It was great to see many of the players up closely during the first week of spring training down in Okinawa last week. After terrible bouts with illness, I am finally ready to start processing what I saw and share it with you all. Part 1 was about the fielders (catchers excluded), this one will be about the hurlers (and catchers) and we’ll wrap things up with my personal experiences and thoughts.
It should be noted that while the team’s core pitchers are starting to age, they are not slowing down when it comes to work ethic. The first pitcher out to the pen on Day 1 was returnee Kyuji Fujikawa, and right from the beginning of camp, manager Kanemoto has been saying (unfortunately) he is far and away the most impressive pitcher so far. He definitely looked good out there – not the same guy who left the club after the 2012 season by any means, but with a maturity and new style that could work in its own way, for sure. The first man out on Day 2 was newcomer Akifumi Takahashi. He also looks to be everything the club hoped for when signing him up – a more-than-capable southpaw reliever. Not to be outdone, Atsushi Nohmi held his spot in the bullpen for longer than many on most days, too, making sure he gets his form down for the new season.
These three were not the only veterans who looked sharp, though. Minoru Iwata is looking more and more like tough-guy Shimoyanagi Part 2. He came to camp with a bigger body and a bolder attitude. Randy Messenger made lots of waves last spring for his doughy exterior, but this year got just as many stares for his sleek figure. Both looked right in their niche at camp, and should slide into the rotation without any problems. Another veteran who looks like he could go until he’s 50 is Shinobu Fukuhara, whose pitching form has given his aging body a great chance at longevity.
Some quick notes on other pitchers I observed: Daiki Enokida looked good but I’m not sure if he’s got anything new that he didn’t have last year or the year before… Takumi Akiyama kind of stumbled through his innings during a scrimmage game. He’s another one that the team has been waiting to have that breakthrough year. It may have to wait another year,,. Naoto Tsuru has good speed but poor control so far. If he can find his form he’ll done well in the bullpen… Kazuya Takamiya has gotten all the dough-boy jokes that Randy got last spring. He looks out of shape and while laughing it off is one way to deal with it, his role as main lefty out of the pen looks shaky… Hiroya Shimamoto (leg) and Ryoma Matsuda (shoulder) left Okinawa prematurely with injuries, and will likely start the season on the farm getting into game shape… Impressive both in Taiwan (December) and Okinawa is Yuta Iwasada. His pitches looked sharp and he struck out consecutive batters during the intrasquad game. He could take one of the rotation spots if he keeps things up… I honestly don’t have much to say about Hiroaki Saiuchi, Kazuhito Futagami or Suguru Iwazaki. They seem to be the same guys they were at the end of last season. Or maybe I just didn’t get a good look at them.
The two Dominicans – Rafael Dolis and Marcos Mateo – threw their first bullpens to the pleasure of fans and media alike. Dolis was believed to have poor control, but he was throwing several types of pitches right from early on. He also has vowed to try to hit 160 km/h during the intrasquad game on Valentine’s Day. For his part, Mateo, who is expected to start the season in the closer’s role, threw hard and looked smooth. He also believes his best weapon is a slider. It could be fun to see these guys duke it out for ninth inning duties, but pitch control means a lot here, so I’m sticking with Mateo as my favorite until we see something different from Dolis.
Now for a quick look at the catchers – the men who catch all of these different pitches from all of these different men. It should be noted that battery/strategy coach Akihiro Yano has gone on record as saying that the catching position is completely up for grabs and no one is ahead of anyone else. Despite that, I went in to Okinawa thinking that a decade or so of mediocrity from guys like Taichi Okazaki and Shinji Komiyama, they would essentially make their way back to the farm. This would be a two-man battle in Okinawa: Ryutaro Umeno and newcomer Seishiro Sakamoto would be the future of this team. HOWEVER… Okazaki has shown ability at the plate and behind it, and could even be the frontrunner in the race in Okinawa. Of course we’re still in the early stages of pre-season, but he looks to be taking the chance he has been given, and running with it. Komiyama has not done anything to make himself stand out on either end, unfortunately. Umeno has still got his big bat, but can he be the presence behind the plate that the veteran pitchers need? If not, Sakamoto will happily assume the role. He has shown poise and keen interest in building relationship with his new pitchers. Many scouts and media have been impressed with how the youngster has carried himself throughout the first week. While he is not the youngest player at camp in Okinawa, he is the most newly-drafted. Despite this, he has shown an earnest desire to be the every day catcher. He will, however, need to do a lot of work on his hitting. During batting practice he struggled to keep the ball in the air more often than not.
Look for the series wrap-up – a look at facilities, the camp experience as a fan, and my personal encounters throughout the week – soon!