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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Trading Block: Fishing for new talent in the outfield

Latest News

As with every blog post, I'd like to start off with some bulletin points regarding team news and the league at large:

  • All bets are off for the start of the 2020 season as COVID-19 spreads through Japan, particularly Tokyo. 
  • Shinji Tajima will undergo Tommy John surgery, possibly being ruled out for any type of games in 2020. 
  • One unnamed player has been in isolation due to fever with the team keeping tabs. News today was that the player's temperature had returned to normal.
  • Shuhei Takahashi and Toshiki Abe are now sharing the same apartment building. 
  • Having been in isolation with his family, Kazuki Yoshimi has said that he has an even greater appreciation for the family that supports him saying it will give him further inspiration to come back stronger on the field. 
  • Former players Hirokazu Ibata and Motonobu Tanishige were guests on a panel show last month that quizzed them what they would do if they were the Dragons manager this year with some really interesting insights. Worth checking out if you Japanese is up to scratch. Tanishige in particular is quite frank about how much better the team is now than when he left as manager in 2016.

Trading for the future

This is an article that's come to mind from watching former Lotte catcher, Tomoya Satozaki talk about potential trade candidates at each club in the NPB on his YouTube channel. I definitely like some of his ideas, but I doubt his rigor when it comes to his selections. Satozaki selected Shota Ono as a possible trade piece, something I vehemently disagree with, so I want to put forward a few candidates along with some clubs/players that might want to do a deal. 

My main thinking when devising these possible trades is largely going to be based on trades that represent equal value for both sides and will likely be better value than just a lottery ticket for either side. I'm going to suggest a high, medium and low profile trade that could get the Dragons what they need going forward.

Before we get into things, I want to argue a couple of points. There are a number of areas where the Dragons have strength. That is largely on the corners of the infield as well as the pitching staff. Trading from these areas to bolster positions like second-base and the outfield I think is imperative. If you understand this as my thought process, you might see where I want to go with this. 

#1 Nobumasa Fukuda - IF/OF

This is going to be a super unpopular choice, but given the options Chunichi have in outfield and infield, I'd argue Fukuda is someone that could be let go for the right price. While an OPS leader for the team in 2019, Fukuda was not able to solidify a spot in the line-up. Shuhei locked down third-base this year while a number of options exist for left field. While the Dragons lack a power bat, Fukuda is entering his age 32 season and could be a sneaky choice to grab a decent player from any number of clubs across the NPB. As a fan I would hate to see Fukuda go based on the entertainment he gives with batflips alone, but in terms of the team now and going forward he may not have much more to give.

Possible trade partner: Yokohama DeNA Baystars

Fukuda is definitely someone the Baystars would be keen on. A power bat that would replace the outgoing Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh, and someone that could potentially play third when Toshiro Miyazaki has down time with the bat. Fukuda hit .421 in Yokohama in 2019 with 3 homeruns albeit in only 23 PAs which shows he can hit in that stadium. Add to the fact he's a local and it makes sense that the Baystars would be keen to add him to their roster. 

The question is, who do we get out of it? In terms of second base options, the Baystars have a dearth of talent in the middle, but outfield might be more encouraging.

Possible trade pieces: Masayuki Kuwahara, Taiki Sekine, Tomoya Mikami

To be quite honest, this will probably have to be a 2:1 trade except for Kuwahara, to get value for the Dragons. The Baystars are unlikely to give up some of their biggest pieces to get Fukuda particularly as some are much younger. I think a deal involving Masayuki Kuwahara or Taiki Sekine plus a pitcher would be an alright haul for the Dragons. 

Kuwahara would have to be a 1:1 trade, but as a former golden glove outfielder, he fits the bill for the Dragons perfectly. Kuwahara has largely second-fiddle to Kazuki Kamizato in recent times and at a tender 26 years old, Kuwahara still has a sparkling career ahead of him. While he hasn't been great with the bat since 2016, given opportunities to sparkle again he may well make it back to his best. If the Dragons haven't been trying to work on a trade for Kuwahara the last few years, they really should be now. An easy successor to Oshima, trading Fukuda for Kuwahara makes a lot of sense. 

Taiki Sekine could just about be taken for a player of lesser value, but the Gifu-born outfielder put up some of the best results for a Baystar on the farm in 2019. Sekine batted .329 with a .946 OPS to try and force his way into the first team. He also had a very successful winter league season in Mexico. Sekine has been out of favor with the Baystars, but given he can play centre-field and is also a hometown player for the Dragons, he seems like a handy pick-up. At 24 years old,  he lowers the average age of the outfield and gives another possible successor for Yohei Oshima. 

Tomoya Mikami would be the sweetener for this deal for me. Another Gifu-born player, Mikami was a pretty solid part of the Baystars bullpen but has had some issues lately. He had a 5.79 ERA with the top team last year, but I think he still has something left in the tank. He's 31 this year and would give the Dragons more options in the bullpen.

Kuwahara I think has to be the main target here. He's at a good age and has good pedigree as a possible successor. Sekine would be another good pick-up but you could perhaps aim for a slightly less valuable chip to snag him other than that a move for Sekine and Mikami for Fukuda could work too.

Long term however, I think this is the kind of move that could be made particularly if you're happy with plugging up left with an international outfielder for the forseeable future and you're happy with what Takaya Ishikawa and Masami Ishigaki bring as back-ups to Shuhei Takahashi.

#2 Katsuki Matayoshi - RP

Matayoshi has been on the down-slump since the tail-end of the 2018 season. The 2020 pre-season has looked promising for the former all-star, but you can't help but think there's not much more in the tank for Matayoshi. He's certainly a bounce back candidate and his ceiling has high leverage reliever written all over it, but as with all bullpen arms, there are good and bad years. Matayoshi is if nothing else, an experienced campaigner that would slot quite well into a challenging team as someone that could do a job just about anywhere in relief and could make the odd spot start. For the Dragons, Matayoshi is probably not in the equation as a confirmed contributor this year, so there's a bit of room to move him. But should you move him on, you open yourself up for being bitten if he does come back to form. 

Possible trade partner: Giants

Given the lack of depth the Giants have in their pitching, a switch to Tokyo would make sense for Matayoshi. The Giants also have significant depth in outfield and second-base that the Dragons could get someone that helps them more in the long-run. Like with the Baystars, it's going to be hard to find a player of equal value so either a 2:1 trade again or a 1:1 + cash will likely get rid of Matayoshi. Three guys I think that should be on the radar are utility man, Akihiro Wakabayashi and displaced outfielders, Shinnosuke Shigenobu and Shingo Ishikawa

Wakabayashi had a bit of a breakout season last year largely due to an injury to regular second-baseman, Naomi Yoshikawa. However, now with Yoshikawa fit and the rest of team largely settled, Wakabayashi has nowhere he can really play. Outfield appearances would also be stifled by regulars as well as youngsters coming up so a switch to a club where he could get more opportunities makes sense. The Dragons could use depth in the second-base area while any type of utility player is also welcome. At 26 y/o, Wakabayashi still has a number of years where he'd be useful to the team while guys like Abe, Donoue and others fall off. He only hit .239 in NPB last year, but certainly has some room to grow.

Shigenobu can play left or centre-field, is a nimble player that is in probably a similar mold to Oshima without the A+ defense. A common theme to many of my selections will be this ability to play center-field where the Dragons don't have a lot of depth. Despite the large amount of options in the outfield at the Giants, Shigenobu still played a career high 106 games hitting .268 with a relatively unimpressive .643 OPS. The fast running Chiba native would probably find more success in the larger confines of Nagoya Dome and could be a good pick-up. 

Ishikawa moved to the Giants in a trade for Taishi Ota who went to the Fighters. He has been little more than depth for his team over the last 3 years but had a handy .773 OPS over 76 PA in NPB last year. A little bit more potential pop than the other options, Ishikawa is probably more restricted to a corner outfield role.  He hit over .300 on the farm which was the best of any player for the Giants with over 100 PA. Someone that could maybe be a successor for Ryosuke Hirata, or at the worst Atsushi Fujii, Ishikawa would be a handy pick-up. 

Conclusion: It might be hard to pry away Shigenobu or Wakabayashi, but given teh salary outlay, either makes sense. Given the need for depth in outfield and second base for the Dragons, it would make sense to go after Wakabayashi first and foremost as he provides options at both positions however as a successor to Oshima, Shigenobu is likely the best option.

#3 Shota Suzuki - SP

To be honest, if this club can get anything out of a trade for 2013 top pick, Shota Suzuki, they should take it. Suzuki was a bright talent when he was drafted and to date is the only player to turn pro from his high school, St Christopher's. Suzuki looked like he was going to make a keen go of things in 2017 when he won his first game and went 5-5 over the course of the season, it just hasn't clicked for the 6th year pitcher. He's only 25 this season, but injuries, including a common blood circulation issue in his throwing arm, has derailed his development. Suzuki further lost his jersey to Daisuke Matsuzaka last year and failed to make any first team appearances. That being said, he's still a former #1 pick and he's still young which gives the possibility of some upside yet to come. 

Possible trade partner: Nippon Ham Fighters

To put it lightly, the Fighters pitching staff is a shambles. It's possible that even someone like Suzuki, could make an impact of some kind with their team. Who could the Dragons possibly get in return though? The options are limited but someone like Daiki Asama or Yuya Himeno could possibly be a decent pick-up in return.

Asama was billeted with some decent potential as a corner outfielder having a solid rookie season. He has more recently at third base but his stocks have taken hits recently and he only played 13 games last year. Still very young at 23, Asama has plenty of years ahead of him to get better. The Fighters may want to hold on to him just because of that age and possible future ahead of him, but he would fit well into the future plans of the Dragons.

Himeno has a lower profile than Asama, and would probably warrant another piece from the Fighters to get a deal through. Himeno however is a 23 y/o that just has lottery ticket written all over him. A former switch hitter, now just a right-hander, Himeno is a "might as well" pick. He only hit .222 on the farm last year but who knows what happens with some experience and a different environment. 

Conclusion: The only way I see Himeno going in a trade like this is if the Fighters kick in some cash or send someone else as well which seems unlikely. Asama I think would be a good pick-up but the Fighters may well want to hold on to him for depth, that being said, he would provide depth for the Dragons likely in right-field if Hirata misses time due to injury and could well be the long-term successor in that role. 

If I was to pull the trigger on all three trades, I'd have Kuwahara, Wakabayashi and Asama on my team. Kuwahara gives a clear successor to Oshima who can also keep the pace defensively. Wakabayashi gives options at second base over Abe and Dnoue while Asama provides options in right that are probably a bit more interesting than Atsushi Fujii and Issei Endo. 

Trades are very tricky to work in NPB, but I think the options I've provided above are relatively realistic given the relative outlays. Due to time constraints, I've only picked one trade partner for each player, but the reality is likely far more complex than that. Not to mention the individual ties between managers can often be deal breakers in this case, it's hard to see all of these deals coming to fruition even with roots in reality. 

I hope you've enjoyed the thought exercise. Let me know if you have any ideas on who you might trade for to better the team.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Latest News & 2020 Position Player Outlook: Catcher

Latest News

As of last week, the NPB has had it's first confirmed cases of coronavirus, that of Tigers trio, Shintaro Fujinami, Hayata Ito and Kenya Nagasaka. Not only this, but overall infection numbers for COVID-19 are climbing everyday in Japan with a 1-day record high of over 130+ cases on Saturday in Tokyo alone. As such, the NPB has put the the season, understandably, on indefinite hold saying that they will be "flexible" with the opening day dates. 

As a result of the Tigers cluster of COVID-19 cases, a number of Dragons players were put into self-isolation as it came on the back of a practice game played at Nagoya Dome. Ryosuke Hirata apparently reported to having a fever that died down pretty quickly. Given Hirata is a high school sempai of Fujinami's from Osaka Toin, it would be no surprise if they were in close contact during the series. 

Dragons players/staff were wearing masks in the
locker room last week. C/- 中スポ
Nagoya Dome staff have gone into disinfectant overload as well is wiping down any areas the Tigers players may have been in contact with. 

Between the 4th and 7th of April, Dragons players and staff will be avoiding the Nagoya Dome and Nagoya Stadium facilities while also self-isolating. Players and staff have also been asked to avoid eating-out for this period of time. From the 8th, players will train at Nagoya Stadium in staggered time periods with smaller numbers of players to avoid infection. As players from both 1-gun and 2-gun will be training in the same place, it is expected training sessions will be more compact with more frequent rest times.  Unsurprisingly there are no practice games with other teams planned for the month of April. 

During his short time away from training, 2019 #1 pick, Takaya Ishikawa has said he will work on the mental side of this game with a tennis ball in his room with a view to increasing his focus. Yota Kyoda, Dragons player rep, has asked for players to take care of themselves during this downtime in an effort to avoid infection by COVID-19. 

Position Player Battles

With the season being put on hold, there's still a lot of room for speculation as to whether or not we'll have a season. The chance of a shortened season seems increasingly more likely with suggestions for a reduced Climax Season or Interleague series floated as ideas for keeping the same regular Pacific-Central League games as in previous years. Whatever the case, we will probably see some form of baseball this year, albeit in a very shortened form. As such, I'd still like to take time to look at some of the battles in the field for regular positions. Some are quite intriguing battles and some are utter cluster cookies in terms of same-same but different. I'll be kicking this off with catcher and then further looking at the outfield and infield in separate posts.


Perhaps the most intriguing battle is the one that has been ongoing for the best part of 6 years. After Motonobu Tanishige's retirement and general wind-down, the Dragons have been in search of a regular catcher behind the plate. There have been a few pretenders over the past few years with two of the more "regular" catchers now no longer with the club. Shota Sugiyama looked like he was going to stake a claim in 2016 with a team-leading OBP, but new management saw his stocks dive with investment going into Masato Matsui and the free-agency signing of Shota Ono. Shigekazu Mori leaned on his veteran catchers, but since the introduction of Yoda's new Jedi Council, a shift toward a younger player that can do it all has been the focus. As such, Matsui was traded to the Orix Buffaloes mid-season last year while Sugiyama was released from the team. Ono has had a reduced role and due to injury concerns may never be the player the team had hoped for. 

Matsui and Sugiyama start in greener pastures in 2020.

From last year, Yoda and his team have sought to give experience and auditions to a number of catchers. Last year, Takuma Kato saw the lion's share of attention behind the plate but his blocking, game-calling and hitting tools are all suspect. The team were however to keep opposition runners at bay with few wanting to game Kato's bazooka arm. With the 3-catcher system the Dragons carry, Takuya Kinoshita the aforementioned Ono and Kota Ishibashi all saw some time behind the plate with no one player standing out. Kinoshita has long been billed as a solid catcher that can hit, but hasn't shown he can hit, while Shota Ono is the last of the experienced catchers with the team that has seemingly missed the boat on the fight for the regular catcher's mask. Kota Ishibashi, is, quite frankly, a bit too young to be considered a full-time regular, but showed great promise in his first season in professional baseball with leadership skills beyond his tender 19 years. 

That was last year, but what about this year? The main thing that has changed has been the addition of Yuya Gunji, Keio University's star catcher in 2019, to the fold. The catching coaches have hailed Gunji as a possible opening day starter and this then throws the competition at the position into disarray. Please note the below ages represent how old the players will be in 2020.

#NameAgeBatsThrows2019 GP
Shota Ono
Takuya Kinoshita
Yuya Gunji
Takuma Kato
Kota Ishibashi
Iori Katsura

Catcher is a position where you have to look at the long term particularly in the absence of a quality first-team starter. The Dragons have rarely had this problem throughout their history with a neat continuation of regular catchers starting with Tatsuhiko Kimata in 1965 and ending with Tanishige in 2015. Given the extraordinary circumstances, the Dragons need to look at least mid-term, by that measure, it's going to be crunch time for one of either Kinoshita or Katsura this year. Katsura in particular will likely get released at the end of the year if he doesn't show some progression this year. The only thing I see as a certainty this year is Ono's veteran presence being used later in games. Other than that, it's very open.

Let's have a quick evaluation of each player and their various skill sets;

#NameGame CallingArmBlockingHittingExperienceOverall
27Shota OnoADADSC
35Takuya KinoshitaBBBCBC
44Yuya GunjiBABC+CC
52Takuma KatoDSCCBD+
58Kota IshibashiAAAC+DC
68Iori KatsuraBC+C+CBD+

These are fairly subjective ratings but I've based in on what I've researched and seen in games. I've assigned values of 1-5 based on the individual skills to calculate and overall score (D=1, S=5). As you can see, there's no one that really stands out based on how I currently view the staff. In terms of roundedness, Gunji and Ishibashi are probably going to be the best choices but both have their limits with experience. Ishibashi has an extra year on Gunji in terms of familiarity with his pitching staff, but Gunji has an extra 4 years of college experience on Ishibashi and also higher leverage experience at the summer koshien as well as in the Big6 University League.

Is the future of the Dragons in the hands of one of these youngsters?

If you want to go with more experienced hands, then Takuya Kinoshita is probably the best rounded. Katsura could yet surprise, but essentially hasn't done anything of note in close to 4 years due to injury and other misfortune. Last season's regular catcher Kato is not without his flaws either and even though he has a rocket arm, he still receives signs from the bench, has difficulty blocking pitches and also can't seem to hit very well (aside from some hot patches, although this isn't exclusive to him). Shota Ono, whom I've touched on earlier, is something that can certainly calm things down, but you can't expect him to hit a go-ahead double or throw-out anyone faster than Kosuke Fukudome. 

The Dragons backroom team really have an unenviable task of choosing where they want to go with this position but so far, Gunji, by some reports, was brought in to be an immediate challenger for Kota Ishibashi. Ishibashi, in my opinion, showed immense potential in 2019 on the farm and with the first team. Given that he's the only catcher of his age bracket, it makes sense to bring in someone closer in age to push him to be better. 

How I see this position to likely play out is, once again a 3-catcher system where we see all 6 guys get some time here and there with the first team. I think it makes sense to leave Ishibashi on the farm for the majority of the year to get as many reps as possible with the odd run of starts in 1-gun when opportunities arise. I think we'll otherwise see a trio of Kato, Gunji and Kinoshita start the season with Ono popping up here and there to provide leadership. Kato could be cut at the expense of that leadership if they start with two relatively inexperienced players and the team have shown they are willing to cast him aside if not doing well, as in spring training this year. 

My prediction this year is that Gunji is going to be the main catcher this year with 80+ appearances. Given his projected and current ability, he has about the same floor as anyone else but with a much higher upside.I also think we'll see more of Ishibashi with around 20-30 appearances behind the plate. The rest I think are divvied up among the other 4.

The only thing preventing Gunji from hitting the ground running is his rapport with his catching staff. Building rapport and a good relationship with his pitchers as well as getting his head around calling games against NPB players will make or break his year. Lucky for him, he's got plenty of time to study video and once training goes back on Wednesday, to work with his pitchers in the bullpen.