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Saturday, March 30, 2024

Opening Day 2024: Dragons collapse despite encouraging Yanagi Start

 I had hoped to do some more podcasts in the pre-season, but it has been difficult to find 90 minutes to myself and even harder to find time to edit. So, I will focus on my written word. Here, I'd like to celebrate first that baseball is back, talk a bit about the opening game against the Swallows in Tokyo, and talk a little about the opening day roster and line-up. 

The Dragons didn't have the greatest start to the year. Everything was looking rosy until the 8th inning after a good start from Yuya Yanagi and a go-ahead homer from old-newbie, Sho Nakata. Last year's star out of the bullpen, Shinya Matsuyama would however have a torrid time of locking down the 8th as he gave up 4 earned runs. Debutant, Christian Rodriguez fumbled to start the inning while Matsuyama walked Takeoka bringing up Santana who drove in the equalizing run. A wild-pitch to Yuhei Nakamura gave the Swallows the lead. Yugo Umeno would come-in for damage control but sac-fly and a Haruki Nishikawa triple put the game beyond reach at 7-3. The Dragons would muster one more run in a bases-loaded situation in the 9th thanks to Sho Nakata's sac fly, but last year's golden boy Seiya Hosokawa would hit into a double-play to end the game. 

A number of solid and torrid debuts to round out a disappointing end. Mikiya Tanaka had a good game at the top of the order where he managed a hit a walk and a sac-bunt. Shuhei Takahashi hitting in the #3 spot justified his selection going 3-5 including a double and two RBIs. While Sho Nakata was the best of the rest with his first homer in a Dragons uniform and 2 RBIs. The pitching was perhaps a little lacklustre, but after a shaky 3rd inning, Yanagi righted the ship in his start, taking 4K but giving up 8 hits. Katsuno and Shimizu both had clean innings. 

Overall, a tale of individual performances. Rodriguez two errors were particularly glaring for a player that was selected for his defensive prowess. However, as a 21 year-old debutant, playing in front of a away crowd on opening day is a pretty awe-inspiring feat, so I'm willing to give him benefit of the doubt for having the jitters. However, as Tatsunami has mentioned a willingness to cycle options in the middle-infield, may it have been a smarter idea to start with someone like Kaito Muramatsu, who played at Jingu in college to start the year? It is only one game however and I hope that Rodriguez is given further chances to bounce-back. 

Shuhei Takahashi continued his excellent spring form. Hitting in the hole and smacking that double, is going to go a long way to getting this team underway. If he is on form with Nakata and Hosokawa hitting behind him, that could be a great boon to the line-up. Where Ishikawa fits in when he gets back will be the question, but I'd be open to seeing some second-base Shuhei at some point if that's what ends up happening. Having an additional left-handed bat that has gap to gap power is also a big boon for this team that has a lot of right-handed hitters. If Shuhei can solidify himself in this line-up as a guy that can hit for average and chip in with extra-base hits, the team is going to be better balanced. Now, for the sake of things, let's look at the line-up that was trotted out. 

CF Hironori Miyoshi

2B Mikiya Tanaka

3B Shuhei Takahashi

1B Sho Nakata

RF Seiya Hosokawa

C  Takuya Kinoshita

LF Alex Dickerson

SS Christian Rodriguez

SP Yuya Yanagi

Considering the balance of hitters here, I don't like what's been done with grouping together Nakata, Hosokawa and Kinoshita. I would prefer to see the left-handed Dickerson at least elevated to #6 in this order to break-up the right handers. You will still have a clump of righties at the bottom of the order with Kinoshita, Rodriguez and Yanagi, but apart from Kinoshita, you're not expecting much from those three anyway. I would argue however that starting Muramatsu, a lefty, at short would solve this issue and you can essentially zig-zag your line-up the whole way down. 

Something I wanted to impress on in the podcast that I was creating, was that the Dragons should really take the idea of platooning seriously. This team have a number of players of similar level and there's no real harm in swapping guys out who are better equipped to take on the starting pitcher of the day. Ideally against a guy like Cy Sneed, you'd maybe start Muramatsu over Tanaka or Rodriguez (although I understand the want to use Tanaka). You could start Shingo Usami over Kinoshita. Once someone like Seiji Uebayashi becomes available again, you could have him in the outfield mix as well maybe giving Hosokawa a rest against righties occasionally. 

Something that does however go against this is Tatsunami's choice to win by strength in defence. The philosophy in Japanese is known as, "守り勝つ" which was popularized in the Dragons culture under Hiromitsu Ochiai. The selection of Rodriguez, despite his fumbles, was based on this. The Cuban is seen as a better defender at short than Muramatsu, hence why he plays over the Meiji Uni alum, at least for now. Don't expect to see too many bats-over-gloves kinda types too often. 

The series has just started and the next game will start in a moment, so adios for now.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Dragons Rice Ban: A sensible explanation to a sensationalist story

In August 2023, Yūkan Fuji reported that Dragons hitters had been banned from consuming rice. Dubbed in the media as the reiwa komesōdō (令和米騒動), a play on the rice shortage riots of 1918 and later the much less violent 1993 shortage, the narrative of a dictatorial management of player diets played well in hand with the overall image that manager Kazuyoshi Tatsunami had garnered as being and old school kind of ogre. It is said to have started with restricting Seiya Hosokawa, supposedly as a response to his dropping performance in summer. It was later extended to all hitters. Very little was done by the senior management team to quell this scandal during the season, but in the off-season comments by third-base coach, Takuyuki Onishi, the manager, Tatsunami and some players have given some detail and context.  

To say it has been overblown is probably underplaying it. The way it has been framed is that the players were forbidden from eating rice altogether but the summary is, as they were deemed unable to moderate their intake, a rice cooker was removed from the cafeteria and replaced with pre-made rice balls. For the unfamiliar, a cafeteria or buffet style restaurant will often have a large rice cooker available from which to scoop rice. There's no particular limit and it's like scooping from a large bucket. This was no longer made available to players before games.

 In an exclusive interview with RonSpo, Tatsunami explains:

 "Line-up regulars would often eat big bowls of rice and noodles before games. Before a game, there's no way you can move well with a stomach that full. We'd leave some rice balls for them, but we're just saying don't eat a massive bowl of rice (like that) like a fool. That's all it was." 

This was supported by veteran reliever Daisuke Sobue who says:

 "The story just got big, but there is rice. All it was, was 'let's just not eat so much before games'...after games, there's rice available like normal. In regards to diet, (the team) are being firm but kind. It's just that the article got big, that's all."

Takayuki Onishi was one of the first staff members to speak up about the controversy in a radio interview with Keiichi Wakaasa. Onishi gives his piece:

 "I was there. Chunichi's food is really nice, but line-up regulars would just go to town eating donburi. You could almost say 'are you really going to eat that much?', that's how much they were eating. Not just once, they'd keep going back for more serves. Anyone would think the same thing. (We) arranged a large amount of onigiri to be available. The conversation was about saving (rice for later) and being able to move a bit easier." 

He also goes on to say that the team enlisted the advice of a dietician who also suggested a reduction in the amount of rice eaten by players before games.

The news had some unexpected consequences, with one of the more amusing anecdotes being about Ryuki Watarai, who was the Dragons publicized 1st round pick going into the 2023 draft. Watarai previously had on his Instagram profile that he had a love of sushi, only to change this sashimi in the lead-up to the draft. Otherwise, it was an unfortunate distraction for fans that only made the reputation of Tatsunami and the team even worse.

Broadly speaking, dieticians do not recommend heavy carbohydrate loading before games. Writing for NHK, Satoko Yamada, a sports dietician, recommends loading days before a game while advocating for moderate intake in the 3-4 hours before a game. According to Leslie Bonci (2009), anything between 350 to 700 calories of carb heavy meals should be eaten 3-4 hours before a game to allow for slow burn and better performance. A 200g donburi of rice, for reference, is about 315 calories. A study by Rossi et. al. (2017) however, after assessing a team of NCAA Division 1 players, found the median required calorie intake to be closer to 440 calories depending on the size of the individual. Without doing a more in depth literature review, we cannot draw too many conclusions, but the consensus seems to be that any kind of complex carbohydrates should be induced 3-4 hours before a game. Calorie intake seems to be recommended based on the physical attributes of the player, but generally speaking probably not much more than 400-500 calories per meal. In this case, if players were going back for another bowl of rice that likely already had some kind of topping, this would certainly be a case of overeating which justifies the decision by the team to regulate the intake of rice before games. 

What does this say however of the players? I think it shows a low nutritional literacy among senior players, something that the team should be looking to educate the team on. It is all well and good that the team has taken measures to reduce the carb loading by players, but if the players themselves do not understand the reason behind this nor learn how to eat properly, then this is likely to create further problems and possible animosity down the road. The Dragons team of dieticians, assuming they have one, should be having some sit-down sessions with players in the organisation to educate them about this. 

One further problem that however stems from this is the fact that the team did nothing to control the narrative once the story broke. Tatsunami has spoken of how he paid it no mind and that he's more concerned with someone leaking this to the media, but the fact it took almost 4 months for anyone from the organisation to dispel these rumours seems like a public relations mess-up. For a team whose owners have their hands in media, it seems bizarre that this was let to bubble for so long leading to a damage to the reputation of the team, the manager and anxiety among fans.

Now that the air has cleared somewhat over the Reiwa rice riots, it's hoped that the team can focus on the season ahead. It is a do or die season for Tatsunami and he has organised a very interesting looking team. A finish that sees the Dragons have their first taste of playoff baseball is over a decade is the only thing that will satiate the fans' hunger.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Emerging Talents 2024: Chunichi Dragons' Top 20 Prospects Unmasked

Alright, I'm going to draw up a prospect list for the first time ever. Hopefully I can make this a yearly thing so we can keep track of the talent. On this list are going to players that have not qualified for the rookie of the year in the NPB. The criteria are:

  • Under 5-years of team control

  • Up to 30 innings pitched OR up to 60 plate appearances 

  •  No experience playing in foreign leagues.

I think this is a pretty standard way to do prospect lists in the MLB as well, so I will be using the same standard. There may also be time at another point to do a breakout top 5 or so of players that have exceeded rookie status but are still on the fringes.

Here, I'm going to run down 20 players. There are 29 players in the organisation that fit the criteria and in the spirit of parsimony and a neat number, I’m sticking with a top 20. The other nine are a mixed bag of oft injured or players with lower ceilings or yet to be established floors.

There’s a few ways I’m judging this, how high I view their ceiling and/or floor, how close they are to being immediate contributors and on recent results and injury histories.

Now let's get into the list. 

Kikuta is a newbie. Last year he played in the independent leagues in Shikoku with the Ehime Mandarin Pirates; a former team of current battery coach, Kohei Oda. Kikuta tops out at 150km/h and lives on the fastball/splitter combo that many of the Dragons pitchers have success with. He was a reliever for the Pirates, and threw down 24.2 innings for a 3.65 ERA. What is however encouraging is a K/9 of 9.49. Now, taking a reliever out of the indy leagues and making them successful in NPB is a challenge that the team are well aware of given the relative failure of the next man up on this list but if he can build on his relatively decent season in the Shikoku I-League, and turn into a decent middling reliever, that would be a success. (Side note: Katsuki Matayoshi came via the Shikoku indy league). It's difficult to judge exactly what his potential ability is but he seems to have success pitching up and low in the zone with the fastball. He's only 20 years old, so there's plenty of room for growth as well, but given his current pitch-mix he might top-out at a middle-relief level which is perfectly fine for a development player. 

Man, did we have high hopes for Taisei Ishimori. A lefty that could throw gas out of the bullpen, topping out at 155km/h with a good forkball. Ishimori was a student of former Hawks closer, Takahiro Mahara and dominated indy league ball with the Hinokuni Salamanders as a closer himself. Selected in the third round of the 2021 draft, Ishimori has been terrible in the Western League. In his rookie year, he threw down 21.1 innings of  6.33 ERA ball while only striking out 5.9 per 9. 2023 was better in terms of strikeouts as he hit 9.6 K/9, but his ERA was a ghastly 10.53. The WHIP tells an even uglier story, standing at 3.102 it must be just about the worst almost 20 innings in Western League history. Despite all this, the potential that Ishimori has is still on the high side. I had originally gone with Kenshin Kakigoshi, who has middling stuff but could make it to the top team as a lefty killer, but Ishimori has very good stuff that just can't find the plate. 15.1 BB/9 last season is a testament to this. Maybe with Eiji Ochiai on the farm now, he can turn a corner. Either way I don't think the team will let him have another year like this one. He ended the year well in the Phoenix League and the hope will be he can become an effective reliever this season.

Takeuchi was taken in the lower rounds of the draft out of a high school in Hokkaido in 2019. He re-signed with the team on a development deal for 2020 after injury to his throwing elbow slowed his development. In 3-years, Takeuchi has only thrown 15 innings in his professional career so far. I was tempted to leave him off this list, but I think the upside is what I'm banking on here. He underwent invasive olecranon surgery where a screw was fitted into his elbow, while later having a surgery to clean out the posterior of his right elbow. Unlike Kikuta, Takeuchi has a higher raw ability being able to get significant spin on his fastball. He has a pitch mix that could still lead him to being a starter if he can stay healthy but given the surgeries he has already had, there is a little bit of doubt as to how his elbow will hold up. I think the upside here is probably a low-end starter with the floor being a middle-reliever type, but he's also a bit of a gamble to even stay in the professional baseball world. This year will be a big one for him. 

Miya was a 4th round pick to fill-out catcher depth and bring in someone that was a little younger than Kota Ishibashi and Yuya Gunji. A lefty hitter, Miya has put up solid numbers on the farm and has seen plenty of time behind the dish. Not much of a hitter, Miya is a defence first catcher with a good pop time. The team appear however to be valuing his defensive utility recently, with more starts coming for him in the outfield and corner infield. My general read on this, is they may no longer see him as a long-term option at catcher, but this also just may have been a way to get him reps while giving other catchers time behind the plate; and also as a season wears on, sometimes healthy legs in the field are all that are needed. Miya made his 1-gun debut in 2023 playing in 6 games. Miya however only played 34 games at catcher on the farm this year, which makes me wonder how large his stocks actually are at the moment. Still, there is potential there for him to be a decent back-up at least, maybe in the Masato Matsui mould. 

Higuchi got a cup of coffee in the first team, so to speak, in 2023 when good form on the farm expedited his promotion from a development deal and to a role. He played a number of roles for 2-gun manager, Atsushi Kataoka seeing time at third and second base as well as some reps at short-stop. Higuchi is not exactly outstanding at any one skill, but is probably one of the better all-round infielders the Dragons have in that he can hit a bit, defend a bit and run a bit. A toolsy player, Higuchi will hit for average but hasn't quite done that at a particularly high level. Last with the Musashino Heat Bears in the Kanto indy leagues, he had a .768 OPS over two seasons and 65 steals. Higuchi fits the archetype of middle-infielders that the team drafted heavily in the 2022 class. More likely to get on base with a slap-hit single than a lined double, I might say the recently departed Hayato Mizowaki is a good comparison. Upside I think here is limited, but he's still only 24 but with two new infielders drafted in the 2023 draft, it wouldn't be a stretch to say his path to the first team has become more difficult. Higuchi only slashed .203/270/275 despite playing 104 games in 2-gun. He did however have a good run in the Phoenix League where he stole 4 bags and had a 5 game hitting streak. If the hit tool does something, he could find himself catapulted into a job, but the raw talent ahead of him, whom are all better defenders, will make it difficult to progress forward. 

Matsukihira is someone the Dragons like a lot. Despite being on a development contract, he gets plenty of reps as a starter and there has been a bit of buzz about his potential since he signed on. The team have been high on Matsukihira since drafting him, and his good form has allowed him to get a look-in with the first-team in Chatan in this year's Spring training. The Dragons were initially impressed with his pitching form when they picked him up in the development draft nearly 4 years ago, and he has gone from strength to strength. During his time with the team, he has put on weight and been able to up his fastball velocity from the mid-140s to now touching the early 150s. He had an okay year in 2-gun last season where he pitched 81 innings with 34 strikeouts 42 walks and a 4.56 ERA. While the overall season wasn't great, there were some very good games where he showed great potential. This year will be interesting for Matsukihira. He is clearly a favourite of the coaches and his visible progression makes it easier to rate him. We just need to see if the results will follow. A good story if nothing else, Matsukihira will likely get a chance to whet his appetite in the top team this year at some point. The ceiling I think here is probably lower-end rotation, but he'd certainly be a decent reliever if it all goes belly up. 

Habu is one that was brought in this year to reinforce the bullpen. I don't think there's starter upside here, but the floor should be a solid mid-inning reliever and maybe set-up calibre at best. Interestingly, Habu joins a number of Yokohama High School alumni in the Dragons organisation alongside Hideaki Wakui, Yuya Yanagi and fellow draftee, Keishi Tsuda. Habu however was drafted out of the independent leagues, playing for the Ibaraki Astro Planets via J.F. Oberlin University. Habu has a fastball that tops out at 152km/h that he showed against the Yomiuri Giants third team last year. Some commentators have suggested that if he polished his forkball, he could be an interesting reliever. In Ibaraki, he was a bit of a swing-man, making 13 starts over 20 appearances for a 4.36 ERA, but threw with a 9.57 K/9 over 84.2 innings which is just about a pass mark for someone in the indy leagues to make a run in the NPB (For reference, although a different league, Taisei Ishimori had a 15.7 K/9 in indy ball). The Dragons see Habu as a reliever however, and the team is well equipped to help players of his type get better. I think we'll see him at some point in 2024, but I'm not sure he has quite the upside of others listed above him. Probably a solid reliever in the future, but the jump from indy ball to NPB is quite a hurdle to clear, so it may take some time for him to develop and adjust.

The ups and downs of Fukushima have been a wild ride. A 4th round pick who got immediately injured and put on a development deal, only to return to the first-team roster last year. Fukushima is solidly built lefty with a good fastball that has plenty of zip. Hopes of him working out as a starter seem to have faded, but it looks like he'll be another on the pile of lefty reliever options the team hopes gets a bit of fire under them. I had a chance to watch Fukushima workout in person in Chatan in fall of 2022, and the coaches seemed encouraged by his work, and the pitching for I think is one that will work out very well. He started the 2023 season pitching in some pre-season games, but perhaps gained the most headlines for being tossed after an errant fastball almost knocked out  Mark Payton. The fastball is powerful and seems to generate quite a bit of spin making it feel heavier and giving that very satisfying thwack as it hits the catcher's glove. Fukushima threw down 36.3 innings on the farm in 2023 for a tidy 2.70 ERA. The K/9 however is not quite as a impressive as he only had 5.6 SO per 9 innings which isn't great for a reliever. The end result is okay at present, but there's still a bit of work to do. He made his first-team debut in August and got the job done, but didn't make the best of his time in 1-gun. One of the best left-handed reliever prospects in the organisation (possibly not saying a whole lot, but still) Fukushima is an intriguing prospect but has yet to really show high ceiling potential at this early stage.

Fukumoto is an interesting one. At points in his career on the farm, Fukumoto has shown an ability to hit for average with a little bit of pop making him an interesting prospect. Finding a defensive position for him to call home has been challenging. Originally drafted as an outfielder, Fukumoto has also played at third and first base as the team attempt to find the best place to plonk his bat. 2023 was an excellent year for him on the farm as he hit .321 with a .763 OPS, or 115 OPS+. Unfortunately, he would go down with injury in September following up right shoulder arthroscopic labrum formation surgery in November. Given his injury status, the team demoted Fukumoto to a development contract. Again, if he can come back from this injury strongly, there is certainly a role for him with this team however he does risk falling down in the pecking order with a year out given the new additions in the outfield and at first-base. Fukumoto is one that was drafted with the hope that he could hit extra-bases, but despite his high average and OPS, he has a high percentage of singles. At present, he hasn't quite developed the power to be a clean-up type and hasn't got the speed or defensive skills to get by on average and OBP. Still, I think there is upside here to have a couple of good years as a hitter in the NPB, its just a matter of whether he'll get the chance to do so.

Hama was signed in the 2022 draft as another possible solution to the middle-infield mess but a poor season on the farm in his rookie year means that he has officially now converted to the outfield. Originally touted as someone with a strong arm that could laser in throws from the outfield, this is perhaps no big surprise. Defensively he couldn't stick at short-stop and with other high end talents coming in to fill this hole, Hama has had to go elsewhere. Perhaps just as contested as the infield is the Dragons outfield, but he will have to try to make something of a career in the outfield corners. Much like Higuchi earlier in this list, Hama was a regular on the farm but only managed a .205/.256/.259 slash line. His much touted base-stealing ability was also muted as he swiped 6 bags which was equal third on the team. Not hitting, not walking, not stealing. It's perhaps generous to put Hama this high on the list, but I think the upside is there with his relative youth to still be a useful player maybe in a utility role in future. Another "if" in terms of hit tool, but IF he can hit, he will make a strong case to be considered for the outfield mix. 

I think the ceiling here is middling while the floor is pretty solid. Kato was brought in to be a reliever for the team, and I think he has a pretty good chance to be a decent one. He has already been called to start his professional career with the first-team in Chatan in Spring training showing some of the expectation the team have of him. Katō looks good on paper with a fastball with cutter movement topping out at 154km/h and he has the right name (the 'ryu' in his first name is the character for 'dragon'). He has the right build for a reliever at 185cm and 99kg, but there is some concern over his control. More slider than splitter, he might add another dimension to the bullpen that is largely dominated by relievers that throw a fastball/splitter combo. Saying he could be set-up calibre is very believable and given the success of Shinya Matsuyama in 2023, Katō could be the next bullpen arm to breakout. The only problem for Katō will be breaking into the current mix of righty bullpen pitchers that includes Raidel Martinez, Michael Feliz, Kento Fujishima, Tatsuya Shimizu, Akiyoshi Katsuno and the aforementioned Matsuyama. If nothing else, Katō is a high floor addition to that mix of arms to ensure that the level and freshness of the bullpen can be maintained throughout the year.

Moriyama would have probably been higher on any list I'd have created last year. A lefty from Tokushima with plus grade eyebrows, he was out injured for most of 2023 which lead to his demotion to a development deal in this off-season. There's a lot to like about the breaking-balls and off-speed deliveries that Moriyama can deliver and it was a good catch to pick him at #3 in the 2022 draft. Definitely one with high upside, but still some way away from the first team, Moriyama could be a good starter with time but we still really need to see if he passes the lemon test. He did however make 3 starts in 2023 with the expectation he'd be one of the main starters in the Western League where he threw 23 innings for a 3.13 ERA. Only 7 strikeouts there, but I think an 18 year old can be forgiven for not having overpowering stuff. Control of the zone is going to be a theme as he rehabs. In some of his starts on the farm, balls left in the middle of the plate were well punished and it led to a number of big hits being given up. Consistency will likely come with time. So far, still a lot to come and a lot to think about. In high school he was able to overpower some hitters with his fastball, but that is something that won't work in the professional world. The curveball and other  I like what I see and there's still plenty of time to figure it out.

I would probably have had Fukuda a little higher if based entirely on ceiling, but as he hasn't pitched a game yet for the Dragons in any form, I've got him still in the top 10. Fukuda joins a number of high school lefties taken by the Dragons in the 3rd-4th round of the Draft. I already covered two others here in Shota Fukushima and Akio Moriyama. Fukuda graduating from the Riseisha HS baseball program in Osaka where he had the opportunity to pitch 4 times at Koshien. In summer, he pitched over 9.2 innings with 10 stikeouts showing off his capabilities. Topping out at 151km/h and well regarding for his stamina, Fukuda has the building block to become a capable starter. During the Kansai Regional Tournament, he also pulled-off a complete game shut-out of the powerhouse, Osaka Toin, once again showing his skill in matching up against strong opponents. There's still little to know about what Fukuda will be in professional baseball but a lefty with a strong fastball should play and if he can go deep into games, it bids well for his future as a possible starter. This year will likely be one where he will work on strengthening and conditioning for the most part and if we're lucky we might see him throw on the farm at some point in the year. However, I will say at this moment, in my opinion, he has a potential to be a mid-rotation starter with the upside of the current ability of Shinnosuke Ogasawara.

Yamaasa is probably the best young catcher in the organisation and already around 5th on the organisational depth chart.  While his senior, Kota Ishibashi will be knocking on the door this season for a first-team job, Yamaasa is solidfying his stocks to be the next off the rank. Much like Miya, Yamaasa is a left-handed bat with a strong defensive game. He has the stronger arm of the two with a bit more pop in his bat. His game calling also has been highly rated and the team have been giving him a lot of opportunities on the farm. Yamaasa even made his first team debut in 2023, making me think that the organisation certainly thinks highly of him. Yamaasa's weakness at this point is the hit tool. You can make the argument that a good catcher doesn't need to hit as much, but if Yamaasa could hit, he'd be in the top 3 of this list and probably banging on the door for a first-team job despite his youth. He has so far hit a fairly consistent .167 average at .400 OPS which is far from promising just yet. He is only 19 years old however, so there is plenty of time to work on all these things. Should he have a breakout with the bat in 2024, then he'll be a lot higher on this list next year. So far, Yamaasa looks like he could have a decent career as an NPB catcher, but how the hit tool develops will decide how long that career will be. 

Tsuda was the #2 pick in 2023 for the Dragons who could have had a number of other high ceiling talents. A graduate of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industry East industrial league team, Tsuda is still only 21 years old. Marked as the top short-stop prospect in the shakaijin leagues, Tsuda comes with a solid frame, strong arm and fast feet clocking 50m in 5.9 seconds.  Defensively, it sounds like Tsuda is going to be a decent pick-up, but his offensive capabilities are somewhat questionable. He has a breakout season in 2022 where he hit .345 with an .949 OPS over 58 plate appearances. His 2023 however was awful in comparison where he hit only .221 with a .654 OPS where he struck out 22 times in 22 plate appearances. The small sample sizes make it very difficult to judge his hit tool, but I am cautious. The baserunning and defensive skills are certainly there, but if the hit tool doesn't come along he's a right-handed, slightly faster Ryuku with similar or inferior defensive skills. Tsuda still has to pass the lemon test, and maybe he becomes a first-team regular, but based on what I can see in front of me, I'm skeptical as to how high the ceiling of Tsuda is. I think it's reasonable to say that Kaito Muramatsu was a level higher than Tsuda when he joined the team last year. Given what little I've seen of Tsuda, it looks like he barrels the ball relatively well so there may be some hope that he can be an average hitter. 

Tsujimoto was taken 3rd last year in the draft, but I have slightly higher hopes for him than Tsuda based on his track record. A very similar kind of player to Tsuda (and many of the other infield hopefuls with the Dragons), Tsujimoto is a compact short-stop with high level defensive skills and good baserunning. Another right-handed bat, Tsujimoto has also represented Japan at the Haarlem tournament in the Netherlands in 2022 and again the US-Japan Collegiate All-Star game in 2023. Tsujimoto has consistently put up good numbers in the Sendai Big 6 University League where last year he posted a .342/.500/.526 slash in spring, followed up by a solid .318/.375/.523 slash line in fall. While the Sendai 6 league is by no means as high in quality as other college leagues across Japan, it has given birth to the likes of former Dragons, Toshiki Abe and Takuya Asao who had good to excellent careers. After some calculation, I found that in his last season, Tsujimoto had an OPS+ of 144 showing his quality in comparison to the league. (For reference, fellow shortstop Kohei Shimabukuro of Tohoku Fukushi had an OPS+ of 202). The floor of the Sendai 6 University League is pretty low with Tohoku Fukushi dominating and Sendai a regular runner up, but Tsujimoto has shown he is good enough to cut his teeth at a high level. At 168cm tall, he is not a dominating presence, but is compact and shows good coverage on the field. Will he surpass the likes of Kaito Muramatsu, Ryuku and another high on this list? That is a good question but, from my initial view I think he has what it takes to make a starting position his own, at least initially. 

Technically Neo doesn't qualify for the ROTY award anymore as he's has more than 60 PA as a hitter, but he has not yet had 30 IP as a pitcher. For this reason, he gets onto this list. Neo the pitcher prospect is much newer than Neo the hitting prospect. So far so good for Neo, he has shown reasonable velocity and has been growing consistency on the mound. His small frame makes me think his ceiling is a little lower than some other Dragons pitchers. He'll likely see the 30 innings required at some point this season to graduate him from this list. The feeling with the team is that he's not quite there yet to be a part of the starting day rotation. At the very worst at this point in his career, Neo is going to a good reliever but the potential is there to be a middle-rotation starter. Neo is known to be one that doesn't take to advice very regularly though, so it's uncertain as to whether he'll be able to make the necessary adjustments to live as a starter. He does however have the physical attributes and could be an innings-eater in the back of the rotation within a year or two. The fastball is lively and will hit 150km/h on the gun occasionally, but more polish is needed on a couple of good secondary pitches. He got decent swings and misses on his forkball and in his limited outings with the first-team, has yet to have his slider punished but it seems that these two pitches will be his go-to in the future. Most pundits are coy on Neo the pitcher, but there does appear to be optimism he will be valuable on the mound. 

Kusaka is an interesting case. He was blocked by Junya Nishi (now Hanshin Tigers) in high school, and wasn't even playing in a lot of official games for Asia University until his 3rd year where he broke out posting a sub 1.00 ERA. There's a lot to like about Kusaka. He tops out around 153km/h with a slider, curveball and two-seamer. In his last two seasons (fall and spring) he posted ERAs of 1.52 and 1.42 respectively in the competitive Tohto College Baseball League in the Tokyo area. The main concern however is a very low strikeout rate, as he only struck-out 6.10 batters per 9 innings. Scouts rate his game making skills with his ability to adapt to situations in games. Possibly the highest floor out of the pitchers listed here but with that low strikeout rate, it will be interesting to see what his ceiling can be. He has however suffered his first major set-back as even before spring camp has started, Kusaka has injured his throwing elbow which will require a season ending Tommy John surgery. Depending on how he recovers, I think a high end starter in the mould of someone like Kodai Umetsu is a reasonable comparison.

The little man with the fleet feet, Tanaka has attracted headlines since his college days. He collected 6 bags in one game for Asia University in his senior year, and looked like dynamite in the 2023 pre-season for the Dragons before dislocating his right-shoulder. Concerns over his long-term health allowed him to fall to the Dragons in the 6th Round of the 2022 draft, but the upside is absolutely huge. Tanaka can hit for contact and average, defends well at short-stop but probably projects better as a second-baseman. The biggest weapon of course is his sprint speed and base-stealing ability. I'd be almost willing to draw the comparison with Asia University college upperclassman, Norihiro Akahoshi who absolutely blitzed the league with his fast feet for the Hanshin Tigers. Long-term health is going to be an ongoing concern for Tanaka however as during college he was diagnosed ulcerative colitis, which led to a major surgery and removing part of his large intestine. What effect that may have on the longevity of his professional career is something we will need to keep an eye on. For the time being, he's in a good position to be a first-team regular when healthy.

We know a lot about Kenta Bright. A 1st round pick in the 2021 draft, Bright's debut season was interrupted by injury. Last year similarly brought some health issues but overall some very good performances on the farm and a short run in the first-team. Bright led the Phoenix fall league in homers with 6 at the end of 2023 and has been a very solid performer. Bright is just two PA short of the rookie criteria, so qualifies by the skin of his teeth. The road to an NPB job is going to be difficult however with Seiji Uebayashi, Kosuke Ukai, Seiya Hosokawa, Alex Dickerson and some others all in the mix for the corner spots. Bright's utility will help in that he can play anywhere in the outfield, but he will really need to shine to get his chance. In saying all this, Bright has the highest floor of any prospect on this list and has the ceiling of a regular All-Star. A (excuse the pun) bright personality, he is fast,  has good defence, with some pop and good bat-to-ball skills, if it all comes together, Bright will be an integral part of the team for years to come. A player that could carry the banner for the Dragons for many years; fingers are crossed that he makes an important breakthrough soon.

As an addendum, I'd like to just say how tricky it is to do these lists in a Japanese baseball context. Any player taken in the first couple of round will likely pass the rookie limits within a year of joining the team, those that don't are either young position players or have had injuries, much like Bright. This is why the list might seem a bit light on paper. There are a number of players on the fringes that aren't established regulars however and guys like Kosuke Ukai, Reia Nakachi and Kodai Umetsu for example fit this mould fairly well. They've been good enough to get their feet wet, but not yet good enough to stick. For this reason, I hope to do a different kind of list in the coming weeks about possible breakout candidates for 2024. For the time being, I hope this list gives you an idea of what is cooking on the farm as well as gives you a little insight to the young players on the team including a lot of the new draftees. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

[Interview review] Shigekazu Mori reveals some tasty morsels from his time as manager

 I wanted to spend a little time talking about this interview that Shigekazu Mori gave to SportsNavi on YouTube. He has a very insightful talk about some of what goes on in the background at the club, and otherwise gives some tasty scoops. I'll post the video below but I'll summarise some of the points I found the most interesting. 

  • Has had very little to do with foreign signings since leaving as senior director.
  • In the trade that sent Masato Matsui, Yusuke Matsui and Steven Moya to Orix, it was the Buffaloes that approached the Dragons first, but Takahiro Matsuba and  Kengo Takeda weren't the first on the trade list. From inference, Mori says (although bleeped out) that Yutaro Sugimoto was offered up by Orix first.
  • Team has had a philosophy of defence first, drawing on Muneo Nakata's (recently retired Dragons scout) book, the suggestion is that if a player can't defend first, they're likely to be overlooked. Vantelin Dome seems to be the reason for this. This played into the reason why the Dragons chose Takeda in the trade. 
  • Scouts, Manager, Team Organisation Department (hensei'bu), Owners have their own priorities - industry tie ups seem to come into play particularly with owners. Mori mentions Yamaha among others (coincidentally, Hiroshi Suzuki was drafted out of Yamaha)
  • Managers like to go after pitchers because they're easy to use first up. 
  • Some insight about GM vs Manager control. Says "whatever works." Current system has worked for Dragons in the past, maybe why they won't go back to a GM seeing as how that experiment failed. 
  • When you're only looking at a 3-year contract, you're not thinking about the long-term future - can have effect on team development. (Scott's note: Ironically, Ochiai's longer tenure ended up wrecking the team's future because of his continued use of veterans)
  • Mori was just a bridge to the next manager which was meant to be Michiro Ogasawara who was 2-gun manager at the time and not quite deemed ready enough. 
  • His objective was to get Nobumasa Fukuda, Shuhei Takahashi and Yota Kyoda past the plate appearances required to qualify for post-season awards.
  • Previous owner Bungo Shirai was the step between current owner Uichiro Oshima and his father. 
  • Mori is more okay with defensive failings for second/short positions if they can hit. This doesn't seem to be the opinion of the Dragons scouting team.
  • Mori looking forward the most to seeing Mikiya Tanaka; feels that Shuhei Takahashi would still be a good option at second. 
Overall I found the behind the curtain takes really intriguing. How the Dragons might prioritize their picks with focus on defense or relationships with teams, and the confirmation that Mori was a bridge between Tanishige and another full-time manager who was meant to be Michio Ogasawara, a pretty strong rumour at the time. There is a part 1 where he talks about the 2023 season, and there is a part 3 on the horizon discussing the season ahead. 

Hope you found this as interesting as I did. If your Japanese is up to scratch, by all means give it a view.