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Japanese Baseball 2015 Season Preview

The Japanese baseball season for 2015 is officially underway. This team-by-team preview gives you a quick glimpse into what to look for in 2015, 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 twelve teams involved.

Glenn Davies

Tokyo, Japan.

Central league

1. Hiroshima Carp

Last years feel-good story was the continued resurgence of the Hiroshima Carp, finishing 3rd for the 2nd straight season after more than 20 years in the wilderness. However the 3rd place finish and subsequent knockout by the Tigers in the climax series again left them short of their Japan Series ambitions. This year, with the additions of veteran star Hiroki Kuroda (NYY 11-9 3.71) along with full seasons from Brad Eldred (.260 37 104) and Raniel Rosario (.336 14 49), give the Carp the look of a team ready to go one better. A lot may depend on whether Yoshihiro Maru’s career year (.310 19 67) is sustainable. Carp fans will recall similar numbers for Kenta Kurihara in 2009-2010, a player that now hits .250 with little power. However, the team have improved on their win total every year since 2010 and with a starting rotation that already has an ace in Kenta Maeda (11-9 2.60), and up-and-coming starters Daichi Ohsera (10-8 4.05) and Yusuke Nomura (7-8 4.39), the addition of Kuroda looks likely to push them over the top in the competitive central league.

Predicted finish: 1st

2. Yomiuri Giants

Three straight first place finishes for the Yomiuri Giants but only one Japan series to show for it. Giants fans expect to win it all every year, and the Yankees of Japan were even more aggrieved to find themselves knocked out in the climax series by the Tigers in 2014. Incumbent manager Tatsunori Hara will be expected to deliver a Japan Series winning team this time around, but surprisingly the off-season brought little activity as he seems prepared to stick with a pretty similar team to the one that came up short last season. The Giants will be looking for improvement in its starting pitching with a rotation of Tomoyuki Sugano (12-5 2.33), Toshiya Sugiuchi (10-6 3.16), Kan Ohtake (9-6 3.98), and Testuya Utsumi (7-9 3.17). As always the Giants have at least 5 more experienced starters that they can plug into the rotation if needed, and new foreign signings Miles Mikolas and Aaron Poreda will likely see a majority of bullpen action. Although the Giants have the lineup and bench to bat all day long, manager Hara is prone to favoring a number of non-productive veterans that tend to help other teams slip past them in key games (Kataoka and Ibata spring to mind). Paired with the low averages of their central hitters in the lineup; Shinichi Murata (.256 21 68), Shinsuke Abe (.248 19 57), and 2014 Cuban signing Frederich Cepeda (.194 6 18), and there are fears that they will hit themselves into second place this season.

Predicted finish: 2nd

3. Hanshin Tigers

The Tigers made their second trip in 10 years to the Japan Series in 2014, but came up empty handed again. Most observers had them down as lucky to reach that point as they had failed to impress for much of the season. With almost no activity on the roster front this past off-season, aside from the re-signing of shortstop and captain Takashi Toritani after he failed to land a contract with a major league team, manager Yutaka Wada will continue to hope that his starters can replicate their 2014 performance and that Matt Murton and Mauro Gomez provide the same level of offensive pop. Murton had a renaissance year in 2014 (.338 14 84) and Gomez proved equally as hard to handle (.283 26 109). With speed and defense in the outfield the infield spots of third and second look to be a weak area for the Tigers. A carousel of players have been tried at third to no avail, Ryota Imanari (.259 4 24) looks set to be this years version after the departure of veteran Takahiro Arai to the Carp. Tsuyoshi Nishioka (.237 0 4) returns at second health permitting, but provides little power to match somewhat ageing defensive skills. The top four in the rotation look set as Randy Messenger (13-10 3.20), Atsushi Nohmi (9-13 3.99), Shintaro Fujinami (11-8 3.53), and Minoru Iwata (9-8 2.54). A repeat performance by all four, along with continued stellar work by closer Sunfan Oh (2-4-39sv 1.76) should see them strong enough to return to the playoffs in 2015.

Predicted finish: 3rd

4. Yakult Swallows

Injuries and lack of pitching depth made 2014 a forgettable season for the Swallows. The hope for this year us that the return to health of its key starters, Yasuhiro Ogawa (9- 3.66) and Kyohei Muranaka (2-2 3.79). Yakult picked up former Chiba Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse (9-11 4.67) to bolster the rotation along with new foreign pitching talent in the form of reliever Logan Ondrusek from the Cincinnati Reds organization; although he will likely have to vie for playing time with incumbent foreign reliever Orlando Roman (1-0 0.56,16 games). Tony Barnette (1-2 14sv 3.34) returns this as the Swallows closer and will be hoping he can stay healthy to get back to his 33 save level of 2012.

Wladimir Valentin returns as the big bopper in the lineup after hitting .301 31 69 last year. Hard not to consider that a down year when he broke the single season homerun record in 2013 hitting .330 60 131. The first key for the Swallows hitting will be whether Testuto Yamada can replicate his career year last year in almost every category, hitting .324 29 89, having previously hitting only four HRs in two seasons with the big club. Second to that will be whether Lasting Milledge can return to form from injury last season that limited him to 10 games (.231 1 6). Although the Swallows let veteran catcher Ryoji Aikawa walk to the Giants this past offseason, it is not expected to be a move that hurts the team, with Yuhei Nakamura providing solid back up at that position (.298 5 41). If all goes well on the injury front the Swallows have a team that can certainly challenge for the playoffs and pull themselves well beyond their 6th place finish in 2014.

Predicted finish: 4th

5. Dena Yokohama BayStars

It has been 10 years since the BayStars last finished in the top three in the Central league. 2014 saw them finish fifth for the second straight season, and after three seasons where new owners Dena have been on the spend, the spend continues this season. The BayStars picked up a number of free agents to replace those cast off in the hunt for respectability with Jose Lopez joining from the Giants where he hit .243 22 57 last season, along with infield brothers Lourdres Gourriel Jr. (Cuban league .326 7 39), and Yulieski Gourriel (.305 11 30) who played in 62 games for the BayStars last year. Aaron Baldiris also returns at third where he hit .55 17 52 last season after coming over from the Orix Buffaloes. With teams limited to four foreign players on the 25 man roster, and all four being infielders, reports on the team have regularly commented on the odd situation they have created for themselves by spending big for all four. Yasutomo Kubo (12-6 3.33) leads the pitching staff along with Shouichi Inoue (11-9 4.01), and Guillermo Moscoso (9-9 3.39). The rotation beyond that is a bit of a lottery as the BayStars will look to mix and match with what they have. Newcomer Yoslan Herrera joins from the Angels where he pitched 20 games in relief in 2014 (1-1 2.70). Manager Kiyoshi Nakahata, while a darling with the press as he is good for a comment or two, has yet to show any consistency in getting the best out of the team. Most would expect him to go at the end of this season should they finish in the bottom two yet again.

Predicted finish: 5th

6. Chunichi Dragons

The steady decline of the Dragons continued in 2014, finishing fourth for the second straight year, and continuing to age all over the field, it is difficult to see much changing in 2015. 45 year old player-manager Motonobu Tanishige continues to put himself in to catch where his .195 average does little to help anyone. Unfortunately for the Dragons, there is little better available at most positions on the field. Main stays of the line-up include 37 year old Masahiko Morino (.288 13 86) and 43 year old Kazuhiro Wada (.281 16 65), both of whom you would expect to see some decline from in 2015. That said the Dragons do have one of the best imports in the league in Hector Luna (.317 17 73), who they hope will be better supported by a full season from Anderson Hernandez (86 games for the Dragons in 2014 - .262 5 32) in 2015. Lack of pitching depth looks likely to be the main concern for the Dragons in 2015. Daisuke Yamai (13-5 3.21) leads the rotation along with Yudai Ono (10-8 2.89), but after that a lot will depend upon the return of injured starters or the fast tracking of draft picks to the top club. Kazuki Yoshimi (0-1 4.20) and ex-Brave Keshin Kawakami (1-2 4.78) being ones to watch on that front. An overall lack of speed, youth, and pitching depth have predictions looking grim for the Dragons in 2015.

Predicted finish: 6th

Pacific League

1. Softbank Hawks

The Hawks made hard work of the Pacific League in 2014, but came through in the end and took their second Japan Series in four years. Rookie manager Kimiyasu Kudo takes the helm of a team that knows how to win, and so with his tinkering limited thus far in Spring training to a focus on overall conditioning and health, it is difficult to see them not returning to defend their crown. The pitching rotation, anchored by Tadashi Settsu (10-8 3.90), Kenichi Tanaka(11-7 4.34), and Jason Standridge (11-8 3.30), has been bolstered by the additions of veteran Daisuke Matsuzaka (NYM 3-3-1 3.89) and Rick Van Den Hurk (Korea 13-4 3.18). Bullpen depth remains a strength of the Hawks, and closer Dennis Sarfate (7-1 37Sv 1.05) returns in 2015. The Hawks hit .280 as a whole (Best in the league) in 2014, and with no real changes to their line-up this season they look likely to continue at that pace. Lee Dae-Ho (.300 19 68), Nobuhiro Matsuda (.301 18 56), and Seiichi Uchikawa (.307 18 74) provide the power in the middle of the line-up, with Yuichi Honda (23 SBs) and Yuki Yanagida (33 SBs – along with 15HRs) providing the speed. Difficult to see holes in this line-up, and difficult to see them not repeating as at least PL champions this season.

Predicted finish: 1st

2. Orix Buffaloes

The Buffaloes finished second and returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 last season. The 14 win improvement was made possible by solid pitching with a team ERA of 2.89 (good for best in the league), along with a team batting average of .289 (2nd in the league) and 126 stolen bases (2nd in the league). Although an excellent year for the Buffaloes, being knocked off by the Hawks in the playoffs meant that the team knew they would need to add that little more to try and get past them in 2015. Solid additions were made in the offseason in the forms of Brian Bullington (9-8 4.58) from the Hiroshima Carp, and Tony Blanco (.283 17 60) from the Dena Yokohama BayStars , to make up for the loss of Wily Mo Pena. In addition to Blanco and Bullington, the Buffaloes were able to sign former Lions star Hiroyuki Nakajima after two years in the U.S. Nakajima represents a major upgrade at shortstop if he can offer anything near his Seibu form of around .300 with 15-20Hrs. The stars of the show however are Yoshio Itoi, who batted .331 19 81 last season along with 31 stolen bases, and comeback player of the year T.Okada, who returned to .269 24 75 after 2 years of mixed performance. The Buffaloes starting pitching will again reply heavily on Sawamura award winner Chihiro Kaneko (16-5 1.98), who struck out 199 in 191 innings in 2015, Yuki Nishi (12-10 3.29), and Brad Dickson (9-10 3.33). All in all 2015 looks like one where the Buffaloes are finally set to challenge the Hawks for the PL crown.

Predicted finish: 2nd

3. Nippon Ham Fighters

The Fighters returned to the playoffs in 2014 with a third placed finish and an improvement of 9 wins. The plan for 2015? A wholesale replacement of their foreign hitters and more hitting time for two-way phenom Shohei Otani. Otani hit.274 10 31 last season in 212 at bats as a DH or in right field. He is fully expected to make more appearances as DH this season. New comers Jeremy Hermida (3A .26 16 67) and Brandon Laird (3A .300 18 85) will be expected to do better than the combined 15HRs hit by departed Abreu and Miranda. The addition of Laird and Hermida make the Fighters lineup difficult to pitch around with Sho Nakata (.269 27 100) and Daikan Yoh (.293 25 85) providing further power, and speed in the case of Yoh with 20 steals. Fighters pitching will center around Shohei Otani (11-4 2.61) Naoyuki Uwasawa (8-8 3.19), and Luis Mendoza (7-13 3.89). Newcomer Victor Garate (Taiwan 7-3 2.59) will get his chance to establish himself as the fourth starter. Hirotoshi Masui (5-6 2.48 23 saves) established himself as closer last season, but former closer Hisashi Takenda (31 saves in 2013), and Michael Crotta (4-5 2.62 6 saves) are waiting in the wings should he falter. A solid team with pitching depth should be enough to see tem return to the playoffs.

Predicted finish: 3rd

4. Seibu Lions

The Lions finished out of the playoffs for the first time in four years last season. Manager Norio Tanabe took over the helm mid-season in 2014, and will be keen to show what he can do with a full season in charge. One thing Tanabe will not have to worry about will be power. The Lions hit a league best 125 homeruns last season, led by Ernesto Meijia (.290 34 73) and Takeya Nakamura (.257 34 90). If Hideto Asamura can return to his 27HR form of 2013 (.273 14 55 in 2014), and newcomer Anthony Seratelli (3A .279 5 40) can provide production, things will be looking good for the Lions offense. A majority of the Lions off-season was concerned with building a pitching staff that could do better than the 3.77 (4th in the league) it turned in last season. Additions Esmerling Vasquez (Taiwan 1-1 2.84), Miguel Mejia (Taiwan 5-1 1.24 35 saves), Wade Leblanc (LAA 1-1 3.94), and Chun Lin Kuo (No data), will be the key to any improvement in support for starters Takayuki Kishi (13-4 2.51) and Kazuhisa Makita (8-9 3.74). With improved pitching they certainly have the bats to contend for a playoff-place this season, but much will depend upon just how much improvement that pitching can make.

Predicted finish: 4th

5. Chiba Lotte Marines

There has been little to cheer about in Chiba since their championship season of 2010. 66 wins and a fourth place finish in 2014 was seen by many as an actual overachievement. Unfortunately for Chiba fans, the team that pitched at 4.14 (worst in the league), and hit .250 (5th in the league), remains somewhat intact for 2015. Central to any success this season will be a full season from Cuban import Alfredo Despaigne (.311 12 33 in 45 games with Chiba), any signs of power from Chad Huffman (.270 4 28), and better plate discipline from Luis Cruz (.238 16 61). For a Chiba team that lacks power, moving veteran Tadahito Iguchi (.238 10 49)to fist this season seems only to offer a temporary patch on the powerless efforts of their previous incumbent first baseman Kazuya Fukuura (0 HRs in 3 years). Marines starting pitching remains bound to the inconsistencies of Ayumi Ishikawa (10-8 3.43), Takahiro Fujioka (6-10 4.48), Yuki Karakawa (4-9 4.66), and Hideaki Wakui (8-12 4.21). The Marines will be hoping that one of their offseason additions, Chen Kuan-Yu (Yokohama 0-0 11.57) and Rhee Dae-Eun (3A 3-2 3.75), or rookie Atsushi Miyazaki will come through and claim the remaining spots.

Predicted finish: 5th

6. Rakuten Eagles

Not much went right for the cellar-bound Eagles in their first season without Masahiro Tanaka in 2014. A 64-80 season saw them return to last place for the first time since 2010 and the roster for 2015 looks as if it offers more of the same. Rookie manager Dave Okhubo will pin his hopes on young pitching stepping up and new foreign players in Zelous Wheeler (NYY .193 2 5) and Gabby Sanchez (PIT .229 7 33)being the effective 3-4 punch that Andrew Jones and Casy McGhee were for the Eagles in their championship season of 2013. Veteran Kaz Matsui (.291 8 46) and steady Ginji (.327 4 70) provide the Eagles with some reliable hitting at the top of the order. Star pitcher Takahiro Norimoto (14-10 3.02) anchors the rotation, while many on their hopes on last year’s rookie favorite Yuki Matsui (4-8 3.80) turning things around and learning how to stop walking batters (67 in 118 innings pitched). Newspapers report that he may become the closer for the Eagles this season, something that seems a little out of left-field considering his well documented confidence problems last season. Newcomer Kenny Ray (Taiwan 9-5 2.17)should help bolster the rotation of Norimoto, Wataru Karashima (8-133.79), and Takahiro Shiomi ( 8-7 4.71). If the starters can put quality starts together more frequently than they did in 2014, then Kam Mickolio (if recovered from injury – 1-1 25sv 2.45), and Rhiner Cruz (2-2 3.99) provide solid bullpen strength.

Predicted finish: 6th

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