As Hanshin got close to reaching a deal with free agent Yoshio Itoi, it had some important decisions to make. First, would he play center field, or right? One big idea that had been floating around since practice sessions in September was that incumbent right fielder Kosuke Fukudome could play first base, making room for Itoi, and still allowing for a decent fight for positions in the outfield. In fact, management probably felt even better about releasing import first baseman Mauro Gomez because of this possibility. And release him they did. (Rumor has it that he is now on the verge of signing with the Samsung Lions of the Korean Baseball Organization.)
But then, Fukudome gave his input: he wants to play right field, not first base. Meanwhile, Tigers scouts were hard at work trying to find an adequate import third baseman. Several names floated around the rumor mill, including former Rakuten Eagle Casey McGehee, who ended up signing with the Yomiuri Giants instead. The Tigers “settled” for former Mets scapegoat Eric Campbell, who has never really been a slugger in the past (though word has it he hit the ball pretty hard in 2015 despite not getting results). The problem now is that first base is vacant. The Tigers have almost always had a foreigner positioned on first, with the exception being the 2013 season, in which Takahiro Arai (yes, the 2016 CL MVP) fulfilled the role after Craig Brazell’s departure and before Gomez’s arrival. No Japanese players on the team have been truly groomed for the position.
Rumor had it that catcher Fumihito Haraguchi could be moved over to first, and catcher could go to Seishiro Sakamoto, Ryutaro Umeno, Taichi Okazaki or even newcomer Kenya Nagasaka. But Haraguchi also wants to play his natural position, despite not doing so well defensively behind the dish. (I personally think they need to stick with him at catcher instead of forcing him to try to learn a new position while still living up to people’s hopes that he’ll be the next great Japanese power hitter.)
So now, the latest pot on the hot stove is the possible acquisition of free agent Dae Ho Lee, who starred for the SoftBank Hawks in 2014-15 before trying his luck in the majors last season with the Seattle Mariners. He actually did not do too badly, belting 14 home runs and knocking in 49 runs in limited playing time, but he was released at season’s end, and does not seem to have been made any attractive offers yet in MLB, NPB or his native KBO. The 34-year old brings a solid average and great power at the plate, but would be a detriment on the base paths and possibly even on defense. Some complain that the Tigers’ youth movement last year will go all for naught if the team signs him. But how would that be any different than if they had kept Gomez? Besides, no one is being guaranteed his position outright, except perhaps Fukudome and Itoi. Lee would lock up first if he signs, but that leaves 5 positions up for grabs.
Campbell would not be gift-wrapped the gig at third: Takashi Toritani could settle for the hot corner if Fumiya Hojoh beats him out at short. The two Ryotas (Imanari and Arai) will try their best (and fall short) there as well. Newly drafted Yusuke Ohyama wants in as well, no doubt. There’s also Naomasa Yohkawa, who has shown flashes of brilliance but still has a lot of growing to do. Second base will be a fierce battle between several players who are barely top-level talent: Yamato (his glove is all-world, his bat is barely all-peewee), Fumiya Araki, Hiroki Uemoto, whose legs do a fine croquet gate impression on most nights, and 5th round draftee Kento Itohara. And of course there’s also ever-injured Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who expects to be back by the all-star break. The one remaining outfield spot should go to Shun Takayama, but there are plenty of young talented guys who will fight for playing time: Shintaro Yokota, Taiga Egoshi, Masahiro Nakatani, Yutaro Itayama (who also played second base in university), and let’s not forget Hayata Itoh, who might one day show the world why he was chosen in the first round back in 2011.
And that’s just the hitters’ side of things. There are plenty of young pitchers on staff who made an impact in 2016 who are expected to build on those numbers this season. Speaking of imports and pitchers who left a mark last year, recent reports indicate that reliever Rafael Dolis will throw two simulated innings on January 9th to determine whether or not he has recovered sufficiently from offseason surgery on his right elbow. If Hanshin likes what it sees, the Dominican may be offered a contract for 2017.
Should he and Lee sign on, the gaijin group would balloon to six members (including Randy Messenger, Marcos Mateo, Roman Mendez and the three guys mentioned above), meaning at least two would start the year on the farm. All would be expected to help lead the team to a pennant, and all would likely be indispensable to the team’s improvement in 2017. Truly, the imports are important.