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John E. Gibson

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Money talks: Giants buy blue-chip talent

by John E. Gibson (Mar 19, 2008)

Over the years, a number of high-priced, big-name free agents have come to the Yomiuri Giants with sparkling resumes. But more often than not, all that glitter has turned to fool's gold.

"The history shows that a lot of big-time free agents come over here, and they don't have success. And everyone knows it," said Marc Kroon, who spent three years with Yokohama before joining the Giants this season as their new closer.

"It's something that everyone talks about," said Kroon, who comes over with Seth Greisinger and Alex Ramirez, a pair of standouts who made the jump from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

Obviously past experience didn't stop the cash from flowing this past offseason after a nightmare finish to the first-ever Central League Climax Series.

The Giants were good enough to win the CL in the regular season, but suffered a stinging loss in a frustrating three-game sweep at the hands of the second-place Chunichi Dragons at Tokyo Dome last October in the second stage of the CLCS.

This season, the most explosive offense of '07 has added Ramirez, a player coming off a career year. Last season, the Venezulan was the second leading hitter in the league at .343, set a CL record with 204 hits and reached the 100-RBI mark for the fifth consecutive year--only the third player in Japan to reach triple digits in runs driven in over that many seasons.

Greisinger won 16 games with last-place Yakult and is expected to join the rotation, while Kroon will be the key to locking down games at the back of the bullpen.

Kroon, though, said he didn't just bolt from the BayStars because he saw dollar signs.

He said the Giant leap was based more on Yokohama's lack of interest.

"As far as I'm concerned, I was at Yokohama and the [contract] negotiations with Yokohama went nowhere," the righty said.

"I don't feel they put their best foot forward--I respect that--but I didn't leave them to come here," said Kroon, who has 84 career saves in Japan.

"It's a high-market team which means a higher salary, but I didn't abandon Yokohama. I tried my best and my hardest to stay with Yokohama. That was where my heart was, that was where I wanted to finish my career--that's where I wanted to stay. It didn't work out."

While these proven imports allow the Giants to reload, it means the pressure is now on to bring home a championship.

"This is a winning team, and the people and the fans expect us to win--especially now," Ramirez said.

"But I just have to worry about being myself. We have some of the best hitters in the league, so I don't have to worry too much about doing it [all] myself."

Scoring runs is important, but Ramirez pointed to the bolstered pitching staff as the best offseason move.

"Bringing in Greisinger to this organization--when you have your five or six starting pitchers, you feel that you can go through six games for the week, and know that you're going to win at least four games.

"Adding him to the rotation, it makes the starting rotation even better. It's not easy when you're going to face guys like [Koji] Uehara, Greisinger and [Tetsuya] Utsumi. You could easily go 0-for-10."

Ramirez said that with so much left-handed hitting power, he gives manager Tatsunori Hara the option of putting him between Ogasawara and Lee when facing lefties.

"It's up to the manager whether he wants to do it that way. Whether I hit fourth or I hit fifth, I think I can help this team."

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Chunichi looks forward

The Chunichi Dragons burned away 53 years of frustration with their remarkable late-season run to the Japan Series title last year.

The effort came despite the midseason loss of injured No. 3 hitter Kosuke Fukudome, and culminated with two pitchers combining to throw a perfect game in the finale. But now Fukudome is a Chicago Cub, and the Dragons have an entire season to survive without his big bat.

"That's going to hurt any lineup, when you lose a guy like Fukudome," Chunichi slugger Tyrone Woods said.

"Just his presence at the plate scares a lot of pitchers."

But Japan Series MVP Norihiro Nakamura and South Korean import Lee Byung Kyu, who stepped up his production in the postseason, will be key ingredients to another postseason push.

Chunichi's staple is pitching and defense, and ace Kenshin Kawakami and closer Hitoki Iwase anchor a solid collection of hurlers.

Reaching the Japan Series for a third straight season, however, will be a true test for skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai's team.

The Dragons picked up free agent outfielder Kazuhiro Wada, a former batting champion from Seibu who adds championship experience, having won a title with the Lions (against the Dragons) in 2004.

On the mound, right-hander Kenichi Nakata gave the Dragons' rotation a boost with a career-best 14-win season.

The fourth-year righty set career highs in every major category, finishing second in the CL with 177 strikeouts.

Looking at the rest of the CL, the Hanshin Tigers and new addition Takahiro Arai figure to reach the CLCS for the second straight season.

Arai gives Hanshin some pop from the right side, something they've been missing with struggling Makoto Imaoka either sidelined or ineffective the past two seasons.

With the "JFK" bullpen trio still a dominant factor, the Tigers can shorten games in a hurry if their offense clicks.

Slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto is coming off knee surgery and hopes to be in the lineup on Opening Day.

Arai has been productive this spring and the two figure to pack the heart of the order with a right-left combination that opposing teams can't easily pitch around.

The Yokohama BayStars lost Kroon and have turned to import hurlers Travis Hughes, Dave Williams and Mike Wood for help.

J.J. Furmaniak and Larry Bigbie also join a lineup that features reigning CL homer king Shuichi Murata.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows lost their best hitter and top pitcher. Their only big acquisition was pitcher Daniel Rios (22-5 in South Korea last season), but Aaron Guiel and a healthy Adam Riggs can make the offense go with Norichika Aoki at the top of the order.

The Hiroshima Carp, who lost Arai and ace righty Hiroki Kuroda to free agency, figure to struggle while having a lot of impact on the CLCS seedings.

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Fighters armed for PL battle, but offense key

Watching highlights, fans might think the best player for the two-time defending Pacific League champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters is media-smothered rookie Sho Nakata.

But he didn't even make the roster out of camp.

The Fighters bring back the PL's second-best pitching staff (ERA-wise), with three starters ranked in the top 10 in ERA last season.

Ace Yu Darvish (15-5 with a 1.82 ERA), last year's Sawamura Award winner, leads the way. Sometimes-volatile righty Ryan Glynn (9-8, 2.21 ERA) and Masaru Takeda (9-4, 2.54 ERA) also give Nippon Ham a fighting chance.

But the team has its issues on offense where it puts daily pressure on its hurlers to be near perfect. Lack of run support plagued the Fighters' mound men last year, and new skipper Masataka Nashida could experience just as many headaches as his predecessor if players including newcomer Terrmel Sledge doesn't pan out.

The Chiba Lotte Marines look to have the best starting rotation, led by Yoshihisa Naruse, who was 16-1 last year, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Shunsuke Watanabe and Shingo Ono.

The Marines, though, lost closer Masahide Kobayashi and Yasuhiko Yabuta to the majors and have a lack of experience in the relief corps.

"We lost a lot of bullpen guys, but we've got a couple of guys who can do the same thing the other guys did," said slugger Julio Zuleta, who also said the Marines are ready to fire up a championship.

"I think we have a very good chance to win the whole thing."

The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who came up winners in the Jeremy Powell tug-of-war with Orix, need the right-hander. With ace Kazumi Saito likely out for the season, the aging Hawks could use a boost on the mound and at the plate.

But if Nobuhiko Matsunaka is healthy and productive, the Hawks--who had the top team ERA last year--will have no trouble reaching the postseason.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles suffered a blow to their pitching staff when highly touted rookie Kohei Hasebe went down with a knee injury that doctors said will keep him sidelined for three months.

Even without him, the Eagles have strong starting pitching and if Domingo Guzman and Shinichiro Koyama can work smoothly in the late innings for the departed Kazuo Fukumori--now in the majors--Rakuten can contend for its first postseason appearance.

The Seibu Lions didn't add much more in the offseason than word Saitama to their name.

They brought in Craig Brazell, who had a good spring, and Hiram Bocachica, but many questions loom on both offense and defense for the Lions.

Seibu lost cleanup man Alex Cabrera to free agency and picked up Brazell, who hit his way into the cleanup spot in the preseason. But the Lions will need big contributions from a number of unproven players to reach the playoffs.

The Orix Buffaloes made some moves that were actually ratified before the Powell fiasco.

They picked up Cabrera, adding him to a lineup with Tuffy Rhodes and Greg LaRocca. The combination could make for an explosive, but plodding, offense.


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