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 – Central 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 Swallows surprised one and all with a worst to first rise in the Central League (CL) in 2015. Although they came up short in the Japan Series against eventual winners Softbank, they remain the class act of the CL and have the talent to again contend in 2016. Headlining the rise of the Swallows is star infielder Testuto Yamada. CL MVP Yamada was everything to the Swallows in 2015, hitting a CL best .329, launching 38HRs, driving in 100RBIs, while also stealing 34 bases. Yamada will again be flanked in the line-up by solid hitters in the forms of Shingo Kawabata (.336 8 57), and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama (.268 26 105). If former HR powerhouse Wladimir Balentien can return to health and play a full season (Valentin hit 91 HRs in the two seasons before 2015), after only playing in 15 games in 2015 (.186 1 6), then the Swallows will again be a tough ask for most pitching staffs to contend with.
A number of key Swallows starters managed to stay healthy for the first time in a number of years in 2015, and quality pitching by Masanori Ishikawa (13-9, 3.31), Yasuhiro Ogawa (11-8, 3.11), and Shohei Tateyama (6-3, 2.89) paired with dominating relief work by Ryo Akiyoshi (6-1, 2.36, 22 Holds), Logan Ondrusek (5-2, 2.05, 33 Holds), and Orlando Roman (5-5, 2.40, 23 Holds) propelled the Swallows to the Japan Series. However, the Swallows have lost key closer Tony Barnette(3-1, 1.29, 41 saves), who opted to return to MLB with the Texas Rangers this season. In order to shore up the starting rotation and bullpen the Swallows have added imports Kyle Davies (11-8, 3.30 at AAA), Josh Lueke(7-5, 2.43 in the Mexican league in 2015), and Dominican Lefty Luis Perez. Notwithstanding a total meltdown in starting pitching, the Swallows look to have the depth and quality to stay at the top of the CL in 2016.
2016 Predicted finish: 1st
New Manager and ex-Giants fan favourite Yoshinobu Takahashi takes over from 19 year incumbent Tatsunori Hara who was deemed a failure after not winning a championship in the last three seasons. Although Takahashi is new to the role, the expectations on the Giants to at least get back to the Japan Series will be as high and smothering as ever. Luckily for Takahashi the Giants tend to flood their roster with talent to a ridiculous degree, and as a result his lack of experience may mean little when all is said and done. The Giants also tend to be quite willing to spend millions on foreign talent to plug holes as/when needed, even if they do not use them once they become dissatisfied with their performance after a few games (Alex Castellanos & Juan Francisco spring to mind). The Giants line-up will initially look similar to that of 2015 with much much more expected of underperforming Hisayoshi Chono (.251 15 52), Shuichi Murata (.236 12 39), and aging catcher-turned first baseman-turned catcher Shinosuke Abe (.242 15 47). The second-base merry-go ground should end with the pick-up of free agent Luis Cruz (.255 16 73 with Chiba in 2015) in the offseason. While Cruz does not exactly provide a major upgrade in offense, his defence will be warmly welcomed by the Giants pitching staff.
The Giants will be hoping that first year star starter Miles Mikolas (13-3 1.92), and Aaron Poreda (8-8, 2.94) can provide more of the same in 2016, along with development in rookie Hayato Takagi (9-10, 3.19) and improved offensive support for the always unlucky Tomoyuki Sugano (10-11, 1.91). Former ace starters and re-bound hopefuls Tetsuya Utsumi (2-1, 5.01), Toshiya Suguichi (6-6, 3.95), and Kan Otake (3-4, 3.21) provide the Giants with a large amount of rotation depth. The bullpen looks solid with the return of Scott Mathieson (3-8-2, 2.62, 28 Holds) and closer Hirokazu Sawamura (7-3, 1.32, 36 saves). The Giants have also picked up former Lions outfielder Abner Abreu and 1B/OF Garrett Jones (.215) from the Yankees organization. The Giants are perennial favourites to win the CL and have enough depth to field two competitive teams. With improved hitting across the board they should run the Swallows close in the CL.
Predicted finish: 2nd
Yokohama DeNA BayStars
Yokohama ownership surprised many with the hiring of former Swallow, Giant, and BayStar Alex Ramirez as manager this past October. Foreign managers continue to be a rare commodity in Japan (he will be the first since Marty Brown managed Hiroshima in 2009), but Yokohama may be hoping that a less-traditional approach from the well-known Ramirez may help to spur the team to finish in the top three for the first time in over ten years this season, including a spectacular flame-out from first place at the All-star break in 2015 to last place by the end of the season. Ramirez will build his line-up around up-and-coming star Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (.317 24 93) and Takayuki Kajitani (.275 13 66, 28SBs), while hoping for more of the same from veteran import Jose Lopez (.291 25 73). Yokohama also signed Canadian outfielder Jamie Romak who hit .284 with 27 home runs and 100 RBIs in 2015 at the Triple-A affiliate of the MLB Arizona Diamondbacks. Romak should complement a squad that actually hit well last season, driving in 508 runs, second only to the Swallows for offensive production.
With a CL worst ERA of 3.80 in 2015 the Baystars will be looking for improvement from staff aces Yasutomo Kubo (8-7, 4.12), Shun Yamaguchi (3-6, 4.49), and veteran Daisuke Miura (6-6, 4.13). Yokohama signed right hander Zach Petrick (14-13, 4.56 at AAA for the Cardinals) this offseason, and will hope he provides part of the answer to its starting pitching woes. In relief the Baystars do have solidity in stopper Yoslan Herrera (5-4, 2.96, 22 Hols), Tomoya Mikami (1-1, 0.81, 9 Holds), and closer Yasuaki Yamazaki (2-4, 1.92, 37 saves). With an improvement in pitching of any kind the Baystars should have enough to make up the 8 games out third they finished in 2015, and may be the dark horse team for 2016.
Predicted finish: 3rd
New Tigers manager Tomoaki Kanemoto inherits a team that did not live up to expectations in 2015, barely scraping into the playoffs before a quick exit in the first round. The release of the ever reliable Matt Murton (.276 9 59) after six seasons means that more will be expected of outfielders Taiga Egoshi (.214 5 16), Yamato (.225 0 12), and an unlikely encore for over-achieving 38 year old veteran Kosuke Fukudome (.281 20 76). The Tigers will also be hoping that former independent league star Nelson Perez (.315 14 35 on the farm team) takes advantage of the opportunity with Murton gone. Captain Takashi Toritani (.281 6 42) returns along with the somewhat disappointing Mauro Gomez (.271 17 72). The Tigers signed first baseman/outfielder Matt Hague (.338 11 92 at AAA for the Blue Jays) in what appears to be insurance for a poor start by either Perez or Gomez.
The strength of the Tigers lies in their rotation. Shintaro Fujinami (14-7, 2.40) emerged as the staff ace in 2015, and was flanked by solid starters Atsushi Nohmi (11-13, 3.72), and the serviceable Randy Messenger (9-12, 2.97). Minoru Iwata (8-10, 3.22) did enough to hold down the fourth starter spot, but Hanshin do lack depth and experience when any of the top four are unavailable. Former Padre Marcos Mateo (1-1, 4.00) has been signed to replace the loss of closer Seung-Hwan Oh (2-3, 2.73, 41 saves), who in turn signed with the Cardinals this off-season. The Tigers also picked up reliever Rafael Dolis (7-5-1, 4.61 at AAA Toledo in 2015) to try and bolster the bullpen. A lot of things need to go right for the Tigers to contend in 2016 and unless they make a move to strengthen their starting rotation they look more likely to fall back towards the pack in the CL and miss the playoffs this time around.
Predicted finish: 4th
Hiroshima fell to fourth last season after two years in the top three and making the playoffs. First year manager Koichi Ogata did not appear to have a plan B when the team was struggling and the team looked nothing like they had in 2013 and 2014. Sub-par seasons by Brad Eldred (.227 19,54), Ryosuke Kikuchi (.254 8 32), and Rainel Rosario (.258 2 12) did little to help their cause as the Carp spent much of the season in last place in the CL before a September surge. Former Dragon infield star Hector Luna (.292 8 61) has been signed by the Carp in the off-season, and should solidify the infield defence and provide them with a long needed regular third baseman. Hiroshima have also signed veteran outfielder Jason Pridie (.310 20 89 with AAA Nashville) to hopefully become less reliant on Eldred for power in the line-up. The Carp struggled to threaten with any real power last season when Eldred missed time with injury.
The Carp posted a solid team ERA of 2.92 last season, but one that relied heavily on the now LA Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda (15-8, 2.09) and 41 year old Hiroki Kuroda (11-8, 2.55). The Carp will be hoping that new found ace Kris Johnson (14-7, 1.85) can replicate his stellar from of 2015, and that Yuya Fukui (9-6, 3.56) and the disappointing Yusuke Nomura (5-8, 4.64) can provide enough to cover the loss of Maeda. Plan B for the Carp revolves around the signings of Bradin Hagens (5-5, 2.67 at AAA Durham) and former Padre Jay Jackson (3-3, 14 saves). If the pitching holds together the Carp may have enough for a run at third and the playoffs, if not they look set for another bottom half performance in 2016.
Predicted finish: 5th
The Dragons continued to age badly in 2015 and only kept themselves out of last place in the standings by tying three more games than the Baystars could manage. 46 year old Manager Motonobu Tanishige has finally stepped away from the player-manager role that did little to help the team in 2015, and said goodbye to a number of its aged veterans (Kazuhiro Wada, Kenshin Kawakami, and Masa Yamamoto to name a few). Unfortunately for the Dragons, what they have left inspires little for the coming season. Masahiko Morino (.262 0 10) appears to have lost his former ability to hit the long ball (he used to average 20 a season), while stalwarts Ryosuke Hirata (.283 13 53) and Yohei Oshima (.260 6 27) inspire little fear. In what may have simply been a cost-cutting moved for the rumoured to be cash-strapped club, the Dragons cut the productive Hector Luna (.316 34 184 in 3 seasons with the club) and signed former White Sox utility man Dayan Viciedo. Although Viciedo (.287 8 28 at two AAA teams in 2015) is only 27it is difficult to see him completely replacing the production of Luna.
Starting pitching remains a concern for the Dragons as they will need Daisuke Yamai (4-12, 3.92) and Yudai Ono (11-10, 2.52) to bounce back from poor seasons if they are to have any hope of contending. The one highlight for the Dragons was second year Shunta Wakamatsu (10-4, 2.12) who went from 0 wins in 2014 to 10 in 2015. The Dragons have signed Juan Jaime (0-2, 2.89 at 7 different levels/clubs in 2015) and Jordan Noberto(1-3, 4.96 at AA Durham) to hopefully shore things up. An overall lack of hitting and pitching depth make the Dragons odd-on favourites to fall further into the cellar this season.
Predicted finish: 6th