi Takeda (Fighters) and Eishi Soyohi (Carp) who have all recently been senryokugai's themselves. The thought I guess would be to add some experience to the bullpen or provide another option at third in Soyogi's case. I personally don't think we need them and they are no more than rumours so I haven't included them in my total incoming this time around. The big thing however is the chase for a catcher. Senior management have been very under-awed by the current group of catchers. Sugiyama completely fell out of favour this year despite being the team's OBP leader in 2016 while Katsura was consumed by injury and Kinoshita generally just got a run as the third catcher. I highlighted these 3 last year as an enviable trio, but Mori and his crew don't seem to be high on any of them. Masato Matsui and Shingo Takeyama saw a lot time behind the plate this year, but neither really scream long term option nor are they particularly outstanding themselves. 

Two names that have come up are Kyle Higashioka, a 4th generation Japanese-American in the Yankees organisation and Shota Ono, the Fighters first team catcher who looks to be electing for free agency this year. 
Ono or Higashioka on their way to Nagoya?
Higashioka would be the first foreign catcher the Dragons have had since David Nilsson in 2000. Yui Tomori seems to think that Higashioka has the kind of power to get 20 homers in the NPB and thinks that he'll be better behind the plate than current options. The major issue with hiring Higashioka will be the language barrier. According to reports, Higashioka has a rudimentary handle on Japanese and Spanish which he has picked up to help Masahiro Tanaka at the Yankees as well as the club's many Latin players however having a rudimentary knowledge of the language and being able to use it every day with pitchers, young pitchers at that, is going to be a challenge. The other issue is if Higashioka even wants to leave as he seems to be third in line to the Yankees mask behind Garry Sanchez and Austin Romine.

Shota Ono to me is the better option if Mori is fixated on bringing in a catcher. He will cost money but he won't cost a foreign player spot and he's a local boy having grown up in Ogaki in Gifu Prefecture. He's 30 so ideally has a few good years left in him but hasn't put up superb batting numbers in any sense. He has successfully guided the Fighters to a Japan Series win and has experience guiding younger pitchers like Kohei Arihara, Hirotoshi Takanashi, Shohei Otani and Takayuki Kato so he could be a good option to help the younger pitching staff out.

The only other possibilities that have been suggested are that Mori is looking for an MLB level pitcher to be the team's ace next year along with another starter. Cuba and the Dominican Republic are the most likely places where they'll find these guys given the team's and Mori's connections. However with Akinori Otsuka and Yui Tomori working over in the US, you never know what they might turn up.
It seems however that there aren't any plans to replace Alex Guerrero at this stage.

If we go after all the above players suggested, we would likely only have one roster spot for wiggle room which would likely be given to a developmental player either at the beginning or half-way through the season.

Let's now look at a projected roster for 2018 that I've put together that ignores possible new acquisitions and focuses on what we have now.  Viciedo hasn't resigned yet, but is likely to stay as with Jordan Norberto.

This give you a general look at what we'll probably look like next season. There will be injuries and fluctuations in form of course. I see only Suzuki as the draft member that can make the most immediate impact. Relying on Fujii for another year in left-field is going to be dangerous, but Yusuke Matsui showed at the end of this season that he can be a useful addition to the line-up. Kyohei Kamezawa put up very impressive numbers this year and will likely have the lions share of games and second. Araki will likely be appearing less and less while Shuhei Takahashi is a chance to play second as well if his bat is hot. Let's now have a look at what would likely be the back-ups for each position to get an idea of what depth we have.

I've omitted pitchers for this one as we have a bit of depth there, but if you look at the back-up option for each position, things start getting very thin and old. The only player here that is under 28 is Shuhei. It's a little worrying when there's no one younger realistically knocking on the door for these positions. Sugiyama, Kinoshita, Katsura and even Kato are still a look in for the mask which would add some needed youth to that position but there's not a whole lot here to be excited about. Hiroki Kondo is a name that could be thrown in here, but out of he and Endo battling at centre-field at the end of the season it was Endo that eventually got the nod. I'm quite concerned with our outfield depth and perhaps at the 2018 draft we might see some focus on college age outfielders to bolster that area. Kosuke Ito and Hiroki Kondo are really the only two names under 25 that are in the team. Masaru Watanabe is one other who might be offered a spot on the roster following his stint as a development player.

In terms of the immediate future, I don't think there's anything here to get one excited for 2018. The homerun production of Guerrero will largely be propped up by Fukuda and Viciedo next year as well as, hopefully, Ryosuke Hirata. I feel that there is enough about the pitching to see us have a decent year, plus if we are able to add the arms we're after we'll be in a good position but I still think a playoff spot is a little far away unless we see a massive up-tick in production from the likes of Hirata. 

Looking Forward

This team as it is, is going to be riddled with holes without significant reinforcement over the next few drafts. Outfield really needs to be addressed as does the corner infield positions. Catcher is also another area that the Dragons senior staff are really looking to strengthen and if you look at the kind of staff we have at the moment, unless someone clicks pretty soon, we're going to have issues down the track. 

To get a better idea of where the farm and where the team is at I've put together a couple of charts.

This is of the 2017 roster as of around when Tanimoto joined the team. You can see there there's a lot of players in that 26-30 range that should be reaching the peaks of their powers. Most of our outfielders are in that age group, but only Hirata is a relatively permanent first-team player. Others like Iryo and Tomonaga haven't really ever looked like usurping anyone. The biggest problem I can see is that we lack younger outfielders. High school talent is always a bit tricky but in the last 3-4 years or so, the Dragons really haven't looked at high schoolers. Ogasawara, Ishigaki and Fujishima were the only U-21 players on the roster in 2017 which is a bit disappointing. 

The image of the retirement village is slowly seeping away as there were only 6 over-36 y/o players on the roster with only half seeing regular game time (Iwase, Araki and Fujii). What we can however see here is a team that is going to be in major trouble in the mid to long-term. 

After the 2017 draft, senryokugai notices and retirements however we have a slightly healthier looking team age-wise. 

The team is getting a bit younger here with Morino retiring and players like Yagi given the flick. We can also see a decrease in the 26-30 range with a marked upswing in the 18-21 range with all 6 draftees being in that age range. The only major issue that really remains here is that we don't see a lot of outfielders or catchers under the age of 26. In the next 2 or 3 drafts the Dragons are going to have to go after college level outfielders as there's no one to really take over. The catcher position will also need to be reinforced if players like Takuma Kato, Shota Sugiyama and Iori Katsura can't step up to the plate. 

Now that we have a bit of an idea of where the Dragons are and where they're going, I'd like to propose a bit of an imagining of what the team might look like as challengers in 2023 with a much younger line-up.

It's always hard to predict what a team is going to look like in 5 years, but this is what I'm proposing. I've done a little bit of projecting, a little bit of theorizing and have come up with the kind of team that the Dragons should at least aim for using information based on up and coming players at university and high school now that will be useful down the track should we end up drafting them. 

For the time being, ignore the relievers. These could quite easily change over time and players like Sato and Maruyama may not get anywhere near being that reliable, but I'm going to say that they will be. I've also taken a lot of creative license with future draftees that may or may not be realistic. These are indicated in bold purple. 

First of all, the outfield. Kosuke Ito is a 2017 draftee and looks to be the only real heir apparent for the spot in centre-field after Oshima trends downward. He's still got a long way to go to fulfill that promise, but he seems like the type that could make it. I've gone with Masami Ishigaki in left-field because there's been a lot of talk about him being played in outfield. He wants to play short, and their might be a future for him in the infield, but I feel that given his speed and mobility, he'd be well suited to an outfield role. 
There is currently no one with the team that could fill Ryosuke Hirata's boots long-term. Yusuke Matsui and Atsushi Fujii are the wrong side of 30 and Masataka Iryo won't be much younger than Hirata when 2023 comes around. I've gone with current Tokai Uni Sagami High School slugger, Shota Morita. He'll be starting his 3rd and final year of high school next year and has slugged 37 homers in his high school career thus far. He'll be eligible in the 2018 draft should he choose to make himself available. Chunichi scouts are already looking at him and Morita's drafting would continue a long history of Sagami HS players coming to Nagoya. 

I'm banking on Shuhei Takahashi to come good under Morino's tutelage and secure his spot at third base. I'm also suggesting that Wataru Takamatsu's development will go well and his athleticism at short-stop will eventually see Yota Kyoda moved to second base. At first-base I've gone with another possible future draft pick Kota Marumo who is currently with Senshu University. Marumo is in his first year so he won't be available to be drafted until 2020. Still a long way to go for him, but he's shown power at high school and is a big lad standing at 184cm tall and 95kg. He has good bat speed which has been clocked at 149km/h (92.5mp/h) which could be promising going forward. There's every chance this hole at first get filled by a foreign slugger, but for the sake of argument, I'm going with an all Japanese roster. 

This was an interesting one to consider. I've decided here that none of Chunichi's catchers are going to work out. There is however an interesting local option that could be the man to turn to when he's available and that's Chubu Gakuin University's Kazuma Kubo. He has a reputation for a power bat and a strong arm and has the added bonus of going to a university in the Chunichi catchment. In high school at the 2015 Wakayama prefectural tournament Kubo had a .417 average over 3 games which included a 2-run homer as well as 6 RBIs. He seems to have a lot about him and would be available at the 2019 draft. 


There is always room for strengthening, but the starting rotation I have picked is essentially what we already have plus one. Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Yuya Yanagi have the potential to be a domineering top 2 while I expect Sho Ishikawa to develop to be the number 3. Rounding out the rotation is Shotaro Kasahara, Shota Suzuki and another guy I'm really high on, Ryoji Kuribayashi.

 As you can probably already tell, Kurabayashi has already played for the university level Japanese national team and he's also playing at Meijo University which is, among others, outfield Hiroki Kondo's alma mater. Kuribayashi is also an Aichi native which only increases his value. He's a right hander that throws 153km/h (95 m/ph) and had a K/9 ratio of 10.02 this Fall. He also became the first Aichi League pitcher since 2004 to mark a no-hitter taking 9Ks and giving up 5 walks against Chukyo University. While his walk-rate is a bit high, Kuribayashi will surely be a top 2 pick at the 2018 draft. Once again, Chunichi scouts are already well on top him with head scout Muneo Tanaka commenting that he was a little disappointed that Kuribayashi couldn't beat batter with his fast-ball when gunned down the middle of the zone but was otherwise impressed by his breaking balls and velocity.

Relief is something I haven't thought a lot about, but my thoughts are that Tatsuya Shimizu will be there abouts and I've otherwise smattered through a few talents that won't be too old by the time 2023 comes about to fill-out the bench a bit. I expect Hiroshi Suzuki to be the full-time closer by then. 

This was a fun little exercise for me, but what should be taken away is that there is a lot that needs to be filled in before this team looks like a force to be reckoned with. Foreign players will likely fill holes as Japanese players develop to fill them but I think you can understand that from the future selections I've made there's a few areas that need to be addressed: outfield, first base and catcher. There is really no one here coming up that is filling anyone with confidence. I also believe there's room for at least one more starter in Ryuji Kuribayashi but as long as the starters stay relatively consistent, the rotation should be pretty imposing for years to come. 

For some concluding remarks, in the short-term, we're still not looking very good. I forsee another season of missing out on the play-offs while we wait for younger talent to come good and the older guys to burn out. The next two years are going to be a big test for those guys who are entering the 26-30 age mark. If they can't start putting some pressure on the incumbents with any consistency, they will find themselves out of a job very quickly to younger players coming through the system.

There are still major question marks over whether or not this team has the structure and the staff to develop the kind of talent that is required for the modern game, but we can only hope. Let's see what the future brings. Doraho-!

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