The walking dead
If you believe the papers, many of the Dragons players have been plagued by injuries. We've had Neo, Umetsu and Fujshima all go down before Spring Camp started in Okinawa while Shinnosuke Ogasawara (elbow surgery) and Shota Suzuki (blood clot surgery) have both been out since December.
Perhaps the most bizarre injury to occur however is that of Daisuke Matsuzaka who reported discomfort in his throwing arm after a hefty interaction with an overzealous fan who apparently yanked on his arm whether to grab his attention, autograph of handshake. Such was the seriousness of the injury, Matsuzaka has been put under an injury cloud indefinitely and the man that was probably penciled in for the starting day rotation might be out for as long as 3 months. You have to feel for Matsuzaka who came back from some very serious injuries following his return to the NPB from the New York Mets. It took him 3 years of not meeting expectations with the Hawks to claim the Comeback Award last year with the Dragons. I'm concerned about this injury, but I do wish him a speedy recovery. This however throws further shadows over the conduct of Chunichi fans in Okinawa as there have been many issues already regarding the selling of signed items from players like Matsuzaka and Akira Neo.
In the Commentary Box
The Dragons left Okinawa on the 28th of February having finished a number of practice games and a couple of open-sen games as is tradition.
In Okinawa, we saw a mixed bag of results with most losses being due to not keeping runs down. Most games saw 6-7 pitchers so it never really was about the result. Within the games however the biggest highlight has been the re-emergence of Naomichi Donoue. A new batting form seems to have captured some early form with him making good contact and perhaps even improving his slugging. A Donoue with a live bat makes for a very interesting infield battle indeed. In pre-season games Shuhei has started at 3rd base with one of Kamezawa or Donoue at second. Donoue has also appeared at third and short. Fukuda could find himself pushed out of the line-up come opening day, but obviously there's still a lot to consider first. Donoue at second really appeals to me. When Kyoda was brought in after Donoue's best year in the team as starting short-stop I thought it a waste of his talent not to be playing particularly considering Araki wasn't exactly setting the world alight with his bat in 2017-18 either. In any case, as a right-handed option with very good defence, Donoue could be a good solution at second particularly if he can pick up on his slugging.
Other talking points are of course the closer position. Tajima gave up 6 earned runs in his first 3 games in Okinawa, but otherwise has had some solid outings since then, while Hiroshi Suzuki has probably made the strongest claim so far with some good performances and some even better mimicry of a certain Major Leaguer he holds in high esteem.
Akira Neo made his 1-gun debut on the 13th of March as a mid-game sub for Yota Kyoda where he struck out in his first at-bat. He started at short the next game on the 14th against the Tigers at Nagoya Dome batting second where he picked up his first top team hit. His next few plate appearances would not be quite as alluring to the eye, but he showed off his defensive skills in an otherwise tidy but not outstanding performance. On the farm however, he has started the season unsurprisingly as a regular at short and has shown some skill with the bat including his first homer, an oppo shot off Giants swing-man, Ryoma Nogami.キ ン ブ レ ル 鈴 木 博 志 pic.twitter.com/GuhgvcHb1A— のもとけ (@gnomotoke) March 9, 2019
根尾 ホームラン pic.twitter.com/IWM8di1zjf— 赤味噌 (@FnD5e) March 23, 2019
- The catching core for 1-gun this year appears to be centering around the trio of Takuma Kato, Takuya Kinoshita and Shota Ono. Kato has been under particularly scrutiny by head coach, Tsutomu Ito (probably close to the best defensive catcher of his generation) which I think spells good things. Thanks to the rise of Hawks catcher Takuya Kai and his "Kai cannon" arm, Kato has been given a chance to shine as out of all Dragons catchers he has probably the strongest arm of any of them.
異次元の強肩— のもとけ (@gnomotoke) March 24, 2019
“加藤バズーカ” 中日・加藤匠馬 pic.twitter.com/shOHOC0yo2
- The construction of the rotation remains about as unknown to me now as it did at the beginning of camp. Daisuke Matsuzaka going down with a freak injury has limited options while Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Kodai Umetsu and Kento Fujishima are all recovering from other injuries here and there. Kazuki Yoshimi appears to be the only lock at the moment, with Enny Romero likely to start as well. Hideyuki Awano, the pitching coach has cited that they'll try to build a rotation around 3 guys that will be there all season with a rotation of around 6 other guys throughout the year. The only 3 that I think could start and finish the season are Yoshimi, Romero and Yanagi. Yanagi so far has looked okay albeit not outstanding in pre-season games so far. Shotaro Kasahara is another, however there have been doubts raised over his reliance on his change-up to get punch outs. If he diversifies his pitches, throwing in a curve ball or his cutter a bit more often, he might see more longevity in the rotation.
- Bullpen is developing with a little bit more clarity as to how the set-up and closing might look like. Shinji Tajima has settled remarkably well after giving up two homeruns early on in pre-season. Hiroshi Suzuki looks like he could be settling into the stopper role, while Yu Sato, who was the closer for the last month or two of the 2018 season, has been looking a bit out of sorts even himself mentioning he doesn't feel right. It has been revealed this is likely due to a new footing he has been trying so it is likely he could relax back into his new form for the real season. Joely Rodriguez has otherwise done enough to probably be considered as one of the two set-up men while Katsuki Matayoshi looks to be stretched out once again tried as a starter. Once again, Hideyuki Awano has outlined a bullpen management system where relievers won't throw consecutive days. This could mean the closer position could be shared. When Awano played for the pennant winning 1998 Yokohama Baystars, there were only a few occasions where bullpen arms threw consecutive games, this was including star closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. Last year, Hiroshi Suzuki threw 4 innings in 3 consecutive days, while Daisuke Sobue threw 1 inning for each of 4 consecutive days. Strangely enough, both seemed to grow lethargic (Suzuki quicker than Sobue) as the season progressed. Hopefully this can be addressed effectively but the ability of starters to eat innings is going to be key to that strategy working.
Opening Day Roster
If you have been keeping an eye on the open-sen games, you probably have a bit of an idea how the opening day starting 9 is going to be shaped. The key points of discussion revolve around the middle infield. Yota Kyoda and Kyohei Kamezawa had been penciled in from camp but judging on recent form and the manager's management of some of these players, it's looking less and less certain. One thing however to be sure is, Shuhei Takahashi is not seen as a second-baseman under the current management. He has played almost exclusively at third base, largely displacing Nobumasa Fukuda from the role.
Naomichi Donoue has been the most alluring stick in the proverbial spokes of settling on the starting day order. His form has not gone unnoticed as he has been hitting .313 with .855 OPS. He has been slugging his way to glory and has a remarkable .556 average with RISP over 58 plate appearances. Form counts for everything, and I think Donoue is going to get a starting job, whether that's at second or and short is another question.
Kyoda has batted alright so far and Yoda seems to like him in the lead-off spot. I like the move too and I think Kyoda prefers to lead-off. However, realistically, a .288 OBP in not what you want from a lead-off hitter. Granted, it's only pre-season. Yoda however has shown interest in getting Kyoda's head in the game where he yanked the short-stop after 4 innings during a recent pre-season game, so it's no certainty that Kyoda sees time from the get-go this year.
To create further headaches, 4th year utility man, Toshiki Abe, has been batting somewhat better than Kamezawa and up until recently was hitting .280 in open-sen games. He seems to have tailed off a bit which puts a starting 9 position in doubt. Abe is otherwise a reliable defender that can play across the infield but hasn't held a first-team job for any lengthy period of time since being drafted.
All being said and done, I think this is who will line-up against the Baystars this Thursday:
- SS Yota Kyoda
- CF Yohei Oshima
- RF Ryosuke Hirata
- 1B Dayan Viciedo
- LF Zoilo Almonte
- 3B Shuhei Takahashi
- 2B Naomichi Donoue
- C Takuma Kato
- P Shotaro Kasahara
Kasahara has already been announced as starting-day pitcher, and Kato has been outlined for a start as part of a 3-man catcher platoon. Kato has been impressive with the bat in pre-season and has continually shown his prowess with his arm known colloquially as the "Kato Bazooka" (in juxtaposition to the "Kai Cannon"). Shuhei has been nothing short of reliable so far and topped the Open-sen tables for RBIs. Viciedo has been slow to start but has shown some of that long-ball prowess while Almonte, albeit not setting the world alight, is guaranteed a job in left. I think Donoue will get the 2B job as he's been too good otherwise. He adds some balance to the line-up as a right-handed bat as well. Hirata sits in the 3-hole, but I'd prefer to see Oshima and Hirata swapped about (which is also possible).
Overall, the line-up hasn't performed that well this pre-season but there's no reason to assume they'll be significantly worse than last year.
Opening Day Rotation
The opening day rotation is pretty ugly. There's a lot of not so good mixed with okay. There's some interesting talking points, but this appears to be what has been decided on:
- Shotaro Kasahara
- Kazuki Yoshimi
- Enny Romero
- Yudai Ono
- Daisuke Yamai
- Yuya Yanagi
The first things that stick out for me is Yoshimi starting in Yokohama. Yoshimi was quite expertly rotated around to pitch mostly in Nagoya because his stats were so bad outside of Aichi last year. Yoda seems to be going against conventional wisdom in this case. That is further compacted by the fact that it's essentially Yuya Yanagi's hometown (he's a graduate of Yokohama High School) and it's a ground where Daisuke Yamai has had a lot of luck in the past. It's a bit of a head scratcher but I can only think that Yoda wants to give protection to Ono, Yamai and Yanagi or has calculated how many times each pitcher might feature at each ground throughout the season. Ono and Yamai have been homerun prone. Last year Yamai had a 1.7 HR/9 while Ono had a 2.3 HR/9. The longer distance to Nagoya dome's walls will help them over a comparatively compact Yokohama Stadium. Perhaps this is something that has been taken on board when deliberating over the rotation.
Overall, I think there's a long-term plan here or at least a less obvious one for these choices. The fact of the matter is, for the Dragons to be successful this year, at least 4 of these pitchers need to succeed and I'll go ahead and say that Kasahara, Yoshimi and Romero will likely be central to any success. Yoshimi therefore needs to show that he can pitch outside of Nagoya and pushing him through that comfort zone may have some tangible benefits in the future.
In regards to the bullpen, Hiroshi Suzuki has been confirmed as closer and I'm sure we'll see any number of interesting configurations in the set-up role. The main dudes will likely be Yu Sato, Shinji Tajima, Joely Rodriguez and Katsuki Matayoshi in the back of the bullpen with Daisuke Sobue picking up lengthier relief innings. Keisuke Tanimoto looks to be back in better form and will likely start with the top team. I can see Hiroto Fuku also pushing his way in due to the lack of lefties.
The pitchers for the Dragons have registered the second best ERA out of NPB clubs in the NPB at 3.23. The next closest in the Central League is Hiroshima at 3.42. Team batting average of .218 is however the lowest in the NPB in the Open-sen games which is cause for concern. So far this year, we seem to have a reverse in fortunes where the pitching is looking stronger but the batting is weak. I hate to feel reminded of 2016-17 where we pitched okay but hit badly. I hope we won't see a return to form. The veterans have yet to hit their stride, so I'm still cautiously optimistic and after all, it is only pre-season.
Most of you have probably seen my prediction on Twitter or on Reddit, but I'll put them here too for posterity.
The Carp have lost Maru but their pitching staff has been kept together. Gaining Hisashi Chono as compensation isn't a huge plus and is a net loss. They've still been able to keep it together in pre-season but I think they're going to miss Maru's numbers big times when it counts. Giants have a great line-up with Sakamoto, Guerrero, Maru, Villenueva, etc but their pitching hasn't got much depth beyond Sugano, Shun Yamaguchi and maybe Kazuto Taguchi. There's otherwise plenty of question marks over the bullpen with Scott Mathieson being the mainstay but getting on in years and pitchers like Ryan Cooke offering an unknown quality. Chiaki Tone looks good but there's still questions.
The Tigers and the Dragons I expect will be trading blows for the bottom of the table. Neither team is particularly well polished. Hanshin have added Kinami and Chikamoto to the top of the order who have looked quite good but Fukudome and Itoi still taking up important spots in the line-up is concerning. Power has been a theme as well but Navarro and Marte don't look like 20+ homer guys and Ohyama probably needs another season to get into gear. Rotation looks great with Nishi, Garcia and Akiyama at the pointy end, bullpen so-so and the closer role is still sealed up by Raphael Dolis.
The Dragons, as much as I love them, don't have enough about them. There's good pieces but it's not a complete produce. The fact that Daisuke Yamai is being trotted out in the opening day rotation has to be a comment on the lack of depth in starting pitchers. There are injuries; Fujishima, Matsuzaka and Ogasawara would have been all in the mix had they been fit while youngster Sho Ishikawa could have been a dark horse had it not been for a strain recently on the farm.
The line-up is as good as it was last year, maybe even a bit better in some cases. Donoue offers more at his top gear than Kyohei Kamezawa does and Kyoda now has pressure from both Donoue and Neo to up his game. There is still however no real successor in the outfield to Hirata and Oshima should they experience downturns with a mottled patchwork of Atsushi Fujii, Masataka Iryo, Issei Endo and newcomer Kaname Takino the only real fillers.
Last but not least, the Swallows. To be honest, 3-6 is going to be another crapshoot but I think the Swallows have enough in the way of elite hitters to keep them in the middle of the pack. Realistically though, enough injury hits to their starting pitching would see them safely on the bottom of the pack. The Tigers, Dragons and Swallows are probably the most "incomplete" teams in the Central League and the Giants would be next after that. Carp and DeNA look polished though so I think they'll be the main threats.
Quickly, I don't watch enough of the Pacific League to be confident in my picks but a continually weakened Seibu won't be able to repeat. Nichi Ham have a certain aura of uncertainty about them but I think Wang Po-Jung has a ROTY season to propel them to the title. The help they'll get from Chihiro Kaneko will be big too. Hawks will be there abouts as always while I see Chiba having a good season in Iguchi's second year and the added power bats of Kennys Vargas and Brandon Laird. The pitching is good enough with Ishikawa, Bolsinger and Wakui at the top of the rotation while I see a few youngsters like Yasuda and Hirasawa meshing in well with the veterans like Kakunaka and Oka.
Buffaloes will just about bottle anything. They've lost Kaneko and Nishi which I think is substantial. They're considering stretching out Yoshinobu Yamamoto, their elite reliever, but the rotation looks a bit weak. Their centre line is made of dead weight with the bat and while there's some talent in the corners of the infield and outfield, there's not really enough to concern anyone. Rakuten have lost Norimoto which will greatly affect their chances, but they otherwise haven't got a lot to be excited about. I like Kondo and Kishi in the starting rotation, I like Asamura and Mogi in the middle infield, but I think they'll be found wanting.
A new streaming service has appeared and it's name is Eleven Sports. From what I can see, they will be broadcasting most farm games which is great! They seem to appear available for free on their website, so please watch away. It's a good way to keep tabs on the farm hands and Akira Neo in particularly. I'll be waiting to watch some Akiyoshi Katsuno starts if I can.
If nothing else, this season is going to be an interesting one. I hope we see a lot of players develop. I think the team has a more unified idea on how they want to develop certain players and singling out players like Takuma Kato for special development I think signals to fans that there are specific development plans for certain players. I think pitchers will be well taken care of by Hideyuki Awano whom has worked with young pitchers for some time while the presences of Takuya Asao on the farm will I think be a positive for players going through injury woes. He's a players that will command the respect of the younger players for what he has accomplished which is something I think he will have over older coaches like Takashi Ogasawara and Ken Kadokura. It's not to discount the achievements of either, but I think Asao's presence will be key. On the same token, Masahiro Araki seems to have taken Hayato Mizowaki and Akira Neo under his wing which is a strong positive for both going forward.
In the end, who cares! Baseball is just a couple of days away!