CF Yohei Oshima
|Almonte went yard 4 times in pre-season, a Chunichi best.|
LF Zoilo Almonte
1B Dayan Viciedo
3B Nobumasa Fukuda
RF Ryosuke Hirata
2B Shuhei Takahashi
C Shota Ono
P Shinnosuke Ogasawara
If you've been keeping an eye on the pre-season games (and I'm sorry I haven't been able to cover them for you) you'll notice that the addition of Zoilo Almonte has really created a shift around in the team. Oshima, who was hitting predominantly at the #3 slot last year has been returned to lead-off while the newly acquired Almonte sits in the all important spot at #3. The rest of the line-up is fairly self explanatory with Hirata returning after last year's injury hiccups and Fukuda getting a boost up the order. In pre-season the talents of Shuhei Takahashi got a run at second-base. Shuhei has previously played every other infield position at NPB level but was suggested to try-out for second based on Nobumasa Fukuda's entrenchment at third and Viciedo's lock for first. To be blunt, Takahashi's defense at second isn't awe inspiring. In one of the few games I was able to catch in pre-season he was so slow to turn a double-play it was painful. He'll be serviceable there at least and the hope is that his bat will give him value over the likes of Kyohei Kamezawa, Naomichi Donoue and Masahiro Araki.
As for the starting rotation, the exact order is yet to be seen but it looks as though we'll see an opening 6 of Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Dillon Gee, Yuya Yanagi, Shotaro Kasahara and the foundation of the rotation with two of Shota Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Onelki Garcia filling up the remaining spots in the rotation. Matsuzaka has already been cleared to pitch against the Giants in the second series of the season but whether that spot will remain his is an entirely different question. The performances of Yuya Yanagi and Shotaro Kasahara were particularly encouraging in pre-season meaning we have a young trio, possibly quartet if you include S. Suzuki that could propel this team for many years to come. Dillon Gee has showed his class in pre-season and should also prove to be a valuable asset this year.
Shinnosuke Ogaswara getting the tap to be starting-day pitcher is a massive honour for the 20 year old as he continues his monumental rise. Ogasawara was the winning pitcher at Koshien less than 3 years ago and now he will be given pretty much the biggest honour a team can bestow on a pitcher, to start the season. Yudai Ono carried that responsibility the last two seasons but his woes continue. Dillon Gee who was starting day pitcher for the Mets many moons ago was also apparently in the running, but it was decided that Ogasawara would get the final nod as, at least I believe, a confidence booster and a nod to someone who has been with the team a little longer. I'm really happy for him and hopefully, as I mentioned above, he'll form a dangerous little rotation with the other 20-24 year olds starting the first few games this year.
In the bullpen, there won't be too much change. Matayoshi and Iwase will stay in the back of the bullpen while Shinji Tajima closes. Sobue, J.Ito, rookie H. Suzuki and Tanimoto will be starting the season in the first-team bullpen. Hiroshi Suzuki will be one to watch as the young #1 draftee from last year put in some good displays in pre-season. It's be hard for him to get notices for ROTY considerations as a reliever, but if concerns continue of Tajima's longevity as a closer, we may see the young fireballer get thrown into a very important role early on. The only concern about Suzuki is longevity. I can think of quite a few fireballing relievers the Dragons have had over the years and two prominent ones that come to mind are an old example in Tsuyoshi Yoda and a more recent one in Koji Fukutani. Both had very bright starts to their careers but something came unstuck, in dissimilar fashion, for both. Yoda was blighted by injury after his ROTY season where he claimed 28 saves. Fukutani's all-star appearance in 2015 seemed to be the beginning of something wonderful but an ill-fated spell as closer in 2016 saw all that hard word come undone. Both of these players had very promising starts to their Chunichi careers, both share the record for fastest pitch thrown by a Chunichi pitcher at 157 km/h (Jorge Rondon and Takuya Asao have both matched this). Suzuki certainly seems to fit that mold and has a reported fastball top velocity of 156km/h, but I hope he can keep it all together. However, if these two examples are to be followed, then at least he might have a good couple of years at least.
Out of the newly acquired talents this off-season, Steven Moya is the only one, apart from the high school draftees, that won't make the starting day roster. The massive right-fielder didn't set the world alight in pre-season and the resurgence of Ryosuke Hirata and Onelki Garcia's okay-ness basically guaranteed a start on the farm this year. Unless Moya can figure out Japanese pitching better than MLB pitcher or unless Garcia proves to be a monumental disaster, I don't think we'll see much of Moya until the inter-league break where players might be rotated a bit more and rested.
The opening-day roster has also been announced and here's what we're shaping up with:
|11. Shinnosuke Ogaswara||27. Shota Ono||3. Shuhei Takahashi||4. Atsushi Fujii|
|12. Shinji Tajima||35. Takuya Kinoshita||51. Yota Kyoda||6. Ryosuke Hirata|
|13. Hitoki Iwase||38. Masato Matsui||53. Kyohei Kamezawa||8. Yohei Oshima|
|14. Keisuke Tanimoto||55. Nobumasa Fukuda||42. Zoilo Almonte|
|16 Katsuki Matayoshi||58. Tetsuya Tani||56. Yusuke Matsui|
|17. Yuya Yanagi||63. Naomichi Donoue||62. Takahito Kudo|
|33. Daisuke Sobue||66. Dayan Viciedo|
|46. Hiroshi Suzuki|
|47. Shotaro Kasahara|
|60. Dillon Gee|
|65. Junki Ito|
|70. Onelki Garcia|
The only really standout picks here that I haven't mentioned before is Tetsuya Tani who snuck into the team after a quiet but productive off-season. He'll provide depth in the infield and probably pinch-hit along with Yusuke Matsui. Takahito Kudo continues his longevity with the Dragons as a 4th outfielder/pinch-runner which is quite remarkable in an unremarkable way. Atsushi Fujii too remains on the first-team roster after putting up some okay numbers in 2017.
As mentioned regarding the starting rotation it is all guesses still, but quite often the starters for the 2nd series won't get added to the roster until right before those games. This means Shota Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka are still in the running to come up and start. The only locks for the rotation from this roster are Ogasawara, Gee, Yanagi and Kasahara. Garcia could yet be used in the bullpen then leaving Matsuzaka and Suzuki to fill the final spots. However, given Mori's fondness of symmetry within the rotation, he'll likely want to play with 3 righties and 3 lefties which makes me think Garcia will perhaps have a few bullpen innings against Hiroshima before starting against the Giants.
Lastly because it's all the vogue, my Central League predictions for 2018:
1. DeNA Baystars
2. Hiroshima Carp
3. Yomiuri Giants
4. Hanshin Tigers
5. Chunichi Dragons
6. Yakult Swallows
Now, I am a bit of a homer usually but I still say our immature rotation will mean we're not going to be playoff challengers this year. The starting-day lineup on its own looks really impressive on paper and we could certainly see a lot of damage made on other rotations. If the Swallows had the same lineup it might be a different story but playing at Nagoya Dome most of the time means that the advantage will be mitigated slightly meaning we need to lean on our pitching more. The bullpen looks solid and even if Tajima doesn't settle, I have faith that Hiroshi Suzuki will be in that role by the end of the year, even if it is just for games at Tokyo dome (Tajima has an outrageous ERA vs the Giants at Tokyo Dome).
In saying that 5th is a realistic season, if the team progresses well and Gee, Kasahara and Yanagi put together a few wins, we could be playoff contenders. Our ceiling this year certainly puts us in the top 3 in my opinion. The Tigers are going to be either slow out of the blocks or not all that good this year, the Carp aren't going to be as indomitable and the Giants, while looking better than last year, still have their weaknesses.
Overall, I'm just happy to have baseball season back. I'll be doing my best to cover games if and when I can but I, like the Tigers, might be a bit slow out of the blocks as my workload is a bit high at the moment. I'll however to my best to put together reports and at least let you know the results of the games I haven't been able to cover.