The Central League's weirdest story last season was easily the melodrama surrounding Carp manager Marty Brown's future.
Brown was brought back to Hiroshima in 2006 as a messenger of change. But after two seasons without significant progress up the standings, team owner Hajime Matsuda was muttering to the media last spring about whether he wouldn't be better off just killing the messenger.
Not literally of course, but the season began by Matsuda instructing the club to finish third or higher. If not, Brown would not be invited back to tutor the school of Carp for a fourth term.
It's one of those things that's laughable if you don't know the people involved, reminding one of a line by humorist Mel Brooks: "Comedy is when someone falls down an open manhole and dies. Tragedy is when I stub my toe and it hurts."
When one examines the Carp's crummy organizational record, the idea of blaming Brown is a hoot.
The manager is responsible for applying the available resources to field the best possible team and win the maximum amount of games. There is every indication Brown has done well given the slim resources handed him.
The Carp are now the best fielding unit in the league. Last year's organized--if not overly deep--pitching staff kept them competitive with a minimum of offense. Hiroshima fans, who know a good thing when they see it, have voted with their feet and come out in increasing numbers. After a slight decrease in 2006, attendance in Hiroshima picked up by over 1,900 a game in 2007 and by nearly 3,900 last season.
Brown didn't get the Carp into the playoff pool, but their 69-70-5 record was Hiroshima's best since 2001 and he'll be back.
Considering the Carp's organizational ineptitude, that is a mighty feat and one that will be tough to better in 2009.
The Carp, like other small-market clubs here and in the major leagues, are constrained by the reality that some of their best players will file for agency and go elsewhere.
Since the free-agency door opened in 1993, only the Seibu Lions have seen more talent exercise their right to walk. Bill James' Win Shares, a wonderful tool for assessing individual contributions to team wins, allows us to estimate the cost in terms of wins.
Since 1994, former Lions have generated 105 wins over their careers for other teams after leaving Saitama for free agency. Free-agent Carp have, so far, contributed an estimated 91 wins to other clubs. With Tomoaki Kanemoto and Takahiro Arai still thriving for the Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima's deficit will easily exceed Seibu's by 2010.
Unlike the Lions, the Carp have surrendered significant value by not re-signing productive foreign players. Infielders Andy Sheets and Greg LaRocca, and pitcher Nate Minchey contributed a slew of wins to other clubs since being cut loose.
Although Tokyo Yakult's foreign aid to the Yomiuri Giants' may soon see the Swallows outstrip the Carp in this category, no club can match Hiroshima's total capacity for hemorrhaging talent.
The obvious solution would be to focus more heavily on drafting and development. Unfortunately, this is another area where Hiroshima has failed.
Since the 1993 draft, the Carp have been Japan's third worst team at building value through the draft. Hiroshima's weakness in the draft has been high school players.
The Carp select and sign far more than any other club, and player for player, pros coming straight out of high school are significantly worse investments than those entering a few years later. This is true in the majors; it is true in Japan. It wouldn't be so bad if the Carp were able to get normal development out of their kids.
Hiroshima, however, ranks ninth in terms of average value returned by high school draftees. This is what happens when the owner takes it upon himself to oversee the farm club, as Matsuda appears to do.
One thing bad teams often do is blame their best players for organizational failures. Brown is not a player, but he is one reason the Carp are making progress at all.
Blaming Brown for a fourth-place finish would have been like faulting a one-legged man for losing a butt-kicking contest.