Today I’d like to start a four-part series about the Tigers and their upcoming season. This section will look at the infield. The next will look at the outfield and general offense. The second half of the series will look at starting pitchers and the relief squad. Without further ado, let’s dive right in to what is probably the most intriguing story at this spring’s camps.
Rookie Ryutaro Umeno carried the bulk of the load last season, playing in 92 games while starting nearly half the team’s games (60). He impressed fans with his strong defense (no passed balls allowed) and potential to hit the long ball (7 HR, including back-to-back jacks in July). However, his averaged was low all year and ended south of the Mendoza line (.197). He also played in very few games after August, giving the bulk of the playing time up to the veterans. Fatigue, loss of strength and inexperience did him in last year, but he has said that it is his goal to be a power-hitting catcher who can endure the rigors of an entire season, and he needs to do just that. The Japanese say “優勝チームに名捕手あり” (Championship teams have well known catchers.) If Umeno can be that for the Tigers, this team could win the championship this season and for years to come.
The other main options, Kazunari Tsuruoka and Akihito Fuji, were both brought in as free agents and are towards the end of their careers. They need to step aside and give Umeno the spotlight as well as any wisdom they may have to impart to the future starting catcher. Others playing catcher at camp include Takashi Shimizu and Shinya Azuhata.
The only one here, in reality, is 2014 RBI champion Mauro Gomez. He had a completely impressive first season, batting .283 and hitting 26 home runs and driving in 109 runs. He also played in all but one game, which he sat out because of heat stroke. However, the Tigers need to be ready for a potential drop off in production. He struck out 166 times (three away from being league worst) and definitely has some weaknesses that veteran pitchers will pick up on pretty quickly. Of course we hope he can be Randy Bass II, but the Tigers need to bring someone else up to step in, should the worst case scenario come true.
Others at camp playing first include Naoto Nishida (Okinawa) and Shinta Hifumi (Aki). Neither has much hype surrounding him, and there is always a possibility that Ryota Arai step in at first temporarily if the need arises.
This is where things heat up. Last season in April, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Kosuke Fukudome collided in shallow right field, resulting in a long rehabilitation process for the starting second bagger. In his stead, young Hiroki Uemoto stepped his game up, hitting well over .300 through the first two months of the season, showing a mix of pop (7 HR) and speed (20 SB) while getting on base at a decent clip right through to the end of the season. Even when Nishioka was ready to come back, he could not displace Uemoto from second, and instead played third base (and not too well, either). Heading into spring, Nishioka has made clear that he wants to play in the middle of the infield, not the hot corner. Since shortstop is set in stone, that leaves only second. Uemoto does not have the arm strength to play third (as seen towards the end of 2013), leaving the two men to fight for one spot. Nishioka has had an up-and-down career, both stats-wise and health-wise. He sounds like he is pushing himself to his max to regain the starting position, and I can honestly see him taking it this season and having a good one. However, parking Uemoto on the bench or using him sporadically or at a position that doesn’t suit him is also a bad idea. He has proven himself valuable to the team as well, and will not give up the starting job without a fight. Both men provide roughly the same numbers on the average, but I like Nishioka better because of his mood-making ability and aggressiveness. Let’s forget his bad years with the Marines, his “lost” years with the Twins and his injury-marred 2014. This year, Nishioka must be the leadoff hitter and spark the team’s offense.
This position has been settled since January 9, when the team announced that Takashi Toritani was giving up his MLB dreams to rejoin the team in 2015 and beyond. The iron man has played every inning the last 432 games (and appeared in 1466 straight) and looks to continue that streak. On one hand, it is great to have the captain back. He provides consistency at the plate and in the field almost like no other player in NPB. However, there is a slight catch-22 that comes with his ironman play. No one has played the position for years, and the young players hoping to eventually replace him will come in as 25-year old men with no game experience. I strongly believe this season, Toritani’s streak must come to an end. Whether he gives up later innings or whole games, he must give occasion to youngster Fumiya Hojoh to get on the field and make mistakes and grow stronger.
Another position battle takes place here, though perhaps not as dramatic as the one at second. With older brother gone, Ryota Arai looks to get the starting job at the hot corner. However, there’s another Ryota (Imanari) who is equally anxious to play every game. Both men have shown flashes of brilliance at times, but also have major weaknesses that stop them from being standout everyday players. Arai has a little more power than Imanari, but Imanari has a little more speed and perhaps a better glove. He has been known to make poor decisions at times, though, and needs to make wiser decisions on the field and base paths. I do not foresee either of these men getting the job outright. Since Arai is a righty and Imanari a lefty, they could alternate depending on the pitching matchups.
There is also grizzly veteran Kentaro Sekimoto, who came through in the clutch several times with timely pinch hits. He will likely not get more than a dozen or two starts, but will see time towards the end of close games, no doubt. Also waiting for a chance is Naomasa Yohkawa, who appears to have more power than any of the others ahead of him. Perhaps before season’s end, he will be in the mix as well.
The team has plenty of talent in the infield. There is also a decent mix of experience and youth, unproven as the young guys might be. In order for the team to be successful beyond 2015, it needs to find a balance between leaning heavily on the veterans and giving the youngsters a chance to prove themselves. The infield dirt at Koshien will see plenty of excitement this year. Stay tuned for the outfield report coming at a later date.