Today we take one last look at the team as we head into the regular season. What are the team’s glaring weaknesses? What do we have to look forward to? Who’s going to have a good year? Who’s in danger of regressing or even not making the roster? Most importantly, can the Tigers win the Central League pennant? Fasten your seat belts, folks. The 2015 season is upon us!
Projected Starting Lineup/Batting Order:
1) Takashi Toritani (SS)
2) Hiroki Uemoto (2B)
3) Tsuyoshi Nishioka (3B)
4) Mauro Gomez (1B)
5) Matt Murton (LF)
6) Kosuke Fukudome (RF)
7) Ryutaro Umeno (C)
8) Yamato (CF)
9) Randy Messenger, etc. (P)
Some of the hitters have looked good this spring, others have not. As a team they are hitting .251 where last season they combined for a .264 average. Keep in mind this spring they are using a designated hitter for all games, so the pitchers’ low average is not factored into the first number. This means they are hitting below last year’s level. At this point, Toritani, Uemoto, Fukudome and Murton are hitting extremely well, and Umeno is doing better than he did last season. On the other hand, Nishioka and Yamato are really struggling to make good connection and really need to step up their games before the regular season starts. Gomez has seen limited action so far, so it is harder to make an assessment of where he is at. However, he has made some good contact with the ball in two of the last three games the team has played. Let’s hope yesterday’s Golden Sombrero is an aberration.
It appears the batting order is more or less fixed for the time being, but Fukudome and Nishioka may be swapped out for one another depending on their performances and the opposing team’s pitcher. Manager Wada says he wants to see the team run more this season, and the order seems to reflect this on first glance. For one, they are not going with the Yamato bunt too high in the lineup, and probably will not make him sacrifice bunt too often, given that the pitcher will be hitting behind him. Secondly, they have players with decent speed interspersed throughout the lineup (1, 2, 3, 8 as I have it), which could lead to more stolen base attempts. Though Wada set the bar at 30 SB for Toritani, Uemoto and Yamato, I doubt any of those will reach that plateau. I’d like to see Uemoto get at least 25, Yamato 20 and Toritani 15, though. Murton says he’s up for 10, and some of their bench players (Egoshi, Tagami, etc.) might round the total up to 80 or 90. In any case, last year’s 55 is a terrible total and needs serious improvement.
On the whole the hitters have good eyes, and strike out at a fairly low rate while taking free passes quite often. All we can hope for here is that Gomez lays off the low and outside pitches a little more, and turns some of those strikeouts into walks. His batting average might take a little dip, but his on-base percentage could improve in 2015. Young catcher Umeno also could stand to be a little more disciplined at the plate, as he struck out 78 times versus just 10 walks (and 49 hits).
I expect the team’s leaders in each category will remain the same as last season, perhaps something like this:
AVG: Murton .331
HR: Gomez 33
BB: Toritani 92
RBI: Gomez 113
SB: Uemoto 27
R: Toritani 102
Most of the starters are locked in and have had great springs. Despite the hiccup in Friday’s exhibition game, Messenger has been outstanding. Were it not for the smile that is always on his face you might think he was getting a little bored with the other teams’ hitters. Minoru Iwata, Shintaro Fujinami and Atsushi Nohmi look about the same as last season, though Iwata’s numbers are a little higher. I don’t see any of these guys regressing from last year. In fact, I expect an even better season out of Fujinami, better run support for Iwata, a return to normal for Nohmi and better luck for Messenger. The other two spots in the rotation look to belong to Suguru Iwazaki and Akira Iwamoto for now, but the former may not make his debut until mid-April according to some sources. Perhaps Yuta Iwasada or Daiki Enokida will fill that role for a couple of turns, then become a long reliever the rest of the way.
The relief squad has a combination of experience and youth. Seung-hwan Oh is looking as good as ever in the closing position and could put up even better numbers than last year. Many eyes are on youngster Ryoma Matsuda to be the main set-up man, with veterans Shinobu Fukuhara and Yuya Andoh getting more rest and perhaps alternating in the seventh inning. Other long, mid- and situational relievers may include Enokida, Tsuyoshi Ishizaki, Kentaro Kuwahara, and Hiroya Shimamoto.
The relievers were a huge question mark heading into spring training, and still have not completely quelled that belief, but many enticing options have come up. The emergences of Iwamoto and Shimamoto, the steadiness of Kuwahara so far and Matsuda’s health mean that they are not the same bullpen they were last year. We do not yet know how they will fare in the regular season when the stakes are higher, but they have done well so far this spring.
Fringe players like Kazuya Takamiya, Kazuhito Futagami, Naoto Tsuru, Kazuya Tsutsui, Kazuyuki Kaneda and Ryo Watanabe may start the year in the Western League but remain available for call-up. Also, with a little more rehab and fine-tuning, first-round pick Yuya Yokoyama may get a call up to the parent club early in the year, either as a spot starter or a long reliever.
Despite Messenger’s dominance last season, I expect a slight shift in team leaders this campaign. Perhaps the end lines will look something like this:
Wins: Fujinami 15
ERA: Messenger 2.38
Strikeouts: Fujinami 201
Holds: Matsuda 33
Saves: Oh 41
I still do not claim to know much about the other teams out there, or even about this club, but I predict the race for the Central League pennant will be a tight one between the Hiroshima Carp and our boys. Unfortunately, the realist in me sees the Carp as a stronger team that got a little unlucky last year. They also have a bit more young talent than our team, and should win the league by 2.5 games. The Giants, old as they are getting, will find a way to stay in the “A class” but will barely eke out the Yakult Swallows for 3rd, and the league will be rounded out by the emerging but not-yet-ready DeNA Baystars and the aging and hopeless Chunichi Dragons.
Obviously I would love to be wrong, and hope to see the Tigers win their first pennant since 2005, and their first Nippon Series since 1985. Let’s see what happens as the season progresses. What are your predictions, everyone? Feel free to write them in the comments section – either for individual players, the team as a whole, or anything else. GO TIGERS!