WARNING: This post will be LONG and will likely not contain many visuals. If you are serious about knowing all you need to know about the upcoming season, keep reading. If you just want to know which team I pick to win it all, scroll down to the bottom of the post. For a look at last year’s final standings, click here.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
What we know: The Swallows pulled a miraculous last-to-first turnaround, winning the Central League last season after finishing in its basement in 2014 and 2013. They had the league’s top batter (Kawabata, .336), top home run man (Yamada, 38), and top RBI man (Hatakeyama, 105) and stolen bases (Yamada, 34), all without having the home run king (Balentien, 60 HR in 2013) in their lineup much of the year. But that was not even the team’s strength. Outstanding defense and a stingy relief squad made this team nearly impossible to come back against after 6 innings. Relievers like Akiyoshi, Roman, Ondrusek and closer Tony Barnette shut down opponents like it was no one’s business. However, the loss of Barnette (who signed with the MLB Texas Rangers) and Roman (who moved on to Taiwan) slightly weakens their bullpen, despite the signing of a few more import pitchers.
Prognosis: I personally believe that it will be extremely hard for the three title holders to repeat their fantastic seasons, meaning their run scoring will regress a little in 2016. What’s more, their starting pitching was excellent for them last season, which is really an aberration when looking at previous seasons. It is entirely possible that the rotation takes a step back as well. They might fight to make the playoffs this season, but I have them falling short.
Tokyo Yomiuri Giants
What we know: The Giants are never (or seldom) out of the picture when it comes to the pennant race, and last year was no exception. Right until the final week of last season, there was a chance for them to pull off the unlikely three-peat. Their starting pitching, led by newcomers Mikolas (1.92 ERA) and Poreda (2.94), and anchored by young but still experienced Sugano (1.91 ERA), was outstanding, and the punchable (as in, you wanna punch him in the face) but near-unhittable (as in, 1.32 ERA) Sawamura in the bullpen kept this team in many games. The hitting seemed to take a collective year off, with Sakamoto, Chono, Abe, Murata and others not performing up to the level expected of them. This team lost almost no key pieces, and added import hitters Garrett Jones (Yankees, etc.) and Luis Cruz (last year’s Golden Glove at 2B with the Lotte Marines) to help its emaciated offense.
Prognosis: Mikolas is injured to start the season and can’t possibly repeat what he did last year – can he? How long can the aging Abe (37) be leaned on to catch (and hit)? How will new manager Yoshinobu Takahashi fare after years of watching Hara manage from the outfield? The Giants have three excellent import pitchers (Canadian Scott Mathieson is a huge asset in the bullpen), but will possibly have to farm one of them if they want to use Jones and Cruz daily. I believe this team will fight for the pennant again this season, but will not quite get back to the top.
What we know: The Carp disappointed many last season when they were expected to win the pennant but finished 4th, just a half game behind the Tigers for third. The pitching trio of Maeda, Johnson and Kuroda did not disappoint, but the rest of the pitching staff, particularly the relief corps, let them down. The young bats slumped a little, but what hurt even worse was their inability to score when chances came up. Obviously this offseason was costly to them, as they lost the best pitcher in NPB to the majors when Maeda signed with the Dodgers. They released a few of their imports and added a few newcomers, but also found a solution to their weakness at 3B when they pulled Hector Luna away from the Dragons.
Prognosis: The loss of the game’s best pitcher, the age of another and the improbability of replication for the third makes this team’s pitching staff a huge question mark. While the younger bats may come back to life this year, there is no guarantee of that. Nor is it likely that the aging Takahiro Arai will repeat last season’s outstanding line. Injuries have always plagued the team’s biggest power threat, Eldred, and outside of him the team lacks punch. Last place is unlikely, but so is a birth in this year’s postseason.
What we know: Nothing good was expected from this aging squad last year, yet they were able to get off to a quick start and even remained in the hunt about half of the season. Reality set in soon after the all-star break, though, as they slumped to last place and were only saved from the cellar by an even worse slump from an even worse team. Three wheelchairs have been removed from the playing field and will be replaced by young unknowns. The team lost Luna but picked up a former major leaguer in Viciedo (White Sox, etc.). Not a lot of the players currently on the roster scream “franchise player” but there are a few who will see regular playing time from start to finish. Two outstanding starters in Ohno and Wakamatsu, along with the hopeful re-emergence of Yoshimi, have the team hopeful that low scores can keep them in most games.
Prognosis: In what is clearly a rebuilding season for these Dragons, I do not hold out great hope for a postseason appearance. Every season there is a surprise in the NPB standings, though, so we cannot completely count this crew out. Still, I do not see them finishing anywhere near fifth place, let alone the playoff scene.
Yokohama DeNA Baystars
What we know: These guys started 2015 with a bang, at one point holding a 29-19 record and looking hard to beat. The final 95 games of the season had the team playing 33-61-1 ball and becoming the first team to lead its league at the all-star break and end the season in last. (Disclaimer: At the all-star break, all six CL teams were just 4 games apart in the standings.) Its batting lineup boasts two of the most exciting Japanese players in the game in Tsutsugoh and Kajitani, while veteran 1B Lopez provided even more power and rookie Yamasaki set a record for most saves by a freshman. On the other side of the equation, no starter on this squad recorded double digits in wins.
Prognosis: First-round pick Imanaga is slated to start the home opener. Enough said. Whether he is a quality pitcher or not is beside the point: this team has no solid answers on the mound. Kajitani is also starting the year on the shelf and could be out for a month. Despite this, the X Factor is new manager Alex Ramirez. One of the most prevalent foreigners ever to play in NPB, Ramirez breathes new life into a squad that needs it. His ability to motivate players and strategize will be crucial to the team’s success. This team is my “surprise pick” as I forecast they will earn a birth in the playoffs, finishing just behind the Giants but somewhat comfortably ahead of the Swallows.
What we know: Last year was the team’s 80th, and many were hoping it would result in the team’s first pennant in a decade. However, under manager Wada, it was unable to hold on to its month-long lead any longer than September 11th, and from there the team spiraled all the way down to third. This offseason, two prominent foreigners left the team. Matt Murton will try to earn a spot on a Major League roster (he’s currently with the Cubs) and Seung-hwan Oh was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals just after his gambling scandal took him off the Hanshin radar. The team signed free agent reliever Takahashi and also brought in three new imports: Matt Hague (3B), Marcos Mateo (RP) and Rafael Dolis (RP). It also hired a new manager, legend Tomoaki Kanemoto. With solid starting pitching getting a boost with the return of Kyuji Fujikawa, this team’s biggest question marks are the hitters.
Prognosis: The hometown bias kicks in big time for this call. Power was not on display at all during the preseason, but the bats showed a huge improvement over last spring (.277 to .251). The pitching was also extremely good, allowing just 1.93 earned runs per nine. Youngsters Takayama and Yokota should blend well with veterans Fukudome, Gomez and Toritani. Two keys are: will Hague (.194) hit better when the games matter? Will the team overcome its customary September slump? The answer to both, I believe, is yes. Beyond the starters this team has a fairly deep bench. And everyone has forgotten about a player that I believe will come back in late July or early August and spell wonderful relief for the fatigued newcomers mentioned above: Hayata Itoh. The man is due to have a breakout season, and while this one will be abbreviated for him, I believe he will be one of the players that steps up come season’s end. In 2016, the pennant is coming back to Hanshin for the first time in 11 years.
- Yomiuri Giants
- DeNA BayStars
- Yakult Swallows
- Hiroshima Carp
- Chunichi Dragons