|Graphic care of Nikkan Sports|
The main contenders for the 6-man opening day rotation are going to be Yudai
Ono, Yuya Yanagi, Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Takumi Yamamoto, Kazuki Yoshimi, Kodai Umetsu, Koji Fukutani, Shotaro Kasahara and rookie, Yuichiro Okano. I think this will end up just about neatly sewn up by opening day, particularly with Romero now out of the equation, but compared to the start of camp, there's less certainty about who will actually make as players have been able to press their case through extended time with practice games. Lets have a run down on the locks, the hopefuls and some dark horses.
1. Yudai Ono - 32 y/o, LHP
I don't think there's much question about Ono opening the rotation as the staff's ace. Whether we get 2019 Ono or 2017 Ono is yet to be seen, but I think he gained a lot of confidence last year. It probably also helps that he has a decent supporting staff behind him now. Ono's form is going to be key to success that the Dragons will have this year. If he has an off year or goes down with injury, that will hurt the floor of this rotation.
In 2019, Ono had a huge bounce back year. This was largely attributed to his willingness to pitch higher in the zone which was apparently something Hideyuki Awano suggested to him. This resulted in more strikeouts and better results overall leading Ono to his first individual title as 2019's Central League ERA leader. He was then selected in the successful Premier12 Japanese team to cap off a fruitful season for the southpaw.
Ono has the tools to be a Sawamura winner. If he's going to do it, this is the year to. At 32 he's got quite a few miles on his arm but has a good mix of skill and guile to make it happen. Ono is also someone who can go deep into games a pitch a lot of innings. He lead the Central league in innings pitched in 2015 with Shintaro Fujinami. If he can get some more wins under his belt, he'll be a real contender for those honors. At worst, I think he'll at least get his 3rd career All-Star call-up.
2. Yuya Yanagi - 26 y/o, RHP
Yanagi had a breakout season in 2019 and while he had a blistering first half which lead to his selection for the All-Star game, he cooled off over the backend of the season only claiming 2 more wins and ballooning out his ERA. While is 11-7 record is the best any Dragon could muster, his 3.53 ERA was less flattering.
Yanagi showed some amazing form in 2019 and was certainly in talks for a Sawamura Award winning season midway through the year. His 13K game against the Lotte Marines in June followed by his interleague valuable player nomination seemed to cap off the awakening of a juggernaut. In the tail-end however, Yanagi somewhat unfortunately became the team's Swallows specialist where he made 9 starts against the Tokyo team throughout the year. This probably helped the Swallows hitters get used to Yanagi and unfortunately affected his results as the season wore on.
Yanagi threw 170.1 innings in 2019 and we can only hope for similar quality in 2020. It's often hard to back-up after such a successful season so the honus is on Yanagi to prove himself as the undoubted #2 in this rotation and solidify his spot throughout the season.
3. Shinnosuke Ogasawara - 23 y/o LHP
Ogasawara has had his injury problems and last year was no different. The 23 year old missed the majority of the season making only 7 starts at the tail end of the year with a relatively impressive 3-1 record and 2.56 ERA. Ogaswara is perhaps another that growth is expected of this year as he enters his 5th year with the Dragons.
Only 2-years removed from being opening day starter, Ogasawara still represents a lot of potential yet to be fulfilled. There is a lot of good parts to Ogasawara's make up but injuries have really killed any momentum he's had. Still yet to pitch more than 120 innings in a season, it will be hoped that the 2015 Koshien winner will be in a better place particularly after having some extra rest with the delay of the start of the season.
In his last two practice game outings, Ogasawara hasn't struck out a batter. This concerns me. I know we shouldn't read too much into these things, maybe he's polishing his breaking balls, but to not get a strikeout in 12 innings is a little disconcerting. I'm not sure of the hardness of contact he's gotten in these outings, but I do hope he starts missing bats again soon. Either way, I see Ogasawara as the best potential #3 in this rotation to round out a top three of former top round draft picks.
Best of the restThis guys I list here are just about going to be in the rotation come starting day or at least have an inside running on getting a job.
4. Takumi Yamamoto - 20 y/o, RHP
The dimunitive, Yamamoto has taken some impressive strides in the last 18
months and the youngster from Hyogo prefecture looks like he's a very good chance to start the year in the opening day rotation. In the graphic I started this post with, Nikkan Sports see him as a lock to be in the rotation, and while I'm disagreeing here to a minor degree, it just goes to show how far his stocks have risen.
A #6 pick in 2017, Yamamoto has probably shone just about the brightest out of anyone in his cohort. Alongside the likes of the highly rated Sho Ishikawa and the fireballing Hiroshi Suzuki, Yamamoto has shown steady progress as a starting pitcher and has lit up some eyes with a great arsenal of breaking pitches that dip and dive to deceive hitters. He pitched just 45.1 innings last year, but with a 2.98 ERA looked the best of many of the pitchers at times showing his potential.
I'm at a loss as to what my expectation for Yamamoto are. This will be his 3rd year with the Dragons and as a professional ball-player. He's not a tall guy which does make you think he won't have extended success but his fighting mentality, perhaps the best of his class in that regard, will pull him through where other pitchers falter. I'm a big fan of his moxy and I'd say he's a very good chance to start in the rotation this year.
5. Yuichiro Okano - 25 y/o, RHP
Okano is a brand new acquisition and has just about shown that's he's good enough to be in the rotation for the opening 6 games. Okano has been steady in his outing in spring training and in practice games so I would honestly be suprised at this point if he didn't have a starting job come the beginning of the season.
His scout report and results so far, suggest a steady pitcher who is going to eat innings for few runs. He doesn't have lightning stuff nor an awe-inspiring heater but has very good rhythm on the mound and is able to turn it on when he has to.
I'm a fan of Okano and even if he doesn't start straight away, we'll definitely be seeing something of him this year even if it's out the bullpen. So far however, I think he starts.
6, Kazuki Yoshimi, 36 y/o, RHP
I'm not a huge fan of Yoshimi anymore, but as a #6 or so in this rotation I could just about stomach him. He's not been great the past couple of years and is far removed from his best. However, in terms of a mix of experience and ability, he's probably the next best candidate after Ono.
Time and TJ surgery have not been kind to Yoshimi. It looked like we might see some level of the heights he achieved early in his career when he came back from surgery and posted a 3.08 ERA over 131.1 innings in 2016. It has however only gone from bad to worst for the once heralded ace of the rotation as he posted a 6.41 ERA in 2019 in only 19.2 innings. From 2017, Yoshimi has been nothing but replacement level with a 0.2 WAR in 3 years.
Yoshimi, may have had a 6.41 ERA, but here's the light in the dark, he had a 2.22 FIP. While the sample is small, that's a very marked difference. Maybe the Dragons will bet on those peripherals, but one thing is for sure, time is running out for a comeback with so many young arms now chomping at the bit.
7. Kodai Umetsu, 23 y/o, RHP
The man that only managed 1-win his entire competitive college career already
has 4 in his first season of professional baseball. Umetsu had his injury worries to start his rookie year, but he made a storming end to the season. If you're going to bet on potential, Umetsu has to be in your starting day rotation.
Umetsu has only made a handful of appearances with the top team in this extended spring training, but has looked just about good enough. He let up 3 runs against the Carp which led to him training with the second team for a while, but his comeback performance in a recent practice game was solid enough to make his cause look tenable.
Umetsu has an aura of great potential and should he he stake his claim and stay in the rotation in 2020, could be a big contender for rookie of the year honors. It's just a matter of how he bounces back after his first taste of professional ball.
8. Koji Fukutani, 29 y/o, RHP
Koji Fukutani is the fireball closer that wasn't. "The Professor" as he's often called
due to his academic approach to the game, has tried to reinvent himself as a starter the last 18 months or so. One promising start last year was all we saw before he went down with injury.
Oftentimes a bit too cerebral, Fukutani gradually fell down the pecking order as a reliever. He was an All-Star in 2014, closer in 2015 and in more recent years has been a low-leverage reliever. Starting seems like it might remove a bit of the mental element of clutch situation that Fukutani seems to have struggled with and quite honestly, I like what I saw in his start last year where he threw 6Ks in 6 innings against the Carp.
Fukutani has had some innings in pre-season as well. Against Orix on the 10th of March, he struck out 6 batters in 4 innings unfortunately for 3 earned runs. The ability to strikeout guys is there and if we don't see him on starting day, we'll definitely see him make some spot starts throughout the year.
9. Shotaro Kasahara, 25 y/o, LHP
Last year's opening day starter appears to have fallen off the grid. Injuries and concerns over a heart arrhythmia limited his time last year but there hasn't been much of him seen on the first team squad this pre-season either. He has spend most of his time tuning up on the farm, but the fact that he's a lefty and has a track record makes me think he's an outside chance for the starting day roster.
Aforementioned illnesses prevented Kasahara from building on his breakout in 2018, but tuning up on the farm, it has been said that his fourseam is getting back to normal which means his change-up will have a bit more life as well. I don't think we can read too much into last year given his health issues, but we can hope he will turn it around again this year.
Given the first-team haven't given Kasahara a chance this pre-season make me think that he's a little further away from the starting day than any of the others listed here. However, that extra few weeks of preparation might make him jump ahead in the pecking order. Who knows?
In the end who will be in the rotation and who I want to be in the rotation will probably differ. Here are my two predictions:
What the Dragons do: Ono, Yanagi, Ogasawara, Yoshimi, Yamamoto, Umetsu
What I'd prefer: Ono, Yanagi, Ogasawara, Umetsu, Okano, Yamamoto
I think with Yoshimi in the rotation, you're betting on his floor being better than a younger player. I personally think Okano will give equal if not better value in the rotation. Unless you want to hold on him as a wild card for when Yoshimi eventually does burn out his usefulness. Having a pitcher up your sleeve that hasn't been seen by the rest of the league too much, could be quite useful down the stretch. I would also definitely bet on Umetsu. I think the potential is huge and he could be a future ace for the team. Yamamoto I'm not as high on as others, but he has earned his spot, the others speak for themselves.
From what I can see, even without Romero, this team has a lot of depth to pull on but I do worry about the floor. If Yanagi or Ono go down, it's a very average rotation with a low floor and high ceiling. Ogasawara would be the most proven then and I wouldn't want to rely on him anchoring the rotation at this point in his career.
Starting day looks to be just a month away now and hopefully we'll see some top quality baseball to come. Look out for some more posts in the future about some of the other position battles as well as a prediction for the season ahead.