April 15, 2008
Pacific League Preview
A little late on the start to the season, this Pacific League preview reflects the circuit's intriguing storylines and a much more competitive race for its three playoff spots than the Central League will offer in 2008. Last season, I wrote about the Pacific:
The Pacific League, or "Pa League" as it's called in Japan, was founded in 1949 as the Taiheiyo (Pacific) Baseball Union. The Pacific, unlike the Central League, employs a DH. Both leagues play a 144 game schedule with the first-place club receiving 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.
With no further ado, my team-by-team look at the 2008 Pacific league, teams listed in predicted order of finish.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters
Outlook: Nippon Ham managed to beat off its many challengers last season without the services of 2006 MVP Michihiro Ogasawara, making it back to the Japan Series, where they lost to the red-hot Chunichi Dragons. Much of the success for Nippon Ham was directly attributable to the pitching staff, which features Yu Darvish as its staff ace. The lineup was near the bottom of the Pacific in most offensive categories, but skipper Trey Hillman proved that he knows how to win with what he has. Hillman has left the Fighters for MLB's Royals, but for better or for worse, the offense figures to be much the same as last year's. As a result, the burden for success will rest heavily on the team's pitching once again, and new manager Masataka Nashida will have to show that he can carry over some of the Hillman touch in scratching out enough runs for the team to win regularly. That said, there's no reason to think that the Fighters won't be in the playoffs and, once there, no one will pick against them with Darvish ready to work.
Player to Watch: Sho Nakata. How the Fighters managed to score once-in-a-generation slugger Sho Nakata in the high school draft is beyond me. Call it the last bit of Hillman karma the Fighters got the benefit of before the manager's move to the Royals. Nakata was moved from the outfield to third base in spring training, which was mainly of matter of need for Nippon Ham. Nakata has never played the position, and figures to struggle as he learns the hot corner. Ultimately, I think the experiment will fail, as lateral quickness has never been a strong point for the former right fielder. The Fighters sent Nakata down to the ni-gun, or farm team, to start the 2008 season, but it's almost certain that he will be called up before long to provide some power to an otherwise punchless lineup. All eyes are on this young man to produce results similar to Kazuhiro Kiyohara, a future Hall of Famer who was a 30-homer hitter as a rookie in 1986.
Pitcher to Watch: Yu Darvish. I'll be writing Darvish's name thousands of times this season, and there's not much to say about the young man that hasn't been said already. At 21 years old, he's already accomplished all there is to do in Japan. He's far better than Daisuke Matsuzaka was at the same age, and I'd be willing to stick my neck out to say that Darvish could flirt with an ERA below 1.00 for the season. I doubt he'll be able to avoid the two or three rocky starts that will prevent that accomplishment, but it's something worth watching for.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks
Outlook: The Hawks are my annual pick to win the Japan Series. Their 2007 season saw them make a competitive run at the Pacific championship fall short thanks to injuries to All-Japan shortstop Munenori Kawasaki and frontline starter Kazumi Saito. This season Saito will start the year in rehab after surgery to correct a nagging and increasingly worrisome right shoulder problem. His position in the rotation will be filled with Shota Oba, the most prized college prospect in the recent draft. The rest of the rotation is the envy of Japan, with a deep roster of quality arms, notably Toshiya Sugiuchi, Nagisa Arakaki, and Tsuyoshi Wada. If those four pitchers can put up a nice lead in the standings, the return of Saito will be like a cherry atop the Pacific League sundae.
The offense is solid, if unspectacular. What could have been a prolific and fearsome roster of hitters several years ago looks more like a collection of big names with merely OK bats today. Most prominent among those big names is that of Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who was every bit as good as Kosuke Fukudome in his prime, but who has declined precipitously over the last few years. Manager Oh continues to insist on batting Matsunaka cleanup despite his loss of pop in his age-34 season. Matsunaka is surrounded by good hitters who should give him some RBI opportunities, but the real threat for SoftBank is Hisaki Kokubo-paired with Hitoshi Tamura, it's Kokubo who makes the Hawks' offense go. The problem is that neither player is getting any younger, and they have both been plagued by nagging injuries over the last couple of years. The middle of the lineup is regularly faced with uncertainty, making the Hawks a difficult pick for consistent results.
Player to Watch: Munenori Kawasaki. Kawasaki isn't going to make you sit on the edge of your seat, but his play is crucial to the success of the Hawks. Japanese shortstops are notorious for their slap-and-run style of hitting and their slick glove work. Kawasaki happens to do both better than most in the NPB, and therefore provides SoftBank with an advantage in constructing their lineup. Unfortunately, the last two seasons have seen Kawasaki spend long stretches on the DL, where his .350 OBP and base-stealing prowess don't do the Hawks much good. His hitting in the two hole helps the club forgo the sacrifice, which in turn puts a lot of pressure on opposing pitchers to get an extra out. Can he set the table for a full season?
Pitcher to Watch: Shota Oba. Oba was the hot prospect in the recent college/industrial draft after a lights-out senior season at Asia Pacific University followed by a very impressive showing at the US/Japan University Games, where he shook off a rocky first start to pitch a complete game with nine strikeouts in his second. Many consider the young right-hander to be a can't-miss prospect, and he figures to step right into the action as a pro. He's my pick for Rookie of the Year, even with phenom slugger Sho Nakata of the Fighters in the same league.
Chiba Lotte Marines
Outlook: The Marines are a tough team to figure out. You'll find them in the middle of the road in virtually every metric, but they seem to have the ability to turn it on for long stretches. In 2006, Bobby V's club was unable to duplicate the magic that led them to the 2005 title, but in 2007 the Marines made a good run at it. What happens in 2008 is anyone's guess, but there is one key change in Chiba to watch this season, one that could spell disaster for the club: last year, at the back end of the Marines' bullpen, a trio of top-flight relief pitchers helped turn every game into a five- or six-inning affair, taking pressure off of the starters. That trio was dubbed "YFK," for Yasuhiko Yabuta, Soichi Fujita, and Masahide Kobayashi. This offseason, however, Yabuta and Kobayashi defected to the American League, while Fujita took his services to the Yomiuri Giants. The impact of those losses can't be measured at this point, but it certainly doesn't bode well.
Player to Watch: Julio Zuleta. Zuleta famously made the claim (through his agent) at the 2007 winter meetings that the Yankees had expressed interest in his services. When that proved to be false, Zuleta ate crow and returned to Japan to play for Bobby Valentine. Injuries cut his first season with the Marines in half, but 2008 should see a return to form that produces 40 home runs in the middle of the lineup. If he's healthy-and can avoid suspensions for charging the mound-Zuleta will be an MVP candidate, and Lotte will make the playoffs.
Pitcher to Watch: Yoshihisa Naruse. Naruse is Lotte's 22-year-old ace, and a candidate for a major breakout in 2008. In a way, that might seem hardly fair, since 2007 saw the changeup specialist go 16-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 24 starts. How can he possibly top that? I admit, it's doubtful that he can, but it's very important for him to show that he can put together another quality season as the ace of the staff. Naruse isn't a classic ace, working off of his change and slider while rarely topping 85 on his fastball. His K/BB ratio in 2007 was roughly five to one, and he'll need every bit of that to succeed again this year. If he maintains that kind of efficiency over his career, he'll either find a spot in the Hall of Fame or a nice job in the major leagues.
Outlook: After losing Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Red Sox, the Lions figured to slump in the standings in 2007. Dropping from a solid playoff position in Daisuke's last season to fifth wasn't all that surprising, but the awkward and uncertain period that exists in the wake of his departure has taken an even more unusual subsequent turn. That's because Seibu's top two offensive players have now elected to leave the club via free agency, with Kazuhiro Wada moving to the Dragons, while Alex Cabrera packed his bags to head for Orix. The odd turn that I am predicting in this situation is that the Lions will be better this season and challenge for a playoff spot. Why, you ask? The pitching features two young studs in Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi, and two solid veterans in Fumiya Nishiguchi and Kazuhsa Ishii. The bullpen is strong, and the formula that has made Nippon Ham strong could work in Seibu's favor as well in 2008.
Player to Watch: G.G. Sato. The former Phillies farmhand found a spot as a regular in 2007, treating Lions fans to a strong all-around season. Sato turns 30 this summer, but seems to have room to break out a bit more as the best hitter on the club; thirty home runs aren't out of the question, and should he reach that mark, the Lions will look very strong for the playoffs.
Pitcher to Watch: Hideaki Wakui. My favorite arm to watch on the Lions is Takayuki Kishi, but it's undeniable that the key to this club's 2008 is Wakui. Following in Matsuzaka's footsteps since choosing Yokohama High School hasn't been easy for Wakui, but he's proving himself to be a tough professional with a durable arm. He isn't ever going to be the dominant ace that we've seen in Matsuzaka, Darvish, Kawakami, Kuroda, or even second-year Rakuten starter Masahiro Tanaka, but Wakui is sure to be featured on the pitching leaderboards in the Pacific; his performance will provide another key to the future for Seibu.
Outlook: You have to feel for Orix fans-for years, this club has been awful. There isn't much talent to get excited about, and what talent is here is closer to 40 years old than 30. Tuffy Rhodes returned from a brief retirement last season to wow the world with a stunning return to form. Almost by default, Rhodes was my player to watch for 2007, and he surpassed even my modest expectations by hitting 43 home runs. Fortunately for Orix fans, the team have also signed Alex Cabrera to hit behind Rhodes, and the duo could produce dueling 40-homer seasons. Better still, Greg LaRocca is back to hit in front of Rhodes, and a 30-homer year isn't out of the question for him. The rotation isn't outstanding, but a pair of decent starters in Yoshihisa Hirano and Tom Davey should hold down the fort. It's tough to pick the Buffs to finish in the basement with the five players I've mentioned putting in quality work, so I won't.
Player to Watch: Tuffy Rhodes. You could pick any of the three hitters I mentioned earlier, but it's Rhodes who is accomplishing historical feats in Japan, and who doesn't seem to be ready to quit, even coming into the season when he turns 40. He will be the only foreign player to appear on the all-time leaderboards for a number of offensive categories, including homers and RBI. That's important to anyone who follows Japanese professional baseball, and it shouldn't be lost on those who don't pay close attention either-Rhodes has been an outstanding representative of the game for Americans, and gets a tip of the hat from me for his contributions to the history of the sport.
Pitcher to Watch: Yoshihisa Hirano. Hirano was very good in 2007, duplicating his 2006 success, which gives Orix fans at least one somebody to cheer for on the mound. It was terrible luck that saw both Shota Oba and Sho Nakata go to other teams in the amateur drafts, as the Buffaloes desperately need young impact talent. For the moment, Hirano represents the team's lone player matching that description, but I fear he's just not good enough to be the man for the future. He'll produce good results at the top of the rotation again, but the real pitcher to watch will be whoever the team can score in next year's draft.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Outlook: The Eagles managed to improve 20 games in the standings in 2007, certainly surprising the Japanese baseball world with their leap to respectability. Much of that success came as a direct result of the debut season for hurler Masahiro Tanaka, who took home Rookie of the Year hardware for his monstrous strikeout numbers. The rest of the improvement is almost certainly attributable to the stunning power output of 39-year-old Takeshi Yamasaki, who delivered 43 home runs on his way to a late-in-life career year. Look for Tanaka to improve on his rookie campaign, while Yamasaki will almost assuredly see his home run total cut in half. That aspect of the new season is impossible to ignore in predicting an outcome for the Eagles, and the loss of closer Kazuo Fukumori to the Texas Rangers should also present some challenges for Rakuten this year. I doubt the club will be able to maintain the gains they saw in 2007, and a slight drop in the standings seems likely. That said, the rotation is strong, with perpetually injured former ace Hisashi Iwakuma and young up-and-comer Satoshi Nagai following Tanaka in the unit.
Player to Watch: Jose Fernandez. Yamasaki's numbers will ultimately tell a lot about the competitiveness of the Eagles in 2008, but the only consistent bat of any quality in the lineup is Fernandez's. He's overshadowed by a number of his foreign peers, but Fernandez is a good hitter with some power and a decent approach. Unfortunately, he has virtually no help from his fellow Eagles when it comes to putting runs on the board.
Pitcher to Watch: Hisashi Iwakuma. Tanaka is the ace and the future for Rakuten, but in my opinion, it's Iwakuma who is the key to the Eagles' 2008 season. It's expected that Tanaka will compete for the Sawamura Award in his second year, but the man that follows him in the rotation is more important. Iwakuma was a fixture for Japan in the international arena, often following Koji Uehara against major league clubs during exhibitions. He has an unusual windup that may have contributed to his injuries woes, but whatever the reason, he just can't stay healthy. I doubt he will ever return to the form he showed just a couple of years ago, but if he can fill in as a legitimate second man in the rotation, and last the year, Rakuten may be able to defend last year's fourth-place finish.