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Monday, December 4, 2023

It's Sho Time! Nakata, Uebayashi, Nakajima and more sign-on.

The Dragons have signed up five new veterans to support the team, including the relatively high profile signings of Sho Nakata, Hiroyuki Nakajima and Seiji Uebayashi. The team have also signed former Tigers' duo, infielder Yasuhiro Yamamoto and utility Yutaro Itayama. 

Sho Nakata is one of the highest profile signings the Dragons have made in over a decade and one of the highest salaries ever dolled out to a free agent at 2-years, ¥600M. Nakata had opted out from his 3-year deal with the Giants following news that Hayato Sakamoto would be moving to third, with Kazuma Okamoto taking over at first-base.

While Nakata is expected to be officially revealed in the coming days, the Dragons have already unveiled the signings of Nakajima, Uebayashi, Yamamoto and Itayama who had all been released from their respective teams this off-season.

So, lets break down the names a little more. The biggest name here of course is, Sho Nakata. Nakata made his name with the Nippon Ham Fighters capturing the RBI title on two occasions and otherwise being an unmovable mainstay at #4 in the Hokkaido line-up. A 10-time All-Star, Nakata was a coveted prospect playing for Osaka Toin High School courting offers from MLB teams before being selected by the Fighters in the first round of the 2007 draft. Nakata's best season came in 2015 where he hit a slash line of .264/.339/.479 with 30 homers. He has however otherwise had five 100+ RBI seasons, the most recent of which was in 2020. Nakata however has not been without controversy. His assault of a team-mate in 2021 led to him being reprimanded by the Fighters and eventually traded to the Yomiuri Giants. This along with his general hard-headedness has led to some skepticism of how far his ego can be reeled in, but the pop in the bat is still there. In 92 games this season he hit 15 homers for the Giants while in 2022 he popped 24 with a .833 OPS. 

Nakata's addition is one that will see Dayan Viciedo relegated to a bench role for the first-time in his Dragons tenure. The effects of the Vantelin Dome are yet to be seen, but Nakata is one of three players the Dragons have picked up in this batch that has a number of individual and team titles next to his name. Tatsunami highly rates his situational hitting ability and it's highly likely Nakata will slot-in at #4 in the Dragons line-up straight away. Much has been made of the personal relationship between Nakata and Tatsunami with the former coaching the latter in the 2013 WBC. Some concerns have been raised over a potential clash of egos in the future, but some team success will likely put these concerns to bed. The deal which the Dragons bring Nakata in on is the 10th highest yearly salary ever paid to a Dragons player, while it seems like the largest ever salary offered to a free-agent beating out Kazuhiro Wada's ¥280M per year deal signed in 2007. Nakata's signing heavily challenges the ongoing narrative of a team that didn't have the money to challenge in free agency, but....here we are. It's only a 2-year deal, so the commitment is on the short-side meaning if it does all go belly up, the Dragons won't be locked in for a lengthy period. The only major concern, is that Nakata, while having immense pedigree, is heading into his age-35 season. How much can we actually expect from an aging veteran who, seems to have had a not great year by his standards in 2023? One projection I have seen from the fan community for Nakata would be for a .260 season at about .770 OPS and 15 homers. Is that better than what you'd expect from Viciedo? Either way, it will be a major boon for the team. Future team-mates are already chittering away at the prospect with the most memorable quote being from Hideaki Wakui who now says "at least I won't have to pay as much for food now" (Veteran players often treat younger players to meals).

Hiroyuki Nakajima is one of the other bigger names here. He was the Lions star short-stop after Hideo Matsui left for the MLB. A right-handed hitter, Nakajima had a strong career particularly through 2008-2010 where he had multiple 20+ homer seasons and league leading OBP. He moved to the majors as an international free agent in 2013 with the Oakland As but never appeared in the MLB as he struggled with injury and adapting to the new environment. He came back to Japan with the Orix Buffloes in 2015, and had some tidy years as their third/first baseman. He became a free agent in 2018 where he has since played with the Giants. Again, two 750+ OPS seasons and a regular at first-base until the addition of Sho Nakata, Nakajima showed his veteranness and pedigree. Now at 41 years old, it's unlikely he has a whole lot more to offer, but the Dragons apparently see him as a pinch-hitting option off the bench. Baseball pundits often talk about the benefit of having veterans that have a winning attitude, and I think Nakajima fits this mould. He contributed to 3 Pacific League pennants and 2 Japan Series victories with the Lions as well as the 2009 WBC. 

I previously outlined first-base as an area of weakness for the Dragons particularly with Nobumasa Fukuda retiring. Adding Nakajima probably fills this hole. I wouldn't expect a lot from a 41-year old veteran, but his presence may be important to helping younger players and largely pulling the team along. His unfortunate yet valuable experience in the US might also be of help to some of the players on the Dragons too. It however puts question marks over Dayan Viciedo's role, but it does give the team options if they want to throw out someone different for a few games here and there. 

Seiji Uebayashi is the one I'm probably the most excited about apart from Nakata. The Dragons have been crying out for a left-handed bat with punch in the outfield corners, and Uebayashi could certainly help in that regard. This will be a popular signing among the Dragons faithful as many have been calling for signing him in some way or another for the best part of the last five years. At only 28 years-old, Uebayashi is in his prime. Had it not been for unfortunate luck with injuries, and playing for the Hawks juggernaut, he would probably still have a job, but lucky for the Dragons he will come help the team in Nagoya. An All-Star in 2017, Uebayashi's best came in that year and 2018 where he was the starting right-fielder for the Hawks and largely hit in the middle of the order. 13 homers with a .736 OPS in 2017 coupled with a follow-up season of 22 homers at an .803 OPS. His ceiling is that of a middle-order hitter who can slug some homers and get on base. He only played in 33 games last year with Softbank, but it was a respectable record as he hit .303 with a .745 OPS. If he can continue an upward trajectory based on this, then that could be a dark horse for the Dragons to the point where he could breakthrough to challenge Hosokawa for his spot in right-field, or potentially force him to first-base or left. Uebayashi's other weapon is his defence. A rocket arm from right-field, he was the NPB's best right-fielder in UZR between 2017-2018. The biggest issue however is injuries. At the start of the 2019 season, he received a dead ball to the hand which derailed his season. Poor form forced him out of contention in the following two seasons, while in 2022 he ruptured his achilles tendon despite making somewhat of a comeback. In 2023, he made a come-back as a bench player, but it was decided by the Hawks that he wasn't needed. 

Again, the veteranness here I think counts. Uebayashi has been part of a winning organisation for his entire career and contributed significantly to their Japan Series wins in 2017 and 2018 while playing parts of other winning seasons. Among these players listed here, Uebayashi has by far the highest upside. If he gets back to some semblance of his former self, he could have a starting job in the outfield which potentially shifts Hosokawa to another position like left-field or first-base which is likely more suited to his defensive capabilities. It could however end after one year with him getting injured or just being poor. It is however an absolute no-brainer to sign a 28-year old former All-Star with the hopes of squeezing something out of them. It's also an area of team-need that hasn't been addressed for some time which increases the team's options particularly with Yohei Oshima dropping off. 

Yamamoto and Itayama I don't think need as much time to look at. Both are tidy pick-ups that potentially fulfill team needs of depth. Yamamoto is a utility infielder that can play across the diamond, while Itayama can play the outfield as well some infield positions. Yamamoto started out with the Giants, after which he moved to the Tigers for cash in 2020. Overall I would expect Yamamoto to provide depth at third, first and second. A good bench option that probably won't need to take reps from players on the farm. Given Calixte's similar utility I'm not sure overall how Tatsunami is seeing the middle-infield shape-up, but Yamamoto at least adds some flexibility. Simply, you could see him as a one-for-one replacement of Naomichi Donoue. Itayama similarly can play the outfield and probably second/first base, but unlike Yamamoto, Itayama will reportedly be signing a development contract. Assuming the signing goes through, it is likely that Yamamoto will become the first ever player to play for the Giants, Tigers and Dragons. He's also gone in reverse order of population centres as well which is a tidy little fact I can appreciate.

The top-5 of the Dragons could be potentially very good this year. A combination of Okabayashi, Oshima/Uebayashi, Hosokawa, Nakata and Ishikawa is on paper, a very tidy line-up. However, I would caution that the spectrum of possibility is incredibly wide. Okabayashi is the only one here I would say doesn't have large concerns regarding injury or regression. Oshima is 38 and had one of his worst years in 2023, Hosokawa is all but a rookie and I'm not sure how much we can rely on him reproducing his form, Nakata is 35 and could fall-off while Ishikawa too is no certain thing. If however, they all click, then you've got an above-average offense to complement an NPB leading pitching staff. That should be all the Dragons need to have an A-Class season. 

What I think these signings show however, is an organisational desire for Tatsunami to succeed. He has the backing of the front office in a way that hasn't been seen since Hiromitsu Ochiai, and that was only after he won them success on the field. Successive managers like Motonobu Tanishige, Shigekazu Mori and Tsuyoshi Yoda were not given this level of support to make personnel changes. Faith in your manager seems to be a major difference here. Tatsunami is receiving almost unprecedented levels of support. If however it still fails after all this, well, all you can say is that he wasn't up to the job. What is will say however, that the amount of players moves that have been done while Tatsunami has been in charge have been impressive and for the most part, the players that have been brought in, have had an impact. To project a line-up for the 2024 opening day we could likely see Okabayashi, Muramatsu, Hosokawa, Nakata, Ishikawa, Uebayashi, Kinoshita, Tanaka, Ogasawara. Compare that to the 2021 opening day line-up of Oshima, Abe, S. Takahashi, Viciedo, Hirata, Kyoda, Kinoshita, Neo, Fukutani. It looks likely that Kinoshita will be the only player considered a first name on the team-sheet guy with 3 of those players no longer with the organisation at all. 

A revolution is still going on. Changes could still be on the cards however as the active player draft is on the horizon and the Dragons could choose to wheel and deal some trades with their pitching depth for the right pieces. 

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