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Turning point: Changes add spice to races

by Jim Allen (Apr 2, 2009)

The times they are a changing.

Every season brings new looks and last looks, but 2009 promises to be a year of turning points.

Bobby Valentine's seventh season as manager in Chiba is set to be his last, and 73-year-old Rakuten skipper Katsuya Nomura has hinted this may be his final season on the bench for his Pacific League club.

In contrast with its aging skipper, Japan's newest franchise is a flock of young talent that will get a veteran boost from slugging third baseman Norihiro Nakamura. Meanwhile, the club ended infielder Jose Fernandez's three-year tenure in Sendai.

The Marines, too, added a familiar veteran, Tadahito Iguchi. Three times a Best IX second baseman and Golden Glove-winner for the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, Iguchi returns to Japan after four seasons of moderate success in the major leagues.

His acquisition is a peculiar one. If Iguchi succeeds, he'll help the Marines in the short-term, while taking playing time away from the Marines second baseman of the future, 25-year-old Shunichi Nemoto.

The Hawks closed out Sadaharu Oh's managerial reign last season with a last-place finish, their worst result since Oh piloted them into the basement in 1995. This year, Kyushu native Koji Akiyama takes over with the club now relieved of the pressure of closing out Oh's career with a pennant.

In his first spring in charge, Akiyama led the Hawks to a 15-7-2 record in the preseason, the best in the nation, a feat the club last achieved in 2001.

Like the Marines, the Hawks are going backward to their future. SoftBank accomplished this with a swap of outfielders, the Hawks' Naoyuki Omura for the Buffaloes' Arihito Muramatsu.

Muramatsu began his career in Fukuoka before leaving as a free agent so he could play on grass in Kobe. Omura, who fled the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes as a free agent rather than join Orix in the teams' November 2004 merger, will return to return to Kintetsu's old paddock, Kyocera Dome Osaka.

The Buffaloes are in their first full season with Daijiro Oishi at the helm. Oishi took over last May and guided the Buffs to a surprising second in 2008.

The club's solid core of foreign run producers has been augmented by Fernandez's acquisition. If the good young pitching stays healthy and Yoshihisa Hirano returns from injury, the Buffaloes could take a step forward. Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong was good on occasion with the Tigers and could pitch in.

Not surprisingly, last year's Japan Series champs have undergone the fewest changes. Other than their throwback uniforms and the dismissal of first baseman Craig Brazell, the Lions remain more or less the same.

Lack of action is never a good sign, but the Lions were Japan's second-youngest team last season, so in this case, it's not a problem of standing pat too long with old players.

Dragons lead Central transition

In the Central League, the Chunichi Dragons could be ready for a youth movement after ace Kenshin Kawakami moved to the majors, Nakamura split for Sendai and slugging first baseman Tyrone Woods was not re-signed.

The club will have a distinctly different look without those three.

As if that weren't enough, manager Hiromitsu Ochiai shook up his Golden Glove middle infield in spring camp, switching second Masahiro Araki with shortstop Hirokazu Ibata.

The Dragons have young talent available to fill some holes. Outfielder Takehiro Donoue is not only the best minor league hitter in Japan, but he is just 23. First baseman Ryota Arai, the younger brother of Tigers first baseman Takahiro Arai, is another quality hitter, but he turns 27 this season and has not established himself at the top level.

Expect the Dragons to do what they always do and ignore both. Instead, the club is giving a long hard look to spring sensation Atsushi Fujii, who will be 28 in May and is a .183 hitter in 502 career Central and Western league at-bats.

The Carp will break the seal on New Hiroshima Citizen's Stadium. With Mazda having purchased the park's naming rights, the large park will be known officially as Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium Hiroshima.

The Carp will also welcome a former foe as a new teammate. After being released by the Yokohama BayStars, shortstop and future Hall of Famer Takuro Ishii will get a fresh start in the City of Peace.

With Marty Brown signed to a one-year contract, his fourth season as skipper may be his last if the Carp don't finish within a short swim of the playoffs again.

At the top of the heap, the Yomiuri Giants have found surprising stability. After years of going nowhere with big-name veterans poached from other teams, the Giants have learned to get it right.

Manager Tatsunori Hara, who uses his roster well and gets very good mileage out of his minor league talent, has created a strong team in which the players share the burden. In previous regimes, incoming vets were expected to power Yomiuri's pennant drives. Because Hara gets everyone involved, the club is no longer overly dependent on slow, aging veterans.

As a result, the Giants are gunning for their third straight pennant, a feat no CL club has managed since the Giants' run of nine straight league and Japan titles from 1965 to 1973.

In 2007, new acquisition Michihiro Ogasawara was league MVP, the first time that had happened in the free agent era. In 2008, new Giant Alex Ramirez repeated the feat. Two other new Giants made their mark on the mound last season. Seth Greisinger led the league in wins for the second straight season, while closer Marc Kroon broke the club's saves record. The Giants added another closer in a November trade that brought in the PL's single-season saves record-holder, Micheal Nakamura.

The Hanshin Tigers have switched managers but little else seems to have changed at Koshien.

Akinobu Mayumi takes over after Akinobu Okada unexpectedly quit following a second-straight playoff failure. If Mayumi was aiming to establish a winning precedent in the spring, he failed. The Tigers went 5-10-2 in the preseason for the nation's worst record.

Although Hanshin's biggest offseason deal sent middle reliever Kentaro Hashimoto to the Marines for 2005 rookie of the year Yasutomo Kubo, the Tigers purchased another ticket in their hope of winning the big-hitting, right- fielder lottery. Since 2005, they've tried Shane Spencer and Lew Ford. This year's new guy is Kevin Mench.

"They keep trying these guys, but they also give up on them pretty easily, too," said Taiwan international Lin Wei-chu, who is trying to reclaim his spot in right after an injury-hit 2008 season.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows have dipped into South Korea's pitching talent pool for the third straight season, picking up lefty Lee Hye Cheon, who comes with far more modest credentials than Greisinger in 2007 and Lim Chang Yong and Daniel Rios last year.

The Swallows' big acquisition is 32-year-old free agent catcher Ryoji Aikawa, a solid defender but no improvement on offense over 26-year-old Ryohei Kawamoto.

The BayStars, who jettisoned a number of older veterans, acquired Ryan Glynn, an effective pitcher entering his fourth season after going unsigned by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters following a 7-14 record in 2008.

After losing Aikawa, the BayStars, too, got older behind the plate, signing 37-year-old free agent Toshiro Noguchi from the Tigers.

First baseman Dan Johnson has a chance to be productive, but that can be said of a number of recent foreigners brought to Yokohama.

Yet the big news in Yokohama was who stayed behind. Free agent ace Daisuke Miura resisted the urge to join Hanshin for the chance to help the 'Stars rise in the CL sky.


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