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April 6, 2008

Nippon Prospectus

2008 Central League Preview

by Mike Plugh

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To revisit what I wrote last season in my preview of Japan's Central League:

The Central League, or "Se League" as it's called in Japan, was founded in 1950, and is the more famous and storied of the two Japanese organizations. The Yomiuri Giants are the primary reason for the popularity of the Central, although the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka are followed by the most rabid fan base in the sport, and play the role of the Red Sox to the Giants' Yankees. The Central does not use a DH and plays a 144-game schedule. For the first time in 2007 the league employed a best of three series to decide who will join the league champion for a chance at the Japan Series.

Here's my take on the 2008 Central league, teams listed in predicted order of finish.

Yomiuri Giants
Manager: Tatsunori Hara
2007 Record: 80-63-1 (.559), 1st

Outlook: The 2007 season for Yomiuri was one of great strides forward, then ending in a thud. After a run of mediocrity in recent years that saw the fabled franchise overpaying for marginal talent, the front office finally started to get things right. The addition of Pacific League MVP Michihiro Ogasawara paid immediate dividends with a Central League MVP for the Giants. The lineup was strong all season, while the rotation over-performed to such a level that first place seemed to be wrapped sometime after the All-Star break. In the end, had there been a Japanese PECOTA system, we would have understood the peril of relying on the staff as it was constructed. Staff ace Koji Uehara was enlisted against his will as the closer for lack of a decent alternative. The playoff loss at the hands of eventual champion Chunichi laid bare the flaws in the Yomiuri pitching and left the fan base disappointed.

This season the Giants won't have the same problem. Using their resources and influence, the team has put Uehara back at the front of the rotation, while adding Seth Greisinger from Yakult to back him up. Greisinger posted a 2.84 ERA in 2007 and has legitimate front-end potential in the rotation for Yomiuri. The pitching reform didn't end there, however. Uehara was only able to resume his role as staff ace thanks to the acquisition of Yokohama Bay Stars closer Marc Kroon. Kroon can be a little wild at times while dialing up his fastball to the 100 mph range, but he gets results. In his tenure with Yokohama, Kroon was occasionally unhittable and always intimidating. The Bay Stars failed to be competitive enough to give Kroon the save opportunities he will now get with the Giants.

The final acquisition that should seal the Central title for Yomiuri again is outfielder Alex Ramirez of the Yakult Swallows. Ramirez is one of the most loved players in the NPB and a regular 30-homer threat. With a lineup of offensive superstars already in place, the addition of Ramirez seems a bit like piling on. The overall improvement in a team that already ran away with 1st a year ago seems to have the Giants in a position to win the whole thing in 2008. I am going to stick with that prediction, and I will even go so far as to say no one will even come close.

Player to Watch: Yoshitomo Tani. A free agent addition in 2007, Tani provided tremendous value in the second spot in the batting order. That's traditionally been a sacrifice-oriented lineup slot in Japanese baseball, but Tani's prowess with the bat allowed the Giants to forgo the out and run a more open offense. After consecutive seasons of poor performance with Orix, the 35-year-old Tani revived his career with Yomiuri. Can he do it again, or will the Giants be forced to operate with the sacrifice from that spot as a result of a Tani decline? The answer will help determine whether the high-octane offense continues to fire on all cylinders from top to bottom.

Pitcher to Watch: Tetsuya Utusmi/Hisanori Takahashi. This tandem led the Giants to a division title in 2007. Utsumi is a 26-year-old impact pitcher with a bright future, while Takahashi is a 33-year-old veteran who dropped his career ERA by an entire run in 2007. With Uehara and Greisinger at the front of the rotation, these pitchers play a very different role for the team in the current season. Utsumi should remain an important part of the team's success going forward and promises to slot into a playoff run in a better position to dominate. Takahashi is a bit of an x-factor given his spotty career prior to 2007; if he regresses, an ERA over four isn't out of the question, which might be acceptable in the majors, but is a train wreck in Japan's Central League.

Chunichi Dragons
Manager: Hiromitsu Ochiai
2007 Record: 78-64-2 (.542), 2nd place (and Japan Series Champions)

Outlook: The Dragons pulled off the improbable last year by storming to a convincing Japan Series title without Kosuke Fukudome hitting third in their lineup and manning right field. Fukudome's mid-season injury threatened to derail their quest for the championship, but the well-balanced roster kept the ship afloat. There's no reason to think that the Dragons can't follow up with another championship in 2008, as the front office shrewdly pulled in free agent outfielder Kazuhiro Wada from the Seibu Lions to offset the loss of Fukudome. Wada is aging and declining, but still manages to produce enough offense.

Kenshin Kawakami is the ace of the rotation, and will continue to get the bulk of the attention from the mainstream press, but the Dragons' rotation is quietly very solid behind him. Kenichi Nakata is a 26-year-old righty with a lot of upside. Kenta Asakura will be 27 this season and also brings some punch. The Dragons were also fortunate to hang onto lefty closer Hitoki Iwase, who was a free agent thought to be on the MLB radar. Iwase is the figurehead of a strong bullpen that rarely lets Chunichi fans down in the end. The great balance and consistency of the Dragons' machine keeps them competitive, and the Giants will need to look over their shoulder to make sure their rivals aren't creeping up on them.

Player to Watch: Masahiko Morino. Wada may be the bat that replaces Fukudome in the lineup, but he won't be occupying the third spot in the order. That honor went to 30-year-old Morino last season, and he produced with excellent results down the stretch. As a regular, Morino has also shifted from the infield to the outfield and has made an impact. He's no Fukudome , but might just produce enough to help the Dragons breathe easier in 2008.

Pitcher to Watch: Kenichi Nakata. Nakata is penciled in as the second starter for the Dragons this year, and turns 26 in May. He has just under two full seasons under his belt and has shown tremendous strikeout potential--in 283 innings, spanning the 2006 and 2007 seasons, Nakata has 288 strikeouts. Those numbers come directly as a result of his combination of a low-90s fastball and a wicked forkball that gets batters fishing. His control isn't great, but the forkball keeps batters on edge and helps him to make up for it. Keeping the ball in the park and robbing the opposition of its balance bodes well for another outstanding season. Nakata needs to up his innings total a bit going forward, especially since the results are so good.

Hanshin Tigers
Manager: Akinobu Okada
2006 Record: 74-66-4 (.514), 3rd place

Outlook: Hanshin is bad. Very, very bad. It's almost painful to consider this a playoff team, but the tragedy of the Central League is the lack of legitimate challengers to the Giants and Dragons. The Tigers are almost by default the third playoff qualifier in this ultra-weak field, despite their lack of power and the abysmal collection of players who don't seem to worry much about clogging the basepaths--they just don't get on base. What's to say here? The lineup starts with shortstop Takashi Toritani, who manages a .348 career OBP, and continues with Norihiro Akahoshi, whose value is predicated on stealing. Akahoshi sits around a .363 career OBP, but both hitters are of the slap-and-run variety. The third spot in the order is now occupied by former Hiroshima third baseman Takahiro Arai, who has some pop in his bat but only manages to find his way on base at a .337 career clip. Other than aging superstar Tomoaki Kanemoto, the rest of the lineup proceeds much the same way. The number of slap-and-run hitters playing for Hanshin puts a premium on pitching and defense, which makes for a very fragile mix.

The pitching staff is fronted by a mix of very young and very old. The number one guy for the Tigers is 40-year-old soft-tosser Tsuyoshi Tomoyanagi. Following Tomoyanagi is 23-year-old Keiji Uezono, who was taken in the third round of the 2006 college/industrial draft, and debuted midway through the 2007 season. Other than these two pitchers, the rest of the rotation is made up of mid-career, league-average types who promise little more than to eat innings. Fortunately for Hanshin, the bullpen is among the best, and features all-world closer Kyuji Fujikawa, the most dominant reliever in recent memory. If the Tigers can get him a lead often enough, he'll close the door. The question is, can Hanshin outscore their opponents consistently enough to hold onto third place?

Player to Watch: Tomoaki Kanemoto. As I mentioned last season, the offense lives and dies with Kanemoto in Osaka. The Hanshin outfielder is the Cal Ripken of Japan, with a history of playing every inning of every game; he turns 40 this season and perhaps is beginning to see the end of the road. While his power numbers remained constant last season, his batting average dipped significantly. For one more season, we can expect to see fireworks from the Hanshin cleanup batter, but his usefulness is almost completely predicated on the ability of Toritani, Akahoshi, and Arai getting on base in front of him.

Pitcher to Watch: Keiji Uezono: Last season I chose starter Shinobu Fukuhara as my pitcher to watch, and warned that he would struggle to duplicate his remarkable 2006. Injuries and inconsistency saw Fukuhara miss time and just plain stink it up. This season the pressure will be on young Keiji Uezono to produce at the top of the rotation, and provide a glimpse of hope for the future in Osaka. His fastball is average at best, so his forkball will be his most important tool in working hitters in the Central. In his first full season as a professional, a lot will be expected of Uezono, but he's a former collegian from a high-profile program; he'll be up to the challenge.

Yokohama BayStars
Manager: Akihiko Oya
2006 Record: 71-72-1 (.493), 4th Place

Outlook: The BayStars basically played status quo during the 2007 offseason, and open 2008 having made very few impact changes. The loss of closer Marc Kroon certainly doesn't help their efforts this year, but his value on a mediocre team was open to question. This team desperately needs good starting pitching. The ability of a Japanese franchise to build a powerful lineup is predicated largely on the ability to bring in established free agents, as the market for young power hitters is very thin; there simply aren't enough out there to hope for a lucky turn in the draft. When Nippon Ham, the Pacific League champs, won the draft lottery for Osaka Toin slugger Sho Nakata, the bottom dwellers in the Central were the big losers. Pitching, on the other hand, is far more plentiful, and can help a perennial loser build towards a playoff berth. Yokohama has Hayato Terahara, who promises to front the rotation for years to come. Veteran Daisuke Miura isn't very good, but he still produces better results than most in the weak Central League basement race. Yokohama's third starter will again be Kimiyasu Kudo, who turns 45 in May. Kudo was a star many moons ago, but can barely stay healthy enough to take the mound for a full season. Should he be unable to answer the call, the BayStars will be in bigger trouble than they are already.

Most of the Yokohama lineup is stocked with washed-up players who are rapidly approaching 40. None of these players is in danger of collapsing this season, mainly because they aren't producing much to begin with. Cleanup man and third baseman Shuichi Murata is still a number of years from free agency; without his bat in the lineup, Yokohama would slip into last place. If the team can figure out how to replace some of the other, older players with young talent, they'll be headed in the right direction, but this team is really a lot closer to last place than it is to first.

Player to Watch: Shuichi Murata. The only everyday player worth watching in Yokohama is Murata. He's the engine of the offense, and the only plus marketing attribute for a team playing in the shadow of the Giants; Yokohama is a nice city, a stone's throw from Tokyo, but the franchise has never managed to do anything to remotely challenge the famous team from the famous city to the north. Murata may well wind up on the Giants' roster in a few years, but for now, at least, he gives Yokohama fans an occasional reason to be proud.

Pitcher to Watch: Hayato Terahara. This young man moved into the 2007 rotation for Yokohama after limited action in the Pacific League with Softbank. He immediately showed the potential everyone saw in him after being drafted out of Miyagi Prefecture in 2001. The Hawks never made it work with Terahara, but he has learned to pitch since joining the BayStars. As a high-schooler, Terahara is said to have hit 100 mph on the radar gun, and still hits the high 90s on occasion. The biggest change in his makeup was the shift to pitching, rather than just throwing, and he now uses a very good slider, as well as utilizing a promising curve, cutter, and two-seam fastball. As he continues to work, he is being asked to win. It's on his shoulders in 2008, despite the higher profile of Miura. This is Terahara's team to lead, and I think he will do just that.

Hiroshima Carp
Manager: Marty Brown
2006 Record: 60-82-2 (.424), 5th place

Outlook: Despite the presence of current Los Angeles Dodger Hiroki Kuroda, the Carp finished 2007 with the worst team ERA in the Central League. Now that Kuroda has taken his game stateside, the Carp will struggle to stay respectable. Kan Otake will be asked to slide into the number one spot for Kuroda, but the 25-year-old will have to improve dramatically on his career numbers to provide any meaningful results for Hiroshima. In fact, the team is forced to rely on former Tiger, National, and Athletic Colby Lewis for important innings, which tells a lot about how thin the rotation is. The lineup is decent, although there isn't a single player that stands out as a legitimate star. Rather, the Carp have built their team on players with pop in their bats, but little in the way of average or on base percentage. The middle of the lineup features former major leaguer Scott Seabol, promising young outfielder Kenta Kurihara, veteran slugger Tomonori Maeda, and an aging Alex Ochoa. That isn't an atrocious lineup for a Japanese club, but it's far from being enough to compete for the playoffs. This is especially true when you look at the whole picture, which isn't very good; I imagine Marty Brown will lose a lot of sleep while holding down this impossible job.

Player to Watch: Kenta Kurihara. Kurihara has emerged as the cleanup hitter for Hiroshima and takes over the slugger role from the departed Arai. He's the only semblance of a balanced offensive player on the roster, but he's far better suited as a complementary player. On this club he will be asked to provide the fireworks in the middle of the order, so I expect the numbers to be there at the end of the year, but this is the weakest star player in the Central in my opinion.

Pitcher to Watch: Hiroki Kuroda. I know this looks like a cop-out, but I just can't stand to look at any of the pitchers in Hiroshima this season. The best thing I can say in this section is that watching what Kuroda does in Los Angeles will help all of us understand what he meant to the Carp for all those years. I reserve the right to revisit this section later in the season if anything at all happens to change my mind.

Yakult Swallows
Manager: Shigeru Takada
2006 Record: 60-84-0 (.417), 6th place

Outlook: The retirement of legendary player-manager Atsuya Furuta was just the start of the bad news during Yakult's devastating off-season. Allowing Alex Ramirez and Seth Greisinger to defect to the Giants will probably spell another season in the Central cellar. What little the team had going for it in 2007 is almost completely undone, and that's saying a lot. About the only thing left for Yakult's fans and their decorative umbrellas is the extraordinary Norichika Aoki. With the departure of Fukudome to the Cubs, Aoki becomes the premier player in Japan. On the pitching side, Greisinger isn't the only big loss for the Swallows. Although his career is on the skids these days, former major leaguer Kazuhisa Ishii still provided the team with quality innings; ith Ishii in the rotation there was little question that you were going to get a full season of decent results. Now, there is tremendous uncertainty about the replacements stepping in. I doubt there is much chance for the Swallows to escape last place this year, and the chorus for an Aoki posting will grow louder with every passing month of horrendous play.

Player to Watch: Norichika Aoki. Aoki answered any questions about his power potential in 2007 by bumping his SLG from .438 to .508 and his home-run total from 13 to 20. As a 25-year old, Aoki also saw his walks surpass his strikeouts for the first time in his young career. In a field of Japanese players who struggle to post better than a .330 OBP, Aoki is a stud. Last season he challenged the Fukudome standard by separating his on-base percentage from his prolific batting average by learning to work the count in patient plate appearances. Charting his three full seasons as a professional, it's noteworthy that the separation between batting average and on base percentage has gone from +45 to +75 to +90. The improvement in patience and power saw a reduction in stolen bases, but his role has changed. The former leadoff hitter now takes his production to the third spot in the order, and I expect to see his RBI totals shoot through the roof in 2008; there's nothing he can't do. It may be time to see him try his hand at the majors, and Fukudome's production will tell a lot about Aoki's market in coming years.

Pitcher to Watch: Daniel Rios. Rios is a new addition to the Swallows, coming in from Korea after a season as that league's 2007 MVP after leading it in wins in both 2004 and 2007, and becoming the top foreign player in Korea during his tenure there. Rios has a major league background, with some service time in the '90s with the Yankees and Royals, and some time spent in the Mexican League as well. Bouncing around the foreign circuit has now taken the 36-year-old righty to Japan, and he's expected to be the ace for the Swallows. About the only reason to watch Rios this season is the idea that we may learn something about the translating the differing levels of competition between the leagues in Korea and Japan. It probably won't come up all that often, but there may be some value in understanding that transition at some point down the road.

Mike Plugh is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and blogs about amateur and professional baseball in Japan at his blog, Baseball Japan. You can contact Mike by clicking here.

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