Glenn Davies / Japanese InsiderJapanese Baseball 2016 Season Previews:
Japanese Baseball: Pacific League Updates: September, 2015 / August, 2015 / July, 2015 / June, 2015 / May, 2015 / April, 2015
Japanese Baseball: Central League Updates: September, 2015 / August, 2015 / July, 2015 / June, 2015 / May, 2015 / April, 2015
Japanese Baseball News - May, 2015Japanese Baseball 2015 Season Preview
Japanese Baseball 2016 Season Preview – Pacific League
This team-by-team preview offers a quick glimpse into what to look for in 2016; some of the stars for each team, notes on some of the moves they have made in the off-season, and predicted finishes for each of the teams involved.
The Hawks dominated all comers in 2015 on their way to the clubs 19th league pennant and 7th Japan Series championship. They had the best pitching in the Pacific League (PL) with a team ERA of 3.16 and a PL best team average of .267. With a roster kept largely intact over the off-season the Hawks look primed for another run at the title under second year manager Kimiyasu Kudo. PL MVP Yuki Yanagita (.363 34 99) and returning veteran Nobuhiro Matsuda (.287 35 94) return to power a line-up that drove in 651 runs in 143 games last season. The Hawks have lost slugging first baseman Dae Ho Lee (.282 31 98) to the MLB Pirates, but with a healthy Seiichi Uchikawa (.284 11 82) and up-and-coming stars Yuya Hasegawa (.224 5 12) and Kenta Imamiya (.228 7 45) returning to the line-up, the Hawks look to be in good shape.
The Hawks can again rely on starters Tadashi Settsu (10-7 3.22), Shota Takeda (13-6, 3.17), Kenichi Nakata (9-7, 3.24), and the surprising Rick Van Den Hurk (9-0, 2.52) to set the tone this season. The loss of Jason Standridge (10-7, 3.74) to the Marines this off-season is unlikely to trouble a team so deep in pitching, and will probably allow some much needed space for their next crop of starters to come through. The bullpen looks equally as strong with the return of closer Dennis Sarfate (5-4, 1.11, 41 saves), and Ryota Igarashi (3-1, 1.38, 2 saves, 31 holds). Difficult to see holes in this line-up yet again, and difficult to see them not repeating as at least PL champions again this season.
2016 Predicted finish: 1st
The Lions finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year last season but Manager Norio Tanabe did manage to improve the team by 6 wins and one place in the standings. The mainstay of the improvement was their hitting; the Seibu Lions had the second best offense in Japan (behind the Hawks) and plated 631 runs in their 143 games. Key to success this year will be keeping slugger Takeya Nakamura (.278 37 124) healthy and in the line-up for another 130+ games as he was in 2015, the continued development of Tomoya Mori (.287 17 68), Hideto Asamura (.270 13 81), and record breaking hit machine Shogo Akiyama (.359 14 55, 17SBs and 216 hits in 602 ABs). The team will also be hoping that import Ernesto Mejia (.235 27 89) can edge his average and power numbers back towards his 2014 levels (.290 34 56).
Although the team showed its ability to score runs with ease last year they were simply unable to keep them out with any regularity. The team ERA of 3.69 in 2015 would put them 10th out of the 12 teams in the league, so more will be needed from starters Yusei Kikuchi (9-10, 2.84), Kazuhisa Makita (9-11, 3.66), and Chun-Lun Kuo (3-7, 5.31) if they are to compete for a playoff spot in 2016. It will also be interesting to see whether fourth year starter Ken Togame(11-7, 3.55) can repeat his career year of 2015. Closer Tomomi Takahashi (2-3, .2.92, 22 saves, 14 holds) returns for 2016 along with Tatsushi Masuda (2-4, 3.04, 3 saves, 40 holds) in the bullpen. The Lions want to win now, and the signing of Andy Van Hekken from the Korean Baseball League signals their intent. Van Hekken went 15-8 with an ERA of 3.62 in Korea last season (following up on a 20 win season in 2014). With improved pitching they certainly have the bats to contend for a playoff-place this season, but as with last year, much will depend upon just how much improvement that pitching can make.
Predicted finish: 2nd
Nippon Ham Fighters
Although the Fighters finished second in the PL with ease in 2015 they fell a little further back towards the PL pack offensively and defensively; something highlighted by their first round exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Marines. The Fighters will continue to rely heavily on the bats of Sho Nakata (.263 30 102) and Brandon Laird (.231 34 97) this season, Laird started painfully slowly last season but ended with a flourish to pass Nakata in HRs. Former standout Daikan Yoh will be expected to bounce back from a dreadful season where his average dropped 34 points and his HR total by a whopping 18. Equally the Fighters will be hoping that the poor performance of two-way star Shohei Otani can come back from a 129 point drop in his slugging percentage from the previous season.
The starting rotation of the Fighters remains their biggest strength in 2016. Shohei Otani (15-5, 2.24 – 196 SOs in 160 IP) continued to dominate, along with solid performances from returning Mitsuo Yoshikawa (11-8, 3.84) and Luis Mendoza (10-8, 3.51). Hirotoshi Masui (0-1, 1.50, 39 Saves) continued to establish himself as a premier closer last season, along with Naoki Miyanishi (3-3, 2.70, 25 holds) in the set-up role. Nippon Ham remains a team with a solid spine and one that should have enough about it to make the playoffs again in 2016.
Predicted finish: 3rd
Chiba Lotte Marines
The Chiba Lotte Marines surprised many with a 7 win improvement over 2014 and playoff run that saw them take out the heavily favoured Fighters in a three game series. However, Marines manager Tsutomu Ito will need rather a lot of duct tape and staples if he is to have a hope of scrabble together another playoff run with a squad that has lost key pieces over the off-season. Cuban Alfredo Despaigne (.258 18 62) returns as the key power threat in the line-up, but his low average and tendency to go into extended slumps remains a worry. However, the Marines did sign Dominican infielder Yamaico Navarro (.287 48 137) and will be hoping his power in Korea translates to NPB one he clears his one month suspension (for carrying a bullet in his bag when coming into Japan). Chiba will also be hoping that up-and-coming stars Ikuhiro Kiyota (.317 15 67), Katsuya Kakunaka (.293 6 52), and Daichi Suzuki (.263 6 50) can take the next step this season.
Hideaki Wakui (15-9, 3.39) was ta revelation in 2015 after going 14-24 in his previous three seasons. Unfortunately, even if he does manage to replicate that in 2016, Chiba will need more from Ayumu Ishikawa (12-12, 3.27) and Dae-Eun Rhee (9-9, 3.84) if they are to compete. With that in mind Chiba picked up former Tigers and Softbank starter Jason Standridge (10-7, 3.74) in the off-season. At 37 Standridge provides the Marines with a solid addition to the rotation and should be good for 8-10 much needed wins. At closer Yuji Nishino (1-2, 1.83, 34 saves) has been solid, along with Tomohisa Ohtani (3-1, 2.39, 32 holds) in the set-up role. The Marines look to have the arms to run the Fighters and Lions close for the 3rd place play-off spot, but may ultimately fall short due to a lack of reliable offense.
Predicted finish: 4th
Manager Junichi Fukura took over mid-way through the 2015 season after a disastrous start by the club. Unfortunately Fukura fared no better than his predecessor, only managing to guide the team from 6th to 5th place by the end of the season; cue a clear-out of Florida Marlin-like proportions. Orix said goodbye to a record 18 players this off-season, including former ace Brian Bullington , slugger Francisco Caraballo, and relief pitcher Alex Maestri. Orix then went about signing former Philly Brian Bogusevic (.259 2 5 in 22 games for the Phillies in 2015) and former Pirate Brent Morel (.331 12 24 as AAA Nashhville) to hopefully provide some offensive to go with the hoped for bounce back performances from the usually more reliable Yoshio Itoi (.262 17 68), T-Okada (.280 11 51), and Hiroyuki Nakajima (.240 10 46).
Yuki Nishi (10-6, 2.38) and second year starter Daiki Tomei (10-8, 3.35) return as the only highlights from a poor pitching year for the Buffaloes staff. Orix will be hoping that replacements Erik Cordier(2-1, 2.51 with 3 teams in the Marlins organization) can replace the departing Alessandro Maestri in the bullpen, while looking for improved performances from Brandon Dickson (9-9, 2.48) and former ace Chihiro Kaneko (7-6, 3.19) after an injury plagues season (Kaneko won 16 in 2014). The lack of a go-to closer has also been an issue for the club after auditioning the role to half a dozen pitchers over the season last year. Overall the team has as many, if not more question marks as they finished the season with last year, and as a result seem unlikely to challenge for the playoffs this time around.
Predicted finish: 5th
The Rakuten Eagles continued to regress under first year manager Dave Ohkubo in 2015, coming last in the PL for the second straight year and giving up more runs than anyone else in the league, ending with Ohkubo stepping down to make way for former Buffaloes and Fighters manager Masataka Nashida. Nashida and the Eagles management have been quick to jettison supposed dead-wood (goodbye to Wily Mo Pena and Gaby Sanchez)and bring new talent on board, signing Mexican league MVP Japhet Amador already this off-season, and veteran infielder Toshiaki Imae (.287 1 38) from the Marines. If Japhet can provide anywhere near the same level of production as he did for the Mexico City Devils in 2015(.346 41 117), he will be a major upgrade on anything the Eagles have had at first recently. The Eagles will bring back Zelous Wheeler (.255 14 50) and veteran Kaz Matsui (.256 10 48) who made the transition to the outfield this past season at the age of 40.
The Eagles had the worst ERA in the league in 2015 (3.82) and only one starter than managed double-digit wins in Takahiro Norimoto (10-11, 2.91). Norimoto was meant to be the successor to now Yankee Masahiro Tanaka, but has yet to really break through. Other starters Wataru Karashima (5-7, 4.58), Kenji Tomura (7-11, 3.84), and veteran Kenny Ray (5-7, 3.79) offer little hope of an Eagles resurgence in 2016. That said, they have signed former Carp pitcher Kam Mickolio (last pitched in 2014)and Radhames Liz (1-4, 4.24) from the Pirates so far this off-season to bring more depth to their bullpen. Too many unknowns and hopes for improvement in the squad to see much more than a slight improvement possible for the cellar-dwelling Eagles.
Predicted finish: 6th