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Beat the Taiko and Hold the Denwa, it's 2002 Opening Day!

     We are now just hours away from the first pitch of the 2002 regular season in Japan. With that in mind,. let's assess who is going to be celebrating it and who will be hating it.

Central League

Predicted Finish:

Yakult Swallows
Yomiuri Giants
Hanshin Tigers
Yokohama Bay Stars
Hiroshima Carp
Chunichi Dragons

Team Breakdowns:

Yakult Swallows: Alan Newman, provided that he stays healthy, should be able to compensate nicely for Hirotsugu Maeda going down to the farm. Closer Shingo Takatsu is money in the bank. The middle relief is a question mark since Ryota Igarashi is subject to the home run ball. We will need Hirotoshi Ishii to step up big this season and pray that Taka Igarashi gives us some good innings as well. Offense won't be a problem, and neither will defense, save at catcher, where Atsuya Furuta's knees are going to limit his playing time.

Yomiuri Giants: Too many questions in the rotation. Masumi Kuwata is washed up, imho, Kudoh's career is looking kinda dubious with his chronic aches and pains, and Hisanori Takahashi has never won more than nine games in a season. He has added a cut fastball, but his spring results have been mixed. Koji Uehara has been bugged by injury, too. Closer is unsettled performancewise and it's time they think about doing something with last year's under performing closer, Hideki Okajima, either releasing or demoting him. The Giants are in a position where they will be relying on a rather young middle relief staff, though I like some of those arms. However, there will be growing pains. Look for a career year from Godzilla Matsui and a big improvement offensively from second year catcher Shinnosuke Abe. The Giants-Swallows race will go down to the last week of the season, I predict, due to the soundness of the Giants offense. Look for first round draft choice Hiroki Sanada to get some significant innings after the all star break.

Hanshin Tigers: Picking Hanshin this high is problematic, but the team now seems focused and the addition of Trey Moore, who has yet to permit an earned run in 18 innings this spring, has given them a stopper in middle relief they can rely on. The problem is that Hanshin, once you get past Kei Igawa and Tetsuro Kawajiri, has some major concerns. They could plug Moore into the number three hole, but if they do that, there will be a significant dropoff in the quality of their middle relief. Keiichi Yabu could be one of the stories of the year if he can prove that his showing this spring isn't a mirage. Shinji Taninaka has been up and down this spring while Shinobu Fukuhara, who may have the best pure stuff on the staff, has been up and down for his CAREER. If Fukuhara can find both consistency of focus and command, lookout! Buddy Carlyle will need to demonstrate a lot more than he did last season to make Hanshin a viable contender. The closer role on the team is unresolved with Masahide Narimoto doing little right and Mark Valdez recently getting knocked around. I've proposed, albeit facetiously, that Hoshino toy with the idea of bringing Minoru Kasai out of retirement.

     The Tigers offense has one great addition in Atsushi Kataoka, who I think will replicate his Nippon Ham numbers. The smaller ballparks in the CL should be good for George Arias to a degree, but the pitching is also much better, too. How he deals with that could make or break the season for them. The rest of their lineup is spotty at best. They will need lots of Mariners style "just in time" hitting to get it done, as they have this spring. But the Angels have had great springs and then gone on to stink when the bell rang. So Hanshin fans should be guarded in their optimism.

Yokohama Bay Stars: My dark horse favorite. But they can only win the CL if Daisuke Miura has a world beating year and they can get more production out of Nakane and Kinjo. Shortstop Takuro Ishii obviously isn't going to go quietly. And bet the farm now on Takanori Suzuki having a career year. They need to find a place for Mitsuru Tanaka's speed and defense. And Yokohama fans will be hoping that Mike Gulan won't be this year's Ivan Cruz, all spring promise and regular season failure. The question marks for them will be the back end of the rotation and their middle relief.  My disagreements with manager Masaki Mori's control freak predilections aside, this should be an entertaining team to watch. If Uchikawa turns into the Bret Boone they eventually expect him to be, the Stars could be a real pain in the butt and sneak away with the pennant while the Swallows and Giants beat each other into ashes like Ali and Frazier. But for that to happen, a lot has to come together. I expect Hanshin to have a lot of problems with Yokohama and the Stars could squeak by them to end up third.

Hiroshima Carp: Decent, if inconsistent, offense with injury questions and their small park doesn't do their second rate pitching staff any favors. Unless Tomonori Maeda and Koichi Ogata both last all season and each hits 30 homers to go along with the kind of year you can expect from leftfielder Tomoaki Kanemoto, they really don't have the profile of a club that wins pennants. But then again, neither did Kintetsu, which had NO pitching. The difference is that Hiroshima has to compete in a pitcher's league, Kintetsu didn't. And when Kintetsu had to go head to head a club with relatively deep pitching talent, it got killed. The same will happen to Hiroshima. Plus Godzilla eats these guys alive.

Chunichi Dragons: 2001 free agent signing Kenjiro Kawasaki is out for another year, Shigeki Noguchi gone for at least the first half of the season and an offense that, aside from Kosuke Fukudome, has just flat stunk this spring, it's gonna be a down year in Nagoya, like cellar down. For them to have half a chance, Felix Jose is going to have to look like the second coming of Tuffy Rhodes. I also wouldn't be surprised if Dante Bichette ends up with the Dragons despite supposedly retiring. I wouldn't necessarily count on either of those happening, though. The only other hope is Chunichi somehow getting a hold of Seung-yeop Lee from the Samsung Lions. They also ought to seriously look at Jin Pil-jung as well.

Pacific League

Predicted Finish:

Daiei Hawks
Seibu Lions
Kintetsu Buffaloes
Orix Blue Wave
Chiba Lotte Marines
Nippon Ham Fighters
     Now that we're talking Pacific League, there just aren't any TEAMS that I really like at all outside of the Daiei Hawks. The Hawks even have what could be the sleeper gaijin aquisition in Morgan Burkhart, who won't put up big homer numbers, but is proving to be a good all around hitter who is willing to take a walk every now and again.

     Where the Hawks fall down is their mediocre pitching staff. Their gaijin hurler, Carlos Castillo, proved to be a joke and I expect his release any day now. But due to the soundness of their ballclub in just about every phase of the game save on the mound, Daiei could have this race over in the first two months of the season if you go by what's on paper. Yet, the Hawks have had some problems scoring runs and Iguchi has been disappointing with the bat this spring. So if Daiei doesn't put the rest of the teams away early, this could be a mass battle for mediocrity.

Daiei Hawks: Nobuhiko Matsunaka, if he stays healthy, is going to have another huge year. The addition of Burkhart gives them some integrity in the lower part of the order. Hiroki Kokubo is a battler and will have another 30 homers plus season. Rodney Pedraza has been historically a pretty sound closer. Their pitching has been just good enough in a league with not much of it, so they should win it easily.

Seibu Lions: There are some pretty good athletes on this team and they probably have the best pitching in the league. Good on manager Ihara for telling Matsui that he will only have to think about being the leadoff hitter rather than whimsically shuttling between the 1-3 holes as he was under Osamu Higashio. Ihara should also be relatively good for the overused Matsuzaka's arm.  One thing working for the Lions is that Daiei hasn't taken a season series from them in nearly a quarter of a century. But I doubt it will be enough of a difference to give the kings of Tokorozawa a real pennant shot.

     HOWEVER, Alex Cabrera had a horrid spring and Scott McClain may be Seibu's answer to Chris Donnels (good first year, bad second year, so-so tools), as he hit about a buck fifty this spring. Generally, a gaijin who racks up a lot of homers with a low batting average (think Micah Franklin and Rick Lancelotti), as McClain did (in the .260 range) is gone after his second year. Bye bye Scott. Cabrera is on the cusp of being the biggest second season bust for a foreign player in Japanese history. I mean, he did little this spring except his two homers. There have also been concerns about him adjusting to the higher strike zone. And let's not even mention his defense. Now that pitchers have seemingly
adjusted to him, it will be interesting to see if Cabrera can go back to good hitting fundamentals if he hopes to produce this season.

     Shinji Mori has plus stuff in the bullpen and should put up superior numbers in the closer role. With what I expect to be  lower run production this season, pitching is going to write the tale of Seibu's season. At 22, Matsuzaka has a lot of weight on his young shoulders as he gropes for mechanical consistency.

Kintetsu Buffaloes: Pitching is demonstrably better this spring than last, but that's not saying much. This is a team with a lot of Darren Olivers and Rick Hellings on it. So, as the Texas Rangers of Japanese baseball, they have to outslug the opposition. In a normal year, these guys are a second division team, but the bottom of the league is just so bad either offensively (Orix and Lotte) or just all around (Nippon Ham) that the run producing capability of Norihiro Nakamura and Tuffy Rhodes gives them a slight edge. And if Nigel Wilson is healthy and returns to form (the latter is likely, the former is dicey) you will see a lot of runs coming from the 3-4-5 guys in the order, though not much from elsewhere.

Orix Blue Wave:  Scott Sheldon is a mediocrity here as he was in MLB. Fernando Seguignol will hit in this league, just not for 30 homers. The problem with Fernando is that he is the worst defensive gaijin first baseman to land in Japan since Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart. He had five errors this spring, which projects to 35 over the course of a full season. Yikes! Yoshitomo Tani gives Orix a superior leadoff man (Orix could always post him if it needs cash to MLB, where good, true, leadoff men are scarce) and someone who is likely to win a batting title after setting the all time single season doubles record in 2001. Ikuro Katsuragi, the guy who replaced Ichiro, is looking more like the answer to a trivia question than a stellar performer in his own right. The So Taguchi defection has to play on the minds of Blue Wave players, as well, with each putting pressure on himself to try to compensate for that loss. That is a formula for failure. Again, athletically, this is a very interesting team. But you can't steal first base and running a sub six second 50 meters won't help you get the ball over the fence. Their pitching is just okay and Chiba Lotte's offense sucks, so they will edge out the Marines by a couple of games for fourth.

Chiba Lotte Marines: Frank Bolick is off to a slow start, as he was last season. He'll be okay, though. Shortstop Makoto Kosaka has to have a career year at the plate so that he can steal for Chiba to have a shot at the "A" class, but he hasn't shown enough this spring that he is preparing to do that. Derrick May is doing nicely this spring and should hit in the .280 range with 20 or so homers. Kazuya Fukuura will also have another outstanding season at the plate. But once you get past these three guys, it's rough sledding.

     Pitching-wise, Kosuke Kato, though young, will do more than decently. Nathan Minchey, after getting destroyed his first couple of spring outings, pitched a blinder his last time out, so he might be solid for them, too. Their number one draft choice, lefty Takashi Tanaka, will be used as a situational guy to get lefties out, becoming the Marines answer to Seibu's Takehiro Hashimoto. But the team lost Tomohiro Kuroki for the first half of the year and "Sunday Shingo" Ono is going to begin the season in the minors since he has been getting hammered. He may also have an arm problem.

Nippon Ham Fighters: With the loss of both Atsushi Kataoka and Nigel Wilson, the pressure for Michihiro Ogasawara and Sherman Obando to produce will be ramped up significantly. And Obando had a terrible spring. They've gotten a little more offense out of catcher Kazunari Sanematsu than was expected this spring. If it continues he could have a nice little year, though he's no Kenji Johjima. D.T. Cromer, a failed prospect from the Reds organization, hasn't given any definite signals as to how he is going to do. He's been coming on, but I'm not sure that he will leave all that much of an impression on Fighters fans. Seigo Fujishima, 32, had his best spring ever and will be a starter after a decade of being a role player. So he will be watched to see if he was a 30 day superstar or someone who has found a second life. But it is not possible to exaggerate what the loss of Kataoka does to this team.

     On the mound, there is no there there. Manager Yasunori Oshima was talking to the press as if he was intending to put new gaijin purchase Chris Seelbach into the rotation, but yet Seelbach had a mere two appearances this spring. This is just a forgettable team. They are like the late 60's Washington Senators. One big star (Frank Howard in Washington's case, Ogasawara in Nippon Ham's), and a below average supporting cast. That they play in Tokyo Dome, the same homeground as the Giants, is a cruel twist of fate to be sure.

Ichiro's Alma Mater Loses at Koshien

     The high school that Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki attended, Aikodai Meiden High, lost 2-1 to Shin Minato High School in the Koshien Spring Invitational Baseball Tournament over the weekend. To spur his "kouhai" (juniors) on, the 2001 AL MVP sent them 20 bats and 100 pairs of sanitary socks and asked that in return they send him five videotapes. A team has to win five games to take this most hallowed of Japanese baseball tournaments, so in a typically Japanese elliptical fashion, Ichiro was asking them to come out on top.

     In the wake of the loss, team members vowed to return to the summer tournament (there are two Koshien tournaments every year) and win it for their superstar senior.

Nike Signs Matsuzaka to Biggest Endorsement Contract Ever for Japanese Player

     Nike has signed Seibu Lions righthander Daisuke Matsuzaka to a two year contract worth more than $2 million. For the first year of the deal, Matsuzaka will act mainly in an advisory capacity, but the final year will see a full on media blitz from the international atheltic goods company using "The Monster," as the Yokohama High grad is known, in television commercials and in other media. The contract is reportedly the most lucrative ever offered to a Japanese baseball player by the firm.

Rhodes Lays Out His Priorities for the 2002 Season

     In an interview with Sankei Sports, Kintetsu Buffaloes outfielder Tuffy Rhodes, who tied Sadaharu Oh's single season homer mark of 55 last year, listed his offensive priorities in the following order. First, hit .300; second, drive in runs; third, slug homers. Rhodes, who began spring training hotter than the fourth of July but then tailed off, is focusing on hitting the ball to center and left. He obviously realizes that most runs are scored on basehits, thus the added concentration on going the other way. That will also make a hitter less prone to hitting into double plays or striking out.

     As smart and genial as Rhodes is, it certainly wouldn't be out of the question to see him carve out a future for himself as a coach somehwere down the line once his playing days are over. One the pressure for Kintetsu to repeat? "As a player, I don't really feel any pressure, but there is some on us as a pennant winning team. It would be frustrating if we don't win it all this

Petagine Says His Knee is Fine

     Just in time for opening day, Roberto Petagine, the 2001 CL MVP, says his knee is okay now and he expects to be in the starting lineup when the regular season commences. Hirobumi Watarai, Peta-chan's understudy at the position, had a fine spring and showed that he could do a more than passable job should the ex-Phillie require some rest. That also gives the Swallows some pinch hitting depth, which is another reason why they will be tough to beat.

New Tokyo Dome Turf Said to be Slow

     Partly as a sop to Hideki Matsui, the Yomiuri Giants had new artificial turf installed at Tokyo Dome this past winter and so far it is playing to mixed reviews. It is thought that the so-called "Field Turf," which is used by some NFL clubs, would provide less stress on players' backs and knees, but Giants infielder Tomohisa Nishi says that the ball slows down once it hits the surface and infielders will have to readjust their timing in confronting ground balls.

     Hanshin batting coach Koichi Tabuchi remarked that for hitters with speed the turf will prove to be a blessing and that it is even dead enough to bunt well on, comparing the conditions to what one would encounter on a major league ballfield. Hanshin has some kids who can really fly in last season's stolen base champ, Norihiro Akahoshi, along with Atsushi Fujimoto, Yoshinori Okihara (though Okihara is no kid) Shuta Tanaka and others. This should also prove very comfortable for groundball pitchers.

     However, Yomiuri hurlers were complaining about the way the mound was redone, though when Nippon Ham's pitching staff got first shot at toeing the rubber in the dome nary a groan was heard. So we'll see how it ultimately shakes out.

Nomo #2, Ishii #5 in Dodgers Rotation

     According to Sports Nippon, the L.A. Dodgers rotation will be looking like this: #1 Kevin Brown; #2 Hideo Nomo; #3 Odalis Perez; #4 Andy Ashby #5 Kazuhisa Ishii. The most surprising thing for me about this is Perez going in so highly.

     Btw, the Seattle media is saying that Ishii will indeed start Sunday at Safeco field against the Mariners.

Irabu Makes Rangers Roster

     Sports Nippon is also saying that former Chiba Lotte Marines righty Hideki Irabu has had his minor league contract purchased by the Texas Rangers. With Chan-ho Park hampered by a strained hamstring and Ismael Valdes having another injury, it is looking likely that Irabu could begin the season as the club's #5 starter. Irabu was 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA in spring training.

Scott Bullet Sent Down to Minors by Dragons

     His first Japan spring was a nightmare for outfielder Scott Bullet, so the Chunichi Dragons are going to start Bullet in the minors this season as they hope to bring in ex-Cardinal Felix Jose to boost what was very poor offensive production in the pre-season.


     Best wishes to Chunichi Dragons middle reliever Hitoki Iwase, 27, and his bride Asako, 30. The pair had been going out for the last six years before deciding to tie the knot Friday.  The two were reportedly introduced to each other by a mutual friend while they  were both attending Aichi University.




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