Tokyo Yakult may have had the worst record in Japanese ball a year ago, but that probably won't be the team's fate in 2008. New Swallows skipper Shigeru Takada is determined to develop young talent, and his flock's minor league rookery is filled with it.
"Bringing up young players is one of the reasons I am here," Takada told The Hot Corner earlier this spring. "It's very exciting to see what they can grow into."
Because the media so often ignore minor leaguers other than high-profile rookies, and farm team managers are hesitant to recommend no-name prospects, the real Eastern and Western league success stories get little notice.
But when a new manager is bent on a youth movement or is moving up after a stint as farm team manager, like the Saitama Seibu Lions' Hisanobu Watanabe, their teams can get a fresh infusion of talent that few knew was there. Although the Lions are not overflowing with obvious prospects, Watanabe knows who deserves a shot to make the top team.
"I have a whole lot of surprises," he said Sunday at Jingu Stadium, while refusing a request to divulge just one.
Although the biggest noise coming out of the Seibu camp has been from outfielder Kenta Matsusaka, the best of Watanabe's minor league hitters may be 26-year-old outfielder Hisashi Takayama, who was used mostly as a pinch-hitter in the PL last season. Another surprise may be 25-year-old right-hander Kazumasa Azuma.
At Jingu, the Swallows have nowhere to go but up, and here are some of the kids who could provide extra lift.
Although Kazuhiro Hatakeyama was less than impressive in 75 Central League at-bats last year, he had his fifth straight big season in the EL. A 25-year-old right-handed-hitter, Hatakeyama hits for average, has enough power to hit 20 homers a year at Jingu and will walk. His chief weakness, like so many minor league hitters, is his defensive record. His best option is first base, where the Swallows are set with Adam Riggs and Ryuji Miyade. Hatakeyama is probably a better hitter than Miyade and could become better than a healthy Riggs, although perhaps not this season.
Third-year outfielder Shinichi Takeuchi is on par with Hatakeyama as a hitter and is a year younger.
At catcher, the Swallows have 25-year-old Ryohei Kawamoto, their No. 2 man in the CL a year ago and Takada's best offensive option behind the plate. He hits enough for a strong defensive catcher, but lots of passed balls and little luck throwing out runners hardly place him in that category yet.
Although national team skipper Senichi Hoshino has his eye on 20-year-old Yakult lefty Kyohei Muranaka, right-hander Kenichi Matsuoka may be ready sooner. Matsuoka gave up eight homers in 49 CL games last season, but was Japan's best young minor league pitcher.
The Swallows' Pacific League counterparts, the last-place Orix Buffaloes, also have plenty of talent on the farm, starting with 26-year-old WL Triple Crown-winner Yuichiro Mukae.
Mukae and former first-round pick Tomotaka Sakaguchi will get more than enough chances to add speed to an Orix outfield that was arthritically slow in 2007.
Sakaguchi, 25, is a former first-round draft pick who hits for average, but will need to ratchet up his on-base percentage if he is to stick this season.
Another former top pick, 26-year-old lefty Shinya Nakayama, could become one of the few Buffaloes pitchers able to strike many batters out. Nakayama took a step backward in 2007, but completed his year in the Hawaiian Winter League, where a lot of players have been able to spark their careers. He also has the advantage of working for Terry Collins.
Although the skipper has more than enough headaches at the first-team level, Collins takes a keen interest in his minor leaguers. This is not always easy when potential prospects are rarely recommended by minor league staff.
In most organizations it seems, coaches don't want to tout an unheralded player because the youngster might go 0-for-6 and make the coach look bad.
"I ask who's better in this situation, this guy or that guy?" Collins said. "And they mention some other guy, I didn't even ask about. Nobody wants to make a decision."