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March 20, 2007

Live From Akita City

Pacific League Preview

by Mike Plugh

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In the peaceful light
Of the ever-shining sun
In the days of spring,
Why do the cherry's new-blown blooms
Scatter like restless thoughts?

-- Ki no Tomonori (9th century poet)

The changing of the seasons in Japan may be the most important cultural thread that connects the past to the present and the present to the future. Seasonal imagery is important in art and cuisine, and the metaphors of the language itself often incorporate seasonal expressions, easily understood by all Japanese for their connection to the turning of the weather and the ever-changing human condition.

It's a perfect way to express our own feelings as the grass grows greener and the sound of batted balls finally rings in the air again, after the long cold winter. A new season is upon us in the United States, while in Japan baseball is also on the tips of tongues from Sapporo to Hiroshima, and everywhere in between. You may be busy browsing MLB rosters in your copy of Baseball Prospectus 2007, but you also may find it interesting to follow the Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB) from afar as you follow your hometown club from the comfort of your living room, wherever that may be. To that end, I present you with Part 1 of my NPB Season Preview: The Pacific League.

The Pacific League, or "Pa League" as it's called in Japan, was founded in 1949 as the Taiheiyo (Pacific) Baseball Union. Of the seven original teams in the league, none remain in any recognizable way. The ownership has changed over the years, and hence the sponsorship name that accompanies the nickname. The nicknames have changed as well, and sometimes even the host cities. Still, the league persists and, in my opinion, is the stronger of the two Japanese organizations. The Pacific, unlike the Central League, employs a DH and plays a 136 game schedule. The winner of the Pacific receives an automatic berth in the League Championship Series, while the second and third place clubs play a best of three series to decide who will join them. The Central League will be employing this less-than-ideal system as well for the first time in 2007.

Team-by-team breakdowns of the 2007 Pacific League follow, listed by predicted order of finish. I've done rough Pythagorean Win-Loss calculations for each team with a rough projection for the 2007 season as well. Ties are a part of Japanese baseball, so there's no telling which way the record will sway, based on the possibility that a game will be ended in a deadlock.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Manager: Sadaharu Oh
2006 Record: 75-56-5 (.573) Finished 3rd
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 79-57 (.579)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 83-53 (.611)

Outlook: The Hawks were my pick last season to win the Japan Series. They came close, losing in the Pacific League Championship Series to eventual champs Nippon Ham. The only significant loss that the team suffered in the offseason was the mercurial slugger Julio Zuleta, who bolted to Bobby V's Lotte club. The addition of former Yokohama Bay Stars' outfielder and WBC standout Hitoshi Tamura and Yomiuri Giants' power hitting third baseman Hiroki Kokubo more than make up for Zuleta. This new look offense seems poised to propel a returning rotation, which allowed the second fewest runs in the entire sport, to a first place finish.

Player to Watch: Nobuhiko Matsunaka Matsunaka is a former Triple Crown winner and MVP. His 2006 was slowed a bit by some health issues that have been remedied in the offseason. He is 34, and just signed a contract extension, so you won't see him in the Majors, but he is the real deal and may find that MVP award back in his collection again this season.

Pitcher to Watch: Kazumi Saito Saito finished ahead of Daisuke Matsuzaka in virtually every statistical category last season and captured the Sawamura Award for the second time in his career (2004 being the first). He is not the pitcher that Matsuzaka is, but he is a top quality prospect for the Major Leagues. His fastball tops out at 95 and he shows a variety of other plus pitches. If SoftBank sees their chances of cashing in on a dying "posting system," they may take their chances on the market and go for the big haul.

Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Manager: Trey Hillman
2006 Record: 82-54-0 (.603) Finished 1st
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 83-53 (.611)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 79-57 (.581)

Outlook: Nippon Ham was locked in a back and forth battle for first place with Seibu much of last year, with the Hawks giving it a good run in the final days of the season. One of the deciding factors in the Fighters' league championship was the emergence of Yu Darvish as a stopper. More on that in a moment. The Fighters add Ryan Glynn to the starting rotation from the Rakuten Golden Eagles, as well as the Padres' Brian Sweeney. Neither of those pitchers is a huge upgrade over last season, but the rotation remains very strong. The lineup takes a huge hit with the departure of Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara to the Yomiuri Giants. The Fighters imported former Diamondbacks minor leaguer and 2005 Pacific Coast League MVP Andy Green to fill Ogasawara's large shoes. It remains to be seen how much of the lost production Green can make up. The retirement of Tsuyoshi Shinjo was a big story in the Japan Series last year, but should only serve to spare us all another pre-game introduction fit for the likes of professional wrestling rather than change the fate of the ballclub.

Player to Watch: Andy Green Fernando Seguinol is the cleanup hitter for Nippon Ham and a former 40 home run man in Japan. The Panamanian slugger is a rock in the middle of the lineup, but was always complimented nicely by Ogasawara, who was nicknamed "Guts" for his uncanny clutchitosity. Green has a very big job, and he'll need every bit of his AAA production to keep the Fighters' offense afloat. If he approaches his 2005 PCL production of .343/.422/.587, he'll be an MVP candidate. Short of that, Nippon Ham will need help in producing runs.

Pitcher to Watch: Yu Darvish Darvish is a 21-year-old star pitcher with a Koshien pedigree. His father was a player for the Iranian National Soccer team, and his mother is Japanese. He's a matinee idol in Japan, and he has found his groove as an ace. Darvish lost his May 24th decision to the Giants last season and proceeded to go 10-0 with a 2.13 ERA the rest of the way. He led the Fighters to the title with a 2-1 record and a 2.02 ERA in the playoffs, and then capped the Asian Series championship against the La News Bears of Taiwan with a one hit, ten strikeout performance at the Tokyo Dome. He's good enough at 21 to be a frontline starter in the Majors. He's the hope of Nippon Ham in 2007.

Seibu Lions
Manager: Tsutomu Ito
2006 Record: 80-54-2 (.597) Finished 2nd
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 78-58 (.574)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 73-63 (.537)

Outlook: The Lions' fortunes turned when they chose to post the best pitcher in the Japanese game. Daisuke Matsuzaka's departure for the Boston Red Sox was enough on its own to topple this club into the second division of the Pacific League. Trying to replace Matsuzaka with some combination of MLB washout Jason Johnson and rookie pitcher Takayuki Kishi is going to be a big disappointment for Seibu fans, although Kishi's fastball and slider will eventually help to ease the pain. The offense, led by superman Alex Cabrera, has proved prolific over the last four seasons, and it should help the club tread water against a Chiba Lotte Marines club looking to get back to the promised land of 2005.

Player to Watch: Alex Cabrera Cabrera is an offensive force of nature. The 35-year-old Venezuelan sports a career batting line of .308/.411/.647 in six Japanese seasons. He has clubbed 50 homers twice and is an RBI machine with runners in scoring position. His age may eventually catch up to him, but not this year. His slugging has declined over the last three years, but he still hits for average and takes enough walks to be a dangerous at bat every time out.

Pitcher to Watch: Hideaki Wakui Matsuzaka's spot at the front of the rotation goes to second year man Hideaki Wakui, also an alumn of Yokohama High School. Wakui put up a strong rookie season in 2006, and showed well against the traveling group of MLB All Stars in November. He'll need to improve his strikeout rate to be a top pitcher, however, and the Lions need him to do so right now. Watch him this season. He may blossom.

Chiba Lotte Marines
Manager: Bobby Valentine
2006 Record: 65-70-1 (.481) Finished 4th
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 60-76 (.444)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 71-65 (.581)

Outlook: Bobby V's boys were the 2005 Japan Series champions and fell from grace hard in 2006. The ballclub overachieved on offense by a wide margin in their title year, as did their pitching, and the pendulum swung the other way for the Marines last season. If 2005 was a best case scenario, and 2006 was a worst, I expect to see 2007 return to the norm, and the club should be competitive again. Lotte added Julio Zuleta from SoftBank to hit cleanup, joining a talented offensive club led by WBC Best 9 catcher Tomoya Satozaki and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The pitching is where the question marks come in. The only hope for an ace on this team is WBC third starter Shunsuke Watanabe, he of the submarine delivery. If Watanabe returns to 2005 form, this team may succeed. If he doesn't, Seibu will hold down 3rd place.

Player to Watch: Toshiaki Imae Imae is a hot young player that won the 2005 Japan Series MVP with a stunning hitting performance. He then followed up the title run with a spot on the WBC roster. 2006 wasn't very kind to the 23-year-old third baseman, however. Imae's batting line went from .310/.353/.451 in 2005 to a painful .267/.293/.389 last year. With his lack of power at third, I believe Imae's future may be at second. If Imae can successfully bounce back this year, a lot of eyes may be on him as a potential star, but another dud would certainly push him in the direction of "flash-in-the-pan" status.

Pitcher to Watch: Szu-yu Wu Wu is a soon-to-be 25-year-old left-hander from Taiwan, who enters the NPB from the La New Bears. In his home country, Wu appeared in 68 games and posted a 29-13 career record with one save. His ERA during that span was 3.13 over 316.1 innings, and he managed 298 strikeouts. If he can put up anything resembling those numbers for the Marines, they would be thrilled, and might have enough in the rotation to vault into a playoff spot.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Manager: Katsuya Nomura
2006 Record: 47-85-4 (.356) Finished 6th
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 44-92 (.325)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 51-85 (.375)

Outlook: The Eagles are still bad. How, you ask, did they leapfrog the Orix Buffaloes into 5th place? The answer is simple. Pitching. The inaugural season of the Golden Eagles was marred by the loss of ace pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to serious shoulder soreness that kept him out until the season's final six starts. Iwakuma is back, and has stated his goal as 21 victories to match his uniform number. Good luck with that, Hisashi. The Rakuten lineup only provided 3.3 runs of support to its pitchers last season, and you didn't import Albert Pujols. Nevertheless, Iwakuma's return is complimented by #1 draft pick and Koshien legend Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka will turn 19 this season, but figures to improve the rotation significantly even if he struggles at times.

Player to Watch: Jose Fernandez The only thing that can keep Rakuten from climbing out of the basement in the Pacific is an anemic offense. There still isn't much to look at on this roster, and I may look foolish for putting too much stock in the arms here, but Jose Fernandez could help me stay away from trouble on my prediction. Fernandez plays in obscurity in Tohoku, but is one of the better foreign hitters in Japan. His four year career features a batting line of .296/.368/.546 and an improving strikeout rate. Fernandez averages about 30 home runs per season, and should produce the same in 2007.

Pitcher to Watch: Masahiro Tanaka With all due respect to Iwakuma, Tanaka is the guy to watch here. If it weren't for the young Waseda University ace Yuki Saito, Tanaka would have claimed an unprecedented three consecutive Koshien Summer titles. He's that good and he's being thrown into the fire. Tanaka may struggle at times, but he will keep coming at hitters all year long. If the veterans show him the ropes, he'll adjust, and we may see the emergence of another top Japanese pitching prospect.

Orix Buffaloes
Manager: Terry Collins
2006 Record: 52-81-3 (.391) Finished 5th
2006 Pythagorean Win-Loss: 57-79 (.416)
2007 Predicted Win-Loss: 50-86 (.368)

Outlook: There's nothing to see here folks. Move along. The Buffaloes are just plain bad. The team has shifted players to new positions, imported a few new faces from overseas, sent a few home, and generally done nothing to speak of to improve. I wish I could say that there was a new face entering 2007 with a chance to make an impact, but there just isn't. Perhaps the two storylines worth watching for Orix this year are 40-year old Kazuhiro Kiyohara's pursuit of 550 career home runs, and Tuffy Rhodes' attempted comeback after a brief retirement. Can this club stay out of the basement with an improving Rakuten team pushing them? I don't think so.

Player to Watch: Tuffy Rhodes You could really throw darts at the roster and pick someone to watch. Rhodes at least has been a performer in the past, with five 40+ home run seasons in Japan and 360 total for his career. At the age of 38, is there anything left? Can a one-two punch of Rhodes and Kiyohara make this season remotely interesting in Osaka or Kobe? Probably not, but we'll watch anyway. (At the moment, Rhodes is hitting a lowly .231 for the Spring.)

Pitcher to Watch: Yoshihisa Hirano The 23-year-old second-year man is the hope of the rotation. With a pair of 34-year-old soft tossers at the front of the rotation in Tom Davey and Hidetaka Kawakoe, Hirano has a chance to break out as the #1 starter. Last season's numbers (3.81 ERA, 1.282 WHIP) were a nice start. Time to step it up, Yoshi.

Don't miss Mike's introduction to this series.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is also the author of Matsuzaka Watch. You can reach Mike by clicking here.

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