Spring Training 2017 – 1st Cool* News

* The Japanese use the word クール (from the French cours = course / installment / season) to divide the spring training sessions into parts. But since クール is usually used to mean “cool” I have turned it into a cool headline. Are you クール with my decision?

Happy Super Bowl Sunday, Hanshin Tigers fans! May the best team win.

And now on to the only sport that matters… Hanshin baseball. Both camps finished their first session of practices, and Super Bowl Monday (here in Japan) is an off-day. Practice resumes on Tuesday. So here are some of the stories on different players coming out of the two camps. (Sorry, no links to original stories/sources. You’ll just have to believe that I read/watched these during the week and am honest in my reporting.)

Ginoza, Okinawa – Top Squad

Probably the biggest attention-getter is new infielder Eric Campbell. Much like his predecessor Matt Hague, the American is being watched closely for his attitude, hitting ability, fielding ability, and everything else imaginable. Word is that he has a good swing, though he does not generate a lot of power. He has been compared to Andy Sheets by some, and during his first two days of batting practice, knocked just two balls over the fence. He apparently paid close attention to Kosuke Fukudome during his batting practice and giving of advice to some of the younger hitters. He has been lauded for his willingness to learn and his seriousness towards practice. His fielding and throwing were problem-free, which puts him a step ahead of Hague last year, I suppose.

Also getting a ton of print was new pitcher Roman Mendez. His delivery looks great, he looks to have decent control and good speed, and apparently scouts from other teams were pretty impressed with what they saw, too. He seems to have a great personality, and it seems the club is penciling he and Marcos Mateo in as the fearsome twosome to close out games.

Before we go any further, we would be remiss not to mention that Yoshio Itoi, the team’s most expensive toy, hurt his right knee while working out a week before spring training began. It was said to be fairly harmless, but would result in him spending at least a couple of weeks training on his own (instead of going through team workouts) before ramping up and joining everyone else. He did pool workouts, light throwing, and swinging practice while seated on a medicine ball. Weightlifting was also part of the regimen, of course. He apparently is still feeling pain and will definitely not be joining practice for the second session, either. Here’s to hoping the injury heals completely in time for the regular season!

First-round draft pick Yusuke Ohyama looked really comfortable on the field, catching and throwing flawlessly in practice. He also was able to make immediate use of manager Tomoaki Kanemoto‘s advice during batting practice, knocking several balls over the fence and earning his skipper’s admiration for being able to adapt so quickly.

The battle at shortstop between Fumiya Hojoh and Takashi Toritani will probably be the most intense one of the month. Both guys are looking sharp. Hojoh looks a lot more relaxed and mature than he did at this time last year, and Toritani is bringing the energy that he seemed to lack for much of the 2016 campaign.

Shun Takayama has apparently put on a lot of good weight, and has shown a great deal of power during batting practice. It’s been said that Kanemoto is hoping he can hit 20+ jacks in 2017, and he’s taken his coach’s words seriously.

Second-round draft pick Taiki Ono has also impressed scouts and coaches with his delivery. Hanshin alumni chairman (and loudmouth) Kozo Kawatoh apparently said the club needs to teach its young players how to eat, because this kid only had one plate of curry at lunch, and will never grow at this rate… but Kanemoto has said Ono looks like he could be an impact pitcher down the road.

Shintaro Yokota has brought a first-baseman’s glove to camp because it will probably increase his chances of getting playing time. I suppose that is true if the outfield ends up consisting of Takayama, Itoi and Fukudome. Not to mention, Taiga Egoshi has impressed so far this spring, too.

Kanemoto said today that the most impressive pitcher so far has been Minoru Iwata – a surprise to many who had written the veteran off. The 33-year old southpaw looks to bounce back from his first winless season since 2007.

Aki, Kochi – Second Squad

Ever-injured second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka has declared his most recent setback – a ruptured Achilles tendon – the best injury of his career. Apparently it has caused him to rethink his way of training and maintaining his body. He has lost a lot of weight but kept his muscle mass. Nishioka is not practicing with the team, but has been doing a lot of rehab work that should put him in position to rejoin the team during the season’s first half.

Perhaps the reason Yamato has been such a weak-hitting batter is because he was standing on the wrong side of the plate. The all-world center fielder/second baseman has been taking batting practice from the left side in hopes of becoming a more versatile (i.e. switch) hitter. One supposes he cannot become any less powerful by doing so!

In 2016, only one newly drafted player did not see action on the top squad. Daichi Takeyasu, who underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of 2014, spent most of the year building up his strength and getting back into game shape. Word has it that he has impressed coaches and scouts with his arsenal now that he is at full strength. He seems quite determined to make sure he at least gets a shot at playing with the top team in 2017.

News/Rumors from the Other Side of the World

Daily Sports reported a couple of days back that the team has agreed in principle to a deal with recently cut pitcher Rafael Dolis. The Dominican had surgery on his elbow in October, and due to health concerns, was left off the club’s protected roster in the offseason. However, he has shown enough progress in his recovery to convince the team to bring him back. He also appears to be eager to return, and could land in Japan sometime next week if all goes well.

The vacancy at first base has become an urgent concern (when you have Fumiya Araki guarding the bag during most practices, you know you’ve got no options), and the most recent rumor is that the team is going to try to find someone from overseas to sign and join the team soon. The juiciest option (not sure how realistic this is) looks to be National League home run king Chris Carter (Milwaukee Brewers), who has yet to sign with an MLB team and is rumored to be open to playing 2017 in Japan. The big man hit 41 homers in 2016 but also whiffed a typhoon-creating 206 times. Still, I’d take his power over Araki’s (even remove the K – over Ryota Arai‘s) any day.

* Update 2/8: Apparently the New York Yankees have signed Chris Carter to a one-year deal worth $3M so he will not be coming to Japan after all.

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.