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Tuesday, June 15, 2021

TRADE NEWS: Catcher Takuma Kato goes to the Marines, Outfielder Shohei Kato comes to the Dragons

 

With the end of the interleague, where the Dragons performed admirably to finish 4th overall, there has been quite a bit of movement on the the trade wire. The Dragons have jumped in on the action this time as well to bring 30 year-old outfielder Shohei Kato to Nagoya for  29 year-old catcher, Takuma "the Bazooka" Kato. A Kato for Kato trade. On the surface this appears to be another of those very even, low key trades that ever so often happen in Japanese baseball. So, without further ado, I would like to go into some of the key facets of this trade. One must keep in mind that this is not the kind of blockbuster, season changing trade that fans had hoped for and we shouldn't expect either player to revolutionise the way the teams play overnight

1. Both teams trade from an area of strength for an area of weakness

The Dragons have quite a wealth of catching talent. Takuya Kinoshita is the established presence behind the mask while Iori Katsura has proven to be an adequate back-up. Sprinkle in the other 5 catchers the Dragons have and the team have plenty to choose from. In recent history the team usually hold onto 7 catchers, so with Ayatsugu Yamashita's promotion to a full-time deal, this took the number to 8. Trading Kato, who hasn't really kicked on despite more or less being given the first-team job in 2019, makes sense for the Dragons who have quite a lot of depth in this area. Kato's lack of development but still impressive arm made him a good chip for a trade deal. 

On the Marines side, the team has a glut of good options in the outfield. This includes homerun leader Leonys Martin, Takashi Ogino, Katsuya Kakunaka, Kyota Fujiwara, Shuhei Fukuda and a host of others. Shohei Kato, despite his proclivity on the farm, didn't have a spot with the top team. Younger players had started to overtake him in the pecking order and other players of similar age were simply better established. 

On the other side, the Dragons lack of outfield options has been well publicized. Outside of Yohei Oshima, no outfielder has really covered been much better than replacement level. Similarly with the Marines, no catcher has really established themselves in the top team and those that have tried have been abysmal at hitting and throwing out runners. Takuma gives the Marines a boost behind the plate while Shohei could just about find a spot on the Dragons 1-gun bench from day one given how ordinary other options have been. 

2.  What kind of player is Shohei Kato? What can we expect?

Shohei Kato is a fleet-footed, switch-hitter with good defensive ability. For the Marines he has mostly played in either centre or right-field. For the Dragons, I would expect him to battle for the right-field position in the current team environment. 

Over the course of his career, Kato has never hit above a .700 OPS with the Marines top team and his career WAR over 8 seasons is about 1.3 including two 0.5 seasons. On the farm however is a much different story.  In the Eastern League this year, Kato has a .369/.586/.444 clip over 34 games including 4 homers. That's good reading. In 2020, Kato put up similar digits with a slash of .345/.460/.409 in 50 games while 2019 was a less impressive .275/.431/.319 in 31 games. Without getting into too much depth with statistical analysis in 2021 and 2020, Kato has been hitting the way you'd hope for a guy that wants to breakthrough to the first team. 

With farm statistics, we have to be careful as the Eastern League in particular has traditionally more hitter friendly parks than the Western League where the Dragons are based. Still, a 1.030 OPS is nothing to scoff at in either case.

What we can expect, is hopefully a solid contributor who, in another year, would probably be a 4th or 5th oufielder type for the team. If we think of the role that Atsushi Fujii has filled prior to 2019 I think we'd be getting close to understanding what we can expect from Kato. 

3. What does this do to the roster?

Not a whole lot right now. It bolsters outfield options, of which the Dragons have quite a few, albeit not great ones. However what it does do is make the futures of Shota Ono and Ariel Martinez quite interesting. Ono is aging and into the last year of his deal that originally brought him to the Dragons. Martinez meanwhile is having a hard time with injury and getting play time at his preferred position with a logjam of talented catchers in the Dragons system. Will either of them stay beyond 2021? This is a question the team will need to address. If Ariel decides to leave and Ono retires for example, suddenly the team need two more catchers to fill-in. This then may inform who they draft in 2021 as well. This makes calculations slightly tricky going forward but I guess it's a welcome issue. 

On the outfield side of things, Shohei Kato becomes outfielder #14. That's a lot of outfielders that all want game time. If you count Akira Neo, that's 15 guys that play in the outfield. Each of them have their own skills that they bring to the table, but the addition of Shohei probably endangers the likes of Issei Endo, Masataka Iryo and Masaru Watanabe who all play in that centre-right field role. Atsushi Fujii is quite likely to retire at the end of the year, while the team will probably want to re-shuffle it's options and pick-up one or two oufielders in the draft. This would mean that Endo and Watanabe are probaby in a little bit of danger. Watanabe is quite well rated but he hasn't performed up to expectation while Endo isn't doing enough in a situation where outfield spots are literally up for grabs.

Kato's addition gives some headaches going forward, but they're not necessarily unpleasant ones.

4. The Verdict

This is very balanced trade. The Dragons essentially get an outfielder that could potentially start on Thursday night. Kosuke Fukudome can't start everyday, Nobumasa Fukuda has been a bit iffy, Akira Neo probably needs time on the farm and others like Kaname Takino and Kengo Takeda haven't really shown a decent enough ability to hit. Kato gives a semi-reliable option in the outfield mix and allows players like Hironori Miyoshi, Kosuke Ito and Yuki Okabayashi time to mature on the farm. 

My initial knee jerk reaction to this trade was, what does Kato give us that Kengo Takeda doesn't? Takeda was brought in through a trade with Orix in 2019 where the Dragons sent Masato Matsui and Yusuke Matsui for Takeda and Takahiro Matsuba. Given time to reflect, Kato certainly seems a step above Takeda. Looking at farm statistics alone, Takeda's 2018 and 2019 (prior to the trade) were not particularly good hitting wise. Also, Takeda does not have the same kind of pace on the base-paths that Kato does either. Takeda's splits in the Western league were .282/.373/.325 (2018) and .216/.245/.273 (2017). While Takeda had a decent time with the Orix top team in 2017, his farm statistics don't inspire a high-ceiling narrative that Kato does. 

Overall, personally am a lot more optimistic about this trade than I was initially however, one should not think this will solve the Dragons hitting woes overnight. Kato is not a power-hitter and has not replicated his farm form with the Marines top team. I initially soured on the idea of the trade given that the media suggested that it would "improve the Dragons ability to get runs" which annoyed me. Looking at Kato's peripherals don't suggest a player that will regular get extra base hits. However, the closer I look now I see how Kato's role could develop over time with the team and how he fits in this year. 

A very Japanese trade it is and hopefully one that will be succesful for both sides.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Dragons slow out of the blocks; 2 scoreless draws a historic first

If you've been watching the Dragons this season you have probably come to one conclusion. The hitting is dire, homeruns are as hard to come by as sober salarymen in Shimbashi on a weeknight, and the pitching is just about the only thing that's been pretty good this year. This has all culminated in the second scoreless draw of the season for the team since the introduction of the 2-league system. A good pitching team keeping the other side out, but a poor hitting team ensuring that a win is out of grasp.

Much has to be said for the Dragons line-up. Apart from Yohei Oshima and Dayan Viciedo, the line-up has been quite slow to take-off and put runs on the board. Perhaps the most alarming part of this is the fact that slugging is just about the worst in the NPB and the team have only hit 2 homeruns in 17 games. Compare this with the high flying Tigers, who hit 5 homers in one game against the Giants on Tuesday, it's hard not to feel a little bit deflated about the state of the team. 

Much has been said around the fans as to where the blame lies. Some point the finger at Kazuyoshi Tatsunami who was brought in as a coaching attache during Spring, some point to Kenta Kurihara and Alonzo Powell, the first team hitting coaches. In the end though, how much weight can you really put on the coaches? I know Japanese baseball coaching tends to be a lot more in depth than what you might expect in the MLB, so perhaps this is an element of the hitters getting confused about their approach or having too much information going on in their heads to process. What I would suggest however is that coaching, while perhaps part of the issue, is not the main issue. I will essentially break this into two parts, but they are essentially interconnected. 

The Overarching Spectre of Vantelin Dome Nagoya. 

Since the dome was opened in 1997, the Dragons have had one of the biggest parks in Japanese baseball with some very high outfield walls. Seen as a "pitchers heaven" by most in the media, the Dragons have focused heavily on having strong pitching teams that can make the most of that home advantage. Many great pitchers have benefited from this arrangement and historically, the Dragons generally have had strong pitching staffs possibly because of this. However, the unfortunate part about the sheer size of the dome, is that it has made many Dragons staff, managers and front office people very scared about hitting for the fences. 

Compared to the hitting paradises that are Meiji Jingu Stadium, Yokohama and to a lesser extend Tokyo Dome and Mazda Zoom Zoom, the Dragons do have one of the toughest hitting parks. Similarly, the Tigers also suffer from having a large ballpark where hitting homers can be challenging. My concern is that because Nagoya Dome is perceived as this unconquerable behemoth, that the Dragons have specifically institutionalised a small ball style of baseball to fit into the dimensions in front of them rather than try to push further to conquer those boundaries. 

One also needs to look at the way players have developed. Shuhei Takashashi and Ryosuke Hirata in particular were billed as power hitters coming out of high school and while I understand mechanics don't always translate to the big leagues, both of these players have been developed into line-drivers that may or may not hit double digits in homers in a season. Dayan Viciedo is another that seems to have fallen into this "way of the Dragon" as his approach has changed from power-hitter to more of an average-hitter that can spray the ball around the park with average power. Viciedo has more or less hit 20 homers a season since joining the team in 2016. While he is still an excellent player and has fit extraordinarily well into life in Japan, one wonders if we could have had someone better that could hit closer to 30 homers...

In the Golden Age of the Dragons (2003-2012) the team were perceived to play a kind of creeping kind of baseball certainly bordering on what might be called small-ball. Hiromitsu Ochiai was an apt tactician that did play relatively defensively. He however was backed up by some excellent hitters who could hit 20+ homers in a season like Kosuke Fukudome, Tyrone Woods, Masahiko Morino, Nori Nakamura, Kazuhiro Wada, Alex Ochoa and Tony Blanco. This was not a toothless era for the team. You could also perhaps not blame Ochiai for playing defensively when you had the best defensive inflied pairing in modern baseball between Masahiro Araki and Hirokazu Ibata, not to mention excellent outfield defense from guys like Fukudome and Ochoa. In the end though, all these guys hit the ball with some efficiency. 

A curious observation perhaps, but the majority of the "core" players from this era were drafted under former manager Senichi Hoshino, while early 2000s manager, Hisashi Yamada also brought in key personnel like Motonobu Tanishige that formed the spine of the team for much of this golden era. Araki, Ibata, Fukudome, Morino and Kazuyoshi Tatsunami (who also played a key role in this period) were all draftees from the Hoshino regime. Since then, it appears the Dragons have been fearful of drafting "good" hitters in the top rounds of the draft, and this is showing through today. 

Dragons Don't Draft Dinger Doers

If you browse over the last decade or so of Dragons drafts, you can see only 3 position players have been drafted in the top spot. Shuhei Takahashi in 2011, Akira Neo in 2018 and Takaya Ishikawa in 2019. The team seem oddly afraid to chase after talented hitters. The 2017 draft was one where Shigekazu Mori was angling for Shosei Nakamura, a catcher who starred at Koshien, but ended up taking Hiroshi Suzuki, a reliever, as a back-up option.

Going through all drafts, barring development picks, from 2011-2020 we can see that only one position player has been selected in the second round at that was 2017 ROTY, Yota Kyoda. Aside from this, I know luck is a factor, the Dragons have only drafted 5 of what I would consider hitters with 'pop' in this time period as well (Takuya Kinoshita (2015), Masami Ishigaki (2016), Kota Ishibashi (2018), Takyaya Ishikawa, Yuya Gunji (2019)). I would say that under Yoda, the team appears to be moving to get more hitters that can slug in the draft and this is a positive sign, but the age old question of the outfield still remains a problem. 

Out of the 5 players I've just mentioned, none of them play outfield by trade. The last time the Dragons drafted an outfielder in the higher rounds was was Kei Nomoto way back in 2008. You could make the argument that a higher drafting does not a player make, but your chances of getting someone of good quality is higher with a higher pick, one would assume. A high-class corner outfielder needs to be a key acquisition for the Dragons at the 2021 draft. Yuki Okabayashi at least looks promising as a centre-fielder that could eventually take over from Yohei Oshima. The corners however look a lot more dire. Even if you bring back Gerber next year you still need to fill somewhere and personally, I don't really want a light-hitting Takino or Neo being the main guys to rely on everyday in the outfield. I'm not sure who is out there, but a college grad that can hit the long-ball should be a top-2 pick this year. If not, I'll be pulling my hair out with even more alacrity. 

The Dragons have shied away entirely from drafting big hitters instead relying on foreign players to fill in. That's perfectly fine, but when you can only jam as many as 3 import hitters in the line-up at one time, you still need a good supporting cast. The Dragons also like to have an import starter or reliever (and they have three good ones in Randy Rosario, Yariel Rodriguez and Raidel Martinez) so the importance of having that good supporting cast becomes all the more of an issue. 

Mike Gerber could well become the saviour of the team. He seems to sing the same tune as Alonzo Powell which I think could reap dividends. If you then place Gerber in the #3 slot with Oshima up the top, whoever at #2 and Viciedo and Shuhei behind then it starts to look like a much healthier looking line-up. That being said, some production from 6-8 would be nice. Someone like Hirata actually becoming some semblance of his old self would make a big difference too and we can't rely on Kosuke Fukudome to be an everyday player whatever the state of the team is.

On the Farm

Somewhat of a juxtaposition is the state of the farm team. The manager, Toru Nimura told his hitters to let fly at the beginning of the year and they did just that. Slugging on the farm hasn't appeared to be much of an issue and that's even with the absence of Takaya Ishikawa from the line-up who has been away with injury. Masami Ishigaki has been hitting well, while Yuki Okabayashi continues to show his quality. There's a lot to be positive about when you look at those that are trying to come through, but unfortunately many are either behind players that are actually not the issue on the top team (Ishigaki has mainly played third, while Okabayashi mainly and centre) or simply a bit too young to be considered for full-time roles. Kota Ishibashi is another that lit-up the farm team in pre-season leading to a call-up to the first team where he has remained as back-up catcher. He is another behind one of the better players, Takuya Kinoshita, which has led to calls of trying him out in left-field to aid the ailing line-up. 

It's unfortunate logjam. Okabayashi I feel could easily play a corner outfield role if the team wanted him there, while Ishigaki I feel also could have the positional flexibility to play across the diamond or even in left. The Dragons apparently have different plans for these younger players. 

There's still a long way to go

We are only 17 games into the season. There's many more games to play for the law of averages to even things out. Gerber could come up to the top team at any given time as the team sees fit now that he's cleared quarantine and this, hopefully, will give the team a morale boost if nothing else. The team seems flat and in the short-term a little shot in the arm from Gerber having a hot streak could be just what the doctor ordered. 

Structurally however, things need to change. In my opinion, the confines of the dome should be a challenge to hitters not a hinderance. Hitting the wall is still going to result in getting on base even if you don't clear it. You may not get 40 homers a season like you might at Jingu or in Yokohama, but that's not to say that players can't hit 25-30 with some regularity. The Dragons play half their games at home yes, but they also play half their games on the road, with all but 25 of them in relatively hitter friendly parks. Don't fear the dome. Don't think the long ball is out of reach.  If we merely look at the Tigers who have two homegrown sluggers doing damage (Yusuke Ohyama and rookie, Teruaki Sato) then there has to be some optimism about the ability of the Dragons to do the same thing. 

The pitching has been a delight to watch with both Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Yuya Yanagi seemingly stepping up a gear this year. Add into the fact that Kodai Umetsu, Yariel Rodriguez and Tatsuya Shimizu are still waiting on the farm and it's hard not be optimistic about the rotation. The bullpen similarly is solid. Randy Rosario being available only strengthens the floor of what already has a number of a reliable arms. 

If the team can start slugging with a little bit more frequency, who knows where this team ends up at the end of the year. At least it'll be above the Baystars.

As a more positive addition, please enjoy this video of Mike Gerber, Randy Rosario and Luke Wakamatsu being introduced to the media and their first training session at Vantelin Dome. 


Finally, if you didn't know, I have returned to Twitter (@dragonsoulblog) where I often live tweet about the game or tweet out any relevant news, gifs or other relevant rants about the Dragons first team. The blog will be more or less restricted to the occasional feature like this.


Friday, March 26, 2021

Opening Day Roster 2021 Announced


 

With opening day almost upon us, the Dragons and all other NPB teams have announced their opening day rosters. For the Dragons there's not a whole lot of surprises if you've been keeping an eye on the pre-season. The key players one draws their eyes to however is the bevy of young talent being given the experience to take the field during one of the most exciting weeks of a baseball season. 

Catchers

Takuya Kinoshita, Iori Katsura, Kota Ishibashi

Takuma Kato didn't do enough to show that he could be a bench catcher in the team this year despite being first choice in 2019 and starting 2020 as the teams' #1 behind the dish. Takuya Kinoshita showed immense quality last year and it's safe to say that he will be the everyday catcher for the Dragons in 2021 as long as injury or massive form dip does dog him. Alongside him as the likely back-up is Iori Katsura. He hit relatively well in pre-season and has otherwise not put much of a foot wrong. In the third spot, is one of the Dragons hottest prospects, Kota Ishibashi. The Chiba-born Ishibashi was on fire in the development league; he hit homers and lead pitchers like Shinnosuke Ogasawara with aplomb. It's a fantastic reward for all his hard work to witness the opening week. 

Infielders

Wataru Takamatsu, Yota Kyoda, Shuhei Takahashi, Toshiki Abe, Akira Neo, Taiki Mitsumata, Dayan Viciedo

Wataru Takamatsu and Akira Neo are the younglings of this group with both coming to prominence this spring. Keep in mind that Neo will likely play outfield, but is registered as an infielder. Takamatsu arguably has the fastest legs in the team and could see plenty of time as a pinch-runner or even as a possible challenge for Toshiki Abe's spot as he had an underwhelming pre-season with the bat. Taiki Mitsumata is another that shot to prominence this year with superb plate discipline. He and Neo are the closest that team has to utility infielders on the starting day roster. Mitsumata will likely help out at third, second and maybe short. 

Otherwise, the infielders are what we saw last year with Shuhei Takahashi in the hot corner, Dayan Viciedo starting at first base, Abe at second and Kyoda at short. 

Outfielders

Ryosuke Hirata, Yohei Oshima, Kosuke Fukudome, Masataka Iryo, Kaname Takino, Kengo Takeda, Yuki Okabayashi

The old and the young battle for places in outfield with 19-y/o Yuki Okabayashi and 41-y/o Kosuke Fukudome in the team for opening day. The only real locks here are Oshima and Hirata as per the last 5 or so years, but who will take left-field is still a bit up in the air. Fukudome and Neo seem the most likely while Takino could also see some time after showing up with the bat in the Spring. I would argue that Fukudome is a much more imposing figure in the lineup and if the team value winning the series over development opportunities, the former Chicago major leaguer should get the nod.

Starting Pitchers

Shinnosuke Ogasawara, Yuya Yanagi, Koji Fukutani

As I predicted, these are the 3 starters the Dragons will roll with for the first series in Hiroshima. I have bad memories of Ogasawara getting beat in Hiroshima when he was the opening day starter in 2018, but I have a strange confidence in this top of the rotation getting something done against the flailing (Magi)Carp. 

Relievers

High: Daisuke Sobue, Hiroto Fuku, Hiroshi Suzuki

Medium: Keisuke Tanimoto, Katsuki Matayoshi, Toshiya Okada, 

Low/Long: Yuki Hashimoto, Kento Fujishima

I’ve added a punt on how the relievers will be used in what leverage situations. Raidel Martinez is still undercooked having arrived late and through quarantine. Daisuke Sobue looks likely to be the closer for now. Hiroto Fuku had a big year as well in 2020 and he’s locked in for the 7/8 inning. Hiroshi Suzuki is starting to look like the prospect we’d hoped and will likely be trusted in the latter innings with Keisuke Tanimoto playing a role as well.

Overall the bullpen is a strength again this year and is actually a bit deeper than 2020’s edition. Once Randy Rosario arrives, the team will probably have close to the best bullpen in the league if they don’t already. 

My last post I think covered my thoughts pretty well about the team and my idea over the line-up haven't really changed. The only main difference is that Tatsuya Shimizu blew his chance to be part of the starting day rotation and Akiyoshi Katsuno, surprisingly perhaps, has been given the job of game 2 in Nagoya against the Giants.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

2021 Dragons Season Primer: The rotation, line-up, breakout candidates and predictions

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. 

Left 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.

Second Base

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. 

Right-field

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!

Monday, February 22, 2021

3 Young Dragons to be excited about in 2021 (Position Players)

 

A belated hello to all my followers, it has been a very busy few months for me. I've had to work on a PhD research proposal, pack-up my house and become a full-time dad. It's been tricky to find time to throw a few words up, but here's a simple little article to get the year started. There are 3 position players I'd like to talk about that could well have a role to play in 2021 after building their way up. 



Masami Ishigaki was so hot on the farm last year he was burning down crops. The 4th year, 23 year-old infielder found some pop and drilled in plenty of RBIs in a breakout year for the Yamagata-born slugger. Ishigaki was called up to the first-team squad half-way through the season where he hit his first homerun off Angel Sanchez as a pinch-hitter. 

In the off-season Ishigaki was taken under the wing of Rakuten power-hitter, Hideto Asamura. Ishigaki appears to have learned some things from Asamura as he has impressed in camp so far and looks like he's bulked up. 

Originally billed as a fast, power-hitting short-stop, it's unsure where he will end up playing. He has seen reps in the corner infield, but I'd personally like to see how he'd go in the outfield corners or even second-base. 

Ishigaki is someone I want to see a lot more of this year, the only thing stopping him will be the form and health of those ahead of him in the pecking order.  


The dearth of young options in the outfield makes Okabayashi stand-out, but he's certarinly building a case to be a part of the first team this year. Okabayashi was originally drafted as a pitcher, but the Dragons registered him as an outfielder with the NPB after signing him proper. Still so young and raw, the man from Mie prefecture has surprised many with his strong armed defence, and deft bat-control. 

The power obviously isn't there yet as to be expected, but he's got some tools that make him a very exciting prospect indeed. Given the uncertainty over the involvement of Ryosuke Hirata and to a lesser extent, Mike Gerber, there could be a corner outfield job available if the stars align.

Okabayashi is more of a 2 years in the future kinda guy, but he's the most promising centre-field prospect the organization has with plenty of room to grow. Oshima might have another year or two left in his legs to fill in the centre-field spot, but Okabayashi's emergence may just allow Oshima to play a little longer as the Dragons have someone worth giving time in the field to.


Miyoshi was drafted 6th in 2020, but he looks the most likely to make an immediate impact after being called up to the 1st team spring camp. Although among a host of other outfield hopefuls, Miyoshi impressed in batting practice with solid swings and a really attractive looking batting stance. 

Miyoshi, like Okabayashi, was once a touted pitching prospect, but when he entered the industrial leagues, he decided to convert to the outfield. He has a strong arm and a solid bat that according to reports, packs a punch. 

It might take a while for Miyoshi to get used to NPB pitching, but again, like Okabayashi there is a chance for him if Gerber and Hirata aren't ready by the time the season rolls around. At the very least, we'll see him with the top team this year and if he gets a few pinch-hits he might well stick for a wee bit longer than some might think. 

That's my little taster of some players to look our for who might break out given half a chance. Ishigaki seems the most likely while I think Okabayashi and Miyoshi will be given chances.