Position Battles Wage On: Part 2 – Hitters

Yesterday, we had a look at the battle for playing time on the pitching staff. Today, we continue our look at the Tigers’ lineup and who can be expected to stand on the field and in the batter’s box at the start of 2017.

In case you missed it, Fumihito Haraguchi has been given the job at first base. The team wants to utilize his hitting talent to the max, and keeping him at catcher would (a) give him too many other things to worry about; and (b) significantly increase the risk of injury. Haraguchi, after all, had shoulder issues last season (he played through them but opponents ran at will against him), and earlier in his career he had major back issues, too. I do not expect him to be at 25 home run guy any time soon, unfortunately. Other pitchers will focus on him a lot more, and he may not see nearly as many good pitches this year as he did last.

None of the other guys on the depth chart at first base are in their natural position there, either. Masahiro Nakatani also started his career as a catcher, but was converted to the outfield pretty quickly. He has decent fielding skills, so I could see him being just fine at first. He also happens to already have 11 RBIs this spring, good for second in NPB, so he’s riding a hot bat. Ryota Arai will be lucky if he sees much action at all this season, as the competition for playing time has intensified and at 33, he’s not getting any younger. (His playing time has also decreased in each of the past three seasons.) If Fumiya Araki makes the Opening Day roster, it will be for his defense and speed. Physically (and at the plate) he is anything but the prototypical first baseman. If he sees time at first, it will likely be on the diamond but not at the dish.

The battle for second base was supposed to be between Hiroki Uemoto and Takashi Toritani, both Waseda University alumni, but a few things have separated the former from the latter in recent days. Uemoto hit in eight straight at bats before grounding out in his third at bat Tuesday night, and has hit over .700 so far in exhibition games. Meanwhile, Toritani has not hit so well, and has committed a few errors on defense. (Surprisingly, Uemoto has none so far.) Fifth round pick (last fall) Kento Itohara has impressed so far, and his versatility is a huge plus, but he will likely be on the outside looking in at season’s start. Yamato is still all-world on defense and all-sandlot with the stick. His attempts to become a switch hitter are intriguing but a little too late in his career, in my opinion.

It’s already been a couple of weeks since manager Tomoaki Kanemoto basically told Toritani that he lost the battle for shortstop. The winner, Fumiya Hojoh, has cooled off a bit at the dish and committed an error or two on the field, but still appears to be the horse Hanshin will ride this season. He is showing confidence and maturity that were not there last season. Kai Ueda is also trying his hand at hitting switch, but at age 20, he has a lot of time to get it right and make something out of it. He is a much faster runner than either of the top candidates, and plays good defense, but is still not a very accomplished hitter.

Word has it that Yusuke Ohyama could be the starter at third base on Opening Day. If you think about it, that makes some sense. Eric Campbell (left wrist) is doubtful to be ready, and none of Naomasa Yohkawa, Ryota Imanari (or Arai) have impressed as much this spring as the 2016 first round pick. On the other hand, you don’t exactly sit a ¥400-million ironman on the bench. Not if you’re accountable to the front office. With Toritani being pretty badly outmatched at second and short, the suddenly up-for-grabs third base could be where he lands on March 31. He has been playing there more in exhibition games, including Tuesday’s match. Unless he flounders and Ohyama breaks out in a big way, I bet Tori gets the first shot at the hot corner.

The fight for playing time at catcher has calmed down significantly in recent days. Not only did Haraguchi get moved to first at the start of the month, but second-year backstopper Seishiro Sakamoto broke his right thumb while batting on the farm on March 7. He had surgery on it and will not be ready for the start of the season. That leaves two major candidates, and both should be on the top squad, at least until Sakamoto is ready to come back. Ryutaro Umeno has been calling games better, throwing runners out, and even hitting the ball at a decent clip so far this spring. He has gotten the bulk of the action this spring, so it is hard to imagine a scenario where (seldom-used) veteran Taichi Okazaki wins the starting job. He could land a role as a spot catcher for one or two guys in the rotation, or even as a late-game replacement. Nothing more.

The outfield positions are almost certainly set in stone. Barring injury or major slumps, three left-hitting men will do all they can to cover the vast expanse that is Koshien’s grassy outfield, while also carrying the bulk of the load on offense. There are all sorts of decent back-up options for Shun Takayama (weak on defense), Yoshio Itoi (still hasn’t tested his wonky knee in game action) and Kosuke Fukudome (turning 40 in about a month’s time). The question is, with precious few roster spots up for grabs, who stays with the top squad to back these three up? My bet is on Taiga Egoshi, who has the potential to be an excellent hitter, and is already a solid fielder. He also happens to be the only righty outside of Nakatani and possibly my least favorite Tiger, Shunsuke (who might end up getting the spot based on his hot spring bat and his decent defense and bunting ability).

So you can see that there are still a few positions to be determined. There are lots of guys who got playing time last year who will not see nearly as much this year. And there are also guys coming back from injury who will make playing time even scarcer.Besides the aforementioned Campbell and Sakamoto, Tsuyoshi Nishioka is still rehabbing from his ruptured left Achilles tendon (back in July 2016). Typical recovery time for this kind of injury is a year, but you never know. He put on his spikes and took full fielding practice at Naruohama on the 14th, which is an encouraging sign. Then there’s the mystery of Shintaro Yokota, who left camp in Okinawa in the middle of February after complaining of migraines. Not only has he not returned to practices since, the club has not issued any kind of announcement about his status. We can only hope he is recovering fine and will be back with the club at some point this season.

Who do you like at each position? What’s your ideal starting lineup and batting order for the new season? These will be the topics in the next podcast episode. Stay tuned! And leave your opinions in the comments section below!

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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.