Hanshin has finished its “Koshien” home portion of the exhibition schedule, and will not play on its hallowed grounds again until April 7 (vs. Giants, games 7-9 of the regular season). For now, it sees itself playing at Kyocera Dome (Osaka) for 2 before heading out on the road for 6, then returning back to Kyocera for 3 more. Exhibition games end on March 26 and the regular season is set to start on March 31st in Hiroshima.
With 11 games left to get the roster finalized, a lot of position battles have settled down, while others have intensified and still others have started from scratch. The following is a brief summary of articles I have read, mixed in with my personal opinion. Refer to this graphic to better understand how things have recently developed.
Again, this is my own personal outlook on the positions and not a team-issued chart. Let’s start by looking at the pitchers.
Clearly, four guys have established their presence in the starting rotation based on track record and performances so far this spring. Randy Messenger is easily the most steady pitcher on staff, maybe even in the entire league over the past 7 seasons. Shintaro Fujinami had a rough 2016 but has the talent to be the ace of the staff. Yuta Iwasada had a breakout year last season, and has shown just as much dominance this spring as he did when he steamrolled the competition on his way to winning Pitcher of the Month last September. Atsushi Nohmi continues to work hard, pound the strike zone, and provide a decent 6-7 innings every time he starts.
But the final two spots (remember, NPB teams typically go with 6-man rotations, not the 5 that MLB teams typically trot out) are still up for grabs. I wouldn’t even say that any of these guys is running ahead of the pack so much, but this is what the situation looks like:
Minoru Iwata was a mainstay in the team’s rotation for several years until 2016 hit. The southpaw hit a really rough patch, from which he never recovered, even on the farm, where he spent most of the year. Since camp has started, he has had one rough outing – a beating at the hands of his mates during an intrasquad game. Outside of that, he has looked much like his old self, including 5 IP and 6 K (3 H, 1 BB, 1 ER) against the Yakult Swallows (3/7).
Takumi Akiyama has, since the year after his debut in 2010, always given the Tigers fans fits of frustration. Despite 4 wins and a complete game in the second half of his rookie campaign, it took him until last season to pick up another win. But this spring, he has had a couple of great outings: 4 IP and 7 K (1 H, 0 R) against the Nippon Ham Fighters (2/25), 5 IP and 2 K (2 H, 0 ER) against the Chiba Lotte Marines (3/8). Unlike Iwata, he did not implode against his fellow Tigers during intrasquad play. In fact, he was named co-MVP of the spring camp in Okinawa.
Yuya Yokoyama has been a little quieter of late. The team’s top pick in the 2014 draft, he has yet to stay with the top squad for an entire season, but has impressed at times during short stints and spot starts. He looked great in February, but has only thrown in one top squad exhibition game this month – 3 IP 2 K (4 H, 1 R) against the Hiroshima Carp (3/5). He has, however, thrown in farm practice games and fared fairly well.
Koyo Aoyagi is the lone man here who spent significant time in the rotation last season. The 2015 fifth-round sidearmer struggled mightily with control, but that wildness was rather effective in keeping opposing hitters, especially righties, off balance. This spring, he has basically picked up where he left off in the fall, but with a little more confidence and a little less wildness. His outing against the Chiba Lotte Marines (3/9) saw him go 4 IP 3 K (0 H, 2 BB, 0 ER).
The bullpen looks to be mostly set as it is. Marcos Mateo is the incumbent closer and unless something significant occurs between now and March 31, there is no reason to believe he won’t still be collecting saves once the regular schedule starts. Since NPB teams can not have more than 3 active pitchers (and Messenger is sure to occupy one as well), the Tigers will have to choose either Rafael Dolis or Roman Mendez. At present, Dolis holds the lead. He is still with the top squad, while the newcomer is down on the farm getting some work in with the second squad.
Suguru Iwazaki has been converted to reliever this season, and the job seems to suit him quite well. He has allowed a couple of runs during exhibition play, and sat out the last couple of games with a sore back (not considered major), but he has also added a few miles per hour on his fastball, and has always had a good track record while facing batters for the first time in his starts. (His third time through the hitters seemed to result in disaster a little too often, though.)
The team will likely carry just three or four other relievers aside from the three mentioned above, and at least one of them will be a lefty, if not two. That means Akifumi Takahashi is all but assured a spot. It will be hard to supplant long-toothed Yuya Andoh, unless this is his year to pull a Fukuhara 2016. I also can’t imagine the team not keeping Kyuji Fujikawa active. As the second highest paid pitcher on the team (after Messenger), it would take a few implosions for him to be relegated to the farm. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, mind you. Last, if there is room for him, young Ryoma Matsuda has thrown well for the past season and a half, and will likely remain with the top squad.
Once again this season, pitching depth should be the Tigers’ strength. The team has 5 starters who had decent success last season, one who looks to bounce back to his pre-2016 form, and two young guns vying for playing time. While none of these guys is the class of the Central League (Fujinami has the potential to be that guy, but has yet to reach his pinnacle), none is an easy outing for opponents.
The bullpen, which has been a big problem in recent years, looks surprisingly strong. Even if some of the older guys decline badly, there are enough young arms to pick up the slack. At Koshien, where runs can sometimes be scarce, good pitching can make it even harder for opponents to rack up wins. I expect this crew to be the top or second best staff in the Central in 2017.