I was in Okinawa for the first week of spring training, but needed a day of recovery on February 4th. The players started on February 1st and are slated to bring things to a close on the 28th before returning to Kansai on February 29th. This session will look at the fielders, the next one at pitchers and a third one will look at the overall atmosphere and my own personal experiences while at camp.
The veteran fielders really have not spent a lot of time being visible to the viewing public. When the team was running laps around the bases the morning of Day 3, I noticed that the imports as well as Kosuke Fukudome and Takashi Toritani were not part of the relays. However, I did see Fukudome signing autographs by the food stands that same day in the early afternoon. Apparently he also hit a whole bunch of balls over the fence when he took batting practice during lunch time on Day 4. (I was not present due to illness.) For the record, I saw Toritani take batting practice today and I think he hit just one over the fence. Fukudome didn’t clear the wall once, if memory serves me right.
Mauro Gomez has looked great at the plate every time I’ve seen him taking BP. The first time he hit 14 home runs in 35 swings (this is reported by others – I’m not keeping count that closely!) and then today he hit several more. All his hits were line drives, and all looked very good. He ended his first BP on Sunday with six straight long balls, as well. He seems to be in much better shape this year and even in good spirits. I’ve had a few chances to speak a little with him. Seems like a great guy.
Fumiya Araki has mostly done fielding practice and spent a bit of time at 1B. He obviously will not threaten Gomez for playing time but could serve as a useful late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner. Let’s see how much of those kinds of moves Kanemoto makes, though. Another guy who just doesn’t seem to be able to get his foot in the door is fourth-year infielder Fumiya Hojoh. He looks to be the kind of guy who can threaten to get you 15-20 long balls a season if given the playing time… but whom could he supplant to get it? Toritani doesn’t look ready to sit down and give anyone playing time at short, which is Hojoh’s natural position.
The battle for second is one that is on everyone’s minds, it seems. From what I have observed, Yamato is still head and shoulders above the other two with the glove, and Hiroki Uemoto is still the worst choice in that respect. (I saw him bobble an easy-looking grounder.) Tsuyoshi Nishioka looks to need a little more time to get comfortable at the dish and even on the field, as he has not had any playing time at second since that unfortunate collision with Fukudome back in April 2014. Still, he is my favorite to win the starting job come March 25. The more I think about this battle for 2B, the less it intrigues me, though. Looking at the best-case scenario for each player, there is not a huge gap between them. I mean, all could swipe 20+ bases and (Yamato aside) reach double digits in homers. As far as intangibles, Nishioka is definitely the most vocal of the three and brings greater maturity to the infield. He is also a switch hitter that could make the top of the order look a little more dangerous than the other two. But in the end, that gap may be negligible.
Things are interesting at third base as well, though. After wowing media and fans alike on day 1, Matt Hague has looked a little more human of late. Media has reported his whiffing at a pitching machine ball during BP, and today he did not clear the fence once. He also apparently made a bad throw in the field on Thursday. However, he has such a great disposition and fans really seem to like him (some even warning him to curb his tweeting!), so I don’t think anyone’s going to take 3B from him. Even though Ryota Arai has been smoking the ball out of the park regularly during batting practice, I have my doubts – this is a guy who always has problems with breaking pitches. Batting practice is the easiest it will get for the hitters. Can he do the same against real pitchers? That remains to be seen. As for Ryota Imanari, he is still dazzling fans with his field work, but not wowing many with his bat. He did hit one over the fence during BP on Saturday, though. Still, many of his hits were ones that would have earned him a single bag during a real game. Also looking for playing time at third is prospect Naomasa Yohkawa. The big-bodied slugger can hit the ball a mile, but will he show enough consistency and maturity to get playing time at the hot corner? Maybe sooner than we might think.
The outfield is only cluttered because of several assumptions that have been made. Fukudome will be in right every day. (Let’s see if health and consistency allow this to happen.) Taiga Egoshi will get more playing time than he did last season. (This is not guaranteed.) Yamato will get some playing time in center. (Will we ever forget his work in the 2014 Climax Series and Nippon Series?) First-round draft pick Shun Takayama will get a good chance to prove himself. (I want to see it, as do many fans. His bat is looking good up in Aki, too, from what I hear.) So besides these assumptions and hopes that people have, we also have to consider 3rd-year outfielder Shintaro Yokota, who turned some heads in Taiwan in December, but has also yet to make a single plate appearance on the parent squad. Still, at 20 years old, he looks more like a man entering his physical prime, and with some more maturity, could make a run for a starting spot. Then there is Hayata Itoh. Haven’t heard anything about him lately? Probably because from before camp itself even began, he injured his shoulder and is said to be 4 months from playing again. Still, as a former 1st-round pick (2011), there still are high hopes for him. Time is running out though, as the outfield gets more and more clogged with quality young players. Speaking of which, I finally got my first proper look at Ryosuke Ogata, a young smallish speedster with some decent pop. He has looked good so far as well, but maybe not quite good enough to make the parent club right from the start of the season. Last but (maybe) not least in the outfield is Masahiro Nakatani. He is entering his sixth season with the club and has yet to make a splash, so perhaps his time is running out. He looked fine when I saw him taking BP. I also caught him fielding ground balls in foul territory at another time, and wondered is there is talk of converting him to the infield eventually. (He was drafted as a catcher so it’s not completely unreasonable.) The thing that caught my attention the most was his energy and chatter. He seems like the kind of guy you want on your club!
Well, I’ve gone long enough for one entry. I’ll save the catchers for my next entry, which will center on the pitchers. I hope you’re able to follow all the spring training news somewhere – I have been a poor source for anything ever since I got my butt kicked by this cold! Hope to be back in a day with part 2, though!