The NPB has been in spring training since January, if you've kept up, and we're just about half-way through the Open-sen pre-season match-ups. The development league is also up and running meaning we have a bit more of a sense where players are at, who is impressing and who isn't plus what the teams might look like in the lead-up to opening day.
The first big news however, is that new signings Mike Gerber and Randy Rosario are still unable to enter Japan due to the extended state of emergency. When they can join up with the team is yet to be seen but it will likely be around the time the seasons starts which makes it tricky for them to be up to speed from day one. During the 2-week quarantine period, Giants' manager Tatsunori Hara has suggested an import player camp at some of the Tokyo Dome facilities so all players that were unable to enter Japan in a timely fashion can at least work out together during the mandatory removal from general society. Gerber's absence in particular is a challenge the team have to work around and this is something I will get into during this article.
In this preview, I hope to give my thoughts on the rotation, line-up, possible breakouts and my predictions for the 2021 Central League.
First of all, let's take a look at the likely starting rotation:
Koji Fukutani has already been given the all-clear to start the season opener in Hiroshima on the 26th of March. Fukutani is the 4th pitcher in 4 years to be tapped for opening day pitching honours. Why not Ono? The official reason is that Yoda was concerned about his conditioning of his Sawamura award winning ace and wanted to delay his start to the season by as much as possible. Ono looks slated to start the home opener against the Giants at Vantelin Dome Nagoya on the 30th.
So, now that we know two of the main pieces of the rotation who are the others?
1. Yuya Yanagi - RHP
Yanagi is all but assured a spot in the rotation. He has been relatively consistent over the past few seasons and in camp has even seen an uptick in velocity. After training with Eagles front-of the-rotation starter, Hideaki Wakui in the off-season, Yanagi has also polished a sinker he hopes to use. With an excellent infield defence behind him, it seems like a good pitch to add. Yanagi will be looking to have a healthier year this year and build on his 11 win 2019 season.
2. Shinnosuke Ogasawara - LHP
Ogasawara missed a lot of time with injury again last year but he is another of the more experienced options for the opening day rotation (feels strange to say about a 23 year old) His most recent outing on the top team against Lotte was slightly discouraging however as he only struck-out one batter over 5 innings for 2 earned runs. Last year, getting Ks was an issue in his limited outings so I'm a bit concerned about what kind of a season he's going to have. Coming out of high school, he was a strikeout pitcher, but I'm worried that injuries have really stunted his growth. Still, despite all of this, he's still a good chance to make the starting rotation.
3. Takahiro Matsuba - LHP
Matsuba solidified a rotation spot for largely the second half of 2020. Slow and steady, the former Buffaloes southpaw had a 3-7 record and a 4.05 ERA last year over 15 starts which is just about a pass for a 5th or 6th starter. Another experienced campaigner, I'd say a job in the rotation is his to lose and only a disastrous start in the open-sen games would cost him a place.
4. Tatsuya Shimizu - RHP
The 21 year-old, Shimizu has largely been in a positive light during camp and alongside Takumi Yamamoto, would be the most likely of the younger pitchers to make the rotation. Shimizu has steadily grown over the years since been drafted in 2017. On 9 March, Shimizu pitched 6 innings on the farm against the Carp for only one earned run. Shimizu otherwise impressed in 2 innings in his only Open-sen appearance of the first team against the Hawks where he struck-out 3 of the 7 batters he faced.
There are a number of other could-be starters out there like Kodai Umetsu that could still make the rotation while Akiyoshi Katsuno and Shotaro Kasahara have probably played themselves out of contention with some fairly unimpressive performances in pre-season. Yariel Rodriguez is the other starter you'd want in the starting rotation, but due to his delayed entry to Japan he'll probably be a few weeks and a couple of farm starts away from the first team.
As for my guess I'd suggest we'll see: Fukutani, Yanagi and Ogasawara in Hiroshima with Ono, Matsuba and Shimizu appearing in Nagoya if all things stay the same over the next couple of week (March 23rd Update: It looks now as though the rotation will feature Akiyoshi Katsuno and not Tatsuya Shimizu as I had predicted)
If you had asked me last year where the team's pitching strength lied, I would have said it was pretty balanced but now I certainly think it's the bullpen that will carry the team through the bad as variety of depth options have developed alongside the established crew of Daisuke Sobue, Hiroto Fuku and Raidel Martinez. Hiroshi Suzuki and Yusuke Kinoshita look to have re-emerged, while Yuki Hashimoto, Kento Fujishima and Katsuki Matayoshi have put in good work so far this year.
Next-up, the line-up and this is where I come back to the inclusion, or lack thereof, of Mike Gerber. The Dragons have plugged left-field with an import outfielder for the best part of the last 6 years with Zoilo Almonte and Ricardo Nanita before him. Nobumasa Fukuda saw some time out there last year, but the veteran does tend to be a bit erratic form-wise. How the left-field position in particular will turn our is quite a debate with fierce competition continuing. The other positions still under some doubt are second-base and right-field.
With the loss of Almonte and the so-so-ness of Nobumasa Fukuda, left field has some question marks. Kosuke Fukudome has been brought in while Mike Gerber awaits for deployment in the USA. Most would have though that Gerber would have slot into left, but his absence has made calculations a bit tricky. Yoda has been running the rule over younger players here so far. Who ends up in left on opening day is yet to be seen.
Akira Neo has been getting the most opportunities in left. While starting well, particularly in Okinawa, Neo currently has a .130 average over 23 plate appearances for a disgusting .330 OPS. Defensively, Neo is probably as a good an option as anyone with a very strong arm and decent mobility, but his hitting tool still remains and issue. My only thought is that Yoda knows what his veterans offer, and is doing his best to give young players plate appearances against NPB quality pitching to see where they're at and give the players themselves something to think about and aim for if and when they do get sent down. Kaname Takino is another that has been given some time in left as well as first-base, while Yuki Okabayashi has also seen some time in the outfield.
Given everything that has happened with the young players, it would not surprise me to see Kosuke Fukudome, who has been getting on base like a monster on the farm, or Nobumasa Fukuda who would add some pop, on the top team come opening day. Neo I feel needs to put together some stronger performances on the farm, while Okabayashi and Miyoshi as well may benefit from playing a bit more often against lesser opponents to develop other areas of their game.
Come opening day, I'd like to see Kosuke Fukudome out there, but that does draw concerns over how effectively he and Oshima could cover the centre-left area of outfield, but I'd rather have a bat. The lack of a Zoilo Almonte has made it a little dire in searching for a XBH getter in left. Ironically, had the Dragons re-signed Almonte instead of going after Gerber, he'd be in camp right now.
Funnily enough, we may have a situation where someone like Takino has the starting day job, while Fukudome and Fukuda wait in the wings to take over should he struggle or not perform to expectation.
Toshiki Abe has been the incumbent the last two seasons, and while I would be surprised to see someone else fielding there come opening day, Abe hasn't been covering himself in glory with the bat this pre-season. In 26 plate appearances, Abe averages .111 with a .435 OPS which is Neo levels of bad. The main thing Abe has on his side, is his experience and perhaps the lack of a true competitor for his spot. The latter is probably the most true. When Abe broke out, Naomichi Donoue was also having a lightning pre-season with the bat and it was Abe's consistency that eventually cemented him in the line-up. Who is there behind him? Wataru Takamatsu, who is largely untested at this level and has more to go to develop his hitting tool but possibly has the most potential out of the options, whilst Taiki Mitsumata, the utility infielder, has been putting up impressive OBP numbers this Spring.
Abe is the best option when he has form. He can hit for moderate power and otherwise puts up .700 OPS numbers with good defense. I'd be interested to see how long the team will stick with him if he keeps up his poor form with the bat and who will come in to replace him. I'd like to see Masami Ishigaki get a chance. While perhaps not the most nimble short-stop, I think he'd be alright at second. If we start seeing him getting reps there on the farm this year, then I'd say that's a warning shot to Abe.
Ryosuke Hirata's health has been an issue that has plagued his career. After an impressive 2018, Hirata has been in an out of the team with various niggles. Management decided to run the rule over him from day 1 this year in Chatan despite him normally doing his own thing with the other veterans with the farm squad at Yomitan. So far, he's looked okay when he's played and I'd dare say he'll be there on opening day. I mean, what other options are there? Masataka Iryo had some time in right last season while newcomer, Hironori Miyoshi could be an outside chance for the right-corner as well if he can show some life with his bat.
The 3-run dinger against the Swallows in the game just past will give fans and management alike a bit more confidence about Hirata. Personally, I thought it was an announcement of his quality when he sent Okugawa over the fences.
So how does the line-up actually look like it's going to shape-up? Given the minor changes and tweaks that Yoda has done to the line-up I hope we see this:
1. CF Yohei Oshima
2. 2B Toshiki Abe
3. 3B Shuhei Takahashi
4. 1B Dayan Viciedo
5. LF Kosuke Fukudome
6. RF Ryosuke Hirata
7. SS Yota Kyoda
8. C Takuya Kinoshita
This is pretty closely based off a recent line-up against the Swallows and I'm keen to see Abe at #2. Otherwise I'd be happy to see him interchange with Hirata to keep that attacking look. However all being said and done, I'd prefer to see Kyoda at the top of the order as I feel he doesn't receive the responsibility he thrives in the 7th spot in the line-up. In an ideal world this is what I'd want to see:
1. SS Yota Kyoda
2. CF Yohei Oshima
3. RF Ryosuke Hirata
4. 1B Dayan Viciedo
5. 3B Shuhei Takahashi
6. LF Kosuke Fukudome
7. 2B Toshiki Abe
8. C Takuya Kinoshita
I think in my line-up, you have 2 LHB then 2RHB being mixed up while Kyoda gets the chance to show how good he can be at lead-off given that's where he succeeded in his rookie year. With Oshima at second, you have someone that can get on base if Kyoda can't, or advance Kyoda with a hit or walk. It boggles my mind that this hasn't happened in the line-up more often as I feel it makes the most sense. Only some for of veteran hierachy should be preventing this unless Oshima hates doing anything but lead-off. I'd prefer to swap Hirata and Shuhei, but 3 LHB in a row seems risky to me unless you're up against a RHP starter, so you could switch it up there. Otherwise, I think this is a pretty strong line-up that plays to the strengths of many of the players.
So, moving on I'd like to highlight just a few names that I've already mentioned above as highlights for those to be a little bit hyped for this year.
1. Hiroshi Suzuki - RHP
The 2017 first round pick had an interesting start to his career. Topping out at 157km/h, the flamethrower was known for not so great control but a great cutter and closer like peripherals. Unfortunately, the first bit was the hard part. Suzuki was actually the team's closer form starting day in 2019, but his penchant for putting runners on base before actually getting outs, eventually got him undone. Since converting to a side-arm slot last year, Suzuki seems to have found his control being more or less lights out in pre-season. The velocity has suffered a drop due to the change in his pitching style, but still being able to locate in the mid-140s has the potential to be a good set-upper. So far so good for Suzuki. It would take a massive blow-up or an injury to keep him out of the first team now.
2. Taiki Mitsumata - IF
Mitsumata saw a bit more time than usual last year as a utility infielder. Solid defense on the farm looked to be the key to getting some call-ups but it has been his hit tool that has kept him out of the first team for any extended period of time. This pre-season however, Mitusmata has been getting on base with alarming frequency developing an eye for the zone and taking many a stroll to first base with 8 walks and 3 hits in 9 plate appearances in live games this year. As mentioned before, it would still take something to dislodge Abe from second, but if Mitsumata keeps this up, the pressure will be on.
3. Ren Kondo - LHP
Kondo was the first round pick in the development draft last year and he has absolutely hit the ground running. He is currently on a 6-game no earned run streak in the development league averaging one strikeout per inning and a 0.67 WHIP. Topping out at 145 km/h so far, Kondo could quite quickly find himself with a fully rostered deal, particularly if Randy Rosario doesn't make camp any time soon.
So with all the above in mind, what does the season look like? As I've mentioned on Twitter (@dragonsoulblog), a lot of things are going to have to go right for the Dragons. Lucky for them, there's about 3 other teams in the same boat. The Carp and Swallows could be good if the right pieces move at the right time, and this is true for the Dragons as well. The Tigers and Giants look the most imposing teams so far but one key thing is that neither team have their new imports to bolster their stocks in the opening rounds of the season (Justin Smoak and Eric Thames for the Giants, Raul Alcantara and Mel Rojas Jr for the Tigers). The Giants in particular have gone after some high pedigree players but are still going to be the team to beat. They've kept Tomoyuki Sugano and still have a number of MVP contenders across the diamond like Kazuma Okamoto and Hayato Sakamoto. The Tigers similarly have Jerry Sands, Teruaki Sato (who has blasted 5 homeruns in pre-season thus far) Yusuke Oyama and Jefry Marte that can bolster the power numbers so the loss of Rojas Jr. is perhaps not as large as one would think.
The Tigers and Giants overall look a lot deeper than anyone else in the league. There's a number of players good enough to fight for positions on the top team whereas I feel this is a weakness of the Dragons organisation where, as I mentioned previously, there aren't a whole lot of guys that could just slot in to the outfield or at second-base for example. Third-base and catcher seem to the main areas of depth with Takahashi, Ishigaki and Ishikawa all ready to give it a real go in the hot corner, while catcher features Takuya Kinoshita, Yuya Gunji, Ariel Martinez and hot prospect, Kota Ishibashi. Pitching has depth which is good, but the field is the main issue. Depth is thin in other areas whereas I feel the Tigers and Giants cover these areas a lot better.
The Carp and Swallows are the other team I feel that are in that inbetweeny place where a good streak and some young players stepping up could make or break their season. The Carp still have a good core of Ryosuke Kikuchi, Seiya Suzuki and Ryoma Nishikawa with ace calibre pitching in Daiichi Osera and Yusuke Nomura. The potential is there to make something, but it will depend on whether Kikuchi hits, whether Osera pitches well and what some other players, like Kevin Cron, do to push the team along. The Swallows similarly have some solid building blocks with a nice young bullpen coming together. Starting pitching is still an issue, but at least they held on to Yasuhiro Ogawa after he declared FA status and ended up staying so the floor of the rotation hasn't been completely ripped out. On the field, how guys like Naomichi Nishiura, Yasutaka Shiomi fare and grow as well as how veterans Seiichi Uchikawa and Nori Aoki contribute will likely decide their season. Yakult also suffer from having a number of new signings waiting on the outside with Cy Sneed, Jose Osuna and Domingo Santana very possibly providing significant impact.
The only team I see fairly solidly propping up the bottom of the table is the all promise and no substance Baystars. Every one of their imports is waiting for approval to enter Japan while the team has so many issues with injury, it's really hard to see them doing anything of substance. I would also hazard a guess that getting used to new manager, Daisuke Miura will take some time as I dare say his approach will be quite different than previous manager, Alex Ramirez. Not having Neftali Soto and Tyler Austin to start the season is going to hurt.
So, as for predictions, I want to say the Dragons will be third, and that will be my overall choice. I see the season ending like so:
1. Hanshin Tigers
2. Yomiuri Giants
3. Chunichi Dragons
4. Hiroshima Carp
5. Yakult Swallows
6. Yokohama DeNA Baystars
Whether or not the Tigers will actually beat out the Giants is yet to be seen, but I want them to and if it can't be us, I'd rather it be them. Old friend, Wei-Yin Chen is in the starting rotation and...well...they're not the Giants and have the next best shot.
This is a make or break year for Tsuyoshi Yoda and his backroom team. Another A-Class season, and Yoda will get some more time to improve his legacy. If it's a B-Class season, then I think the team will use it as an opportunity to finally give Kazuyoshi Tatsunami his dream job and possibly a dream team of backroom staffers with him. This is year 3 of Yoda's 3-year contract, so either way, I think we'll see some changes next year. I'm happy with how things have travelled with Yoda. I can see what he's trying to do to get younger players experience and that is such a breath of fresh air that we didn't see a lot under Tanishige and Mori.
Whatever the outcome, I'm looking forward to all the stories to come out of the new season. Real baseball will be back soon!