After shelling out billions of yen prior to last season, the big-spending Giants at least got some value for their money. The club won the Central League title with an 84-57-3 record before falling to the PL's Seibu Lions in seven games in the Japan Series.
Several of their new acquisitions came through for Tatsunori Hara's club: Slugger Alex Ramirez had an MVP season, posting a .319 average with 45 HRs and 125 RBIs; RHP Seth Greisinger led the league in wins for the second straight season with 17; and hard-throwing closer Marc Kroon was the top save man in the CL with 41.
All three are back this year, along with a couple of interesting new additions. Yomiuri traded disgraced captain Tomohiro Nioka (sex scandal) to the Nippon-Ham Fighters for their closer, Micheal Nakamura, and they also signed veteran free-agent infielder Edgardo Alfonzo, a former New York Met, who will likely play second base.
The rest of the infield should see Lee Seung Yeop at first, slick-fielding Hayato Sakamoto at shortstop and perennial All-Star Michihiro Ogasawara at third. If Lee struggles again this season, look for Ogasawara to slide over to first. If the workload becomes too much for the 35-year-old Alfonzo, Takuya Kimura or Ryota Wakiya will be ready to step in at 2B and either man could also see action at the hot corner.
The outfield should be composed of Ramirez in left, Takahiro Suzuki in center and Yoshiyuki Kamei in right. The injury-prone Yoshinobu Takahashi is dealing with back issues and veteran Yoshitomo Tani's best days are behind him, but both could see some playing time in the outfield this season.
Joining Greisinger in the starting rotation will be Tetsuya Utsumi and lefty Hisanori Takahashi. Hiroshi Kisanuki, Shun Tono and Kentaro Nishimura are also vying for spots as starters.
With the addition of Alfonzo to the mix, it could make it tough for Australian lefty Adrian Burnside, newly acquired right-hander Dicky Gonzalez or Dominican Wirfin Obispo to stick with the big club. Nakamura, who was born in Nara but grew up Down Under, does not count against the foreign-player quota here, but South Korean Lee does.
Out of the bullpen Hara can roll out 2008 CL Rookie of the Year Tetsuya Yamaguchi, Daisuke Ochi and possibly Tono or Nishimura. Nakamura could be used in a set-up role or even as a closer, should the high-strung Kroon go into meltdown-mode.
Former starter/set-up man/closer Koji Uehara has joined the Baltimore Orioles in a free-agent deal.
Hiroshima Toyo CARP
Most people who see Carp right-hander Colby Lewis pitch tend to remark that the man has major-league stuff, which kind of begs the question, "Why isn't he in the major leagues?"
Good question, but for the time being that would be Carp skipper Marty Brown's gain and MLB's loss.
Last year, in his first season in Japanese baseball, the big California native put 15 wins on the board, second only to Greisinger of the Giants (17). Lewis did lead the CL in strikeouts with 183, ahead of Greisinger's 167 total, and his ERA of 2.68 was second best in the league.
At any rate, Lewis should once again be Brown's ace in the hole as the Carp begin play in the brand-spanking new Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium.
Other pitchers in the Carp arsenal include lefties Yuki Saito (no, not the Yuki Saito of handkerchief fame) and Junpei Shinoda, as well as right-handers Kan Otake and Kenta Maeda, who both won nine games last year.
American hurlers Mike Schultz and Ben Kozlowski are back, joined by RHP Scott Dohmann, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays, but the club did lose veteran left-hander Ken Takahashi to the Mets in the offseason.
Closer Katsuhiro Nagakawa posted a healthy 38 saves last season, so the team is set in that department.
Offensively, look for Kenta Kurihara to carry much of the load for Hiroshima, just as he did last season when he hit .332 with 23 dingers and 103 ribbies for the men in red. With American slugger Alex Ochoa having departed to take a coaching position in the Boston Red Sox system, Kurihara will be the man, and he should be up for the job.
Third baseman Scott Seabol also returns and Shigenobu Shima, a former CL batting champion, will be patrolling right field.
Appropriately enough in a stadium named "Zoom-Zoom," the Carp will likely be flying around the bases again in 2009. Last season, the club had three player--Akihiro Higashide, Soichiro Amaya and Masato Akamatsu--in double-figures in stolen bases.
New to the team this year is 20-year veteran Takuro Ishii, a former BayStars shortstop.
Changes abound for the Tigers this season.
A year after a late-season meltdown saw Hanshin blow a 13-game lead in the Central League pennant race, the club has a new skipper, a refurbished home ballpark, and, perhaps, most importantly, the Tigers have their mojo back. Yeah, baby!
After manager Akinobu Okada stepped aside to take responsibility for the club blowing that big lead--and to the rival Yomiuri Giants, no less--Hanshin brass hired former Tigers star Akinobu Mayumi to pilot the team. Mayumi moves in from the broadcasting booth, while Okada moves into the broadcasting booth.
Other changes include historic old Koshien Stadium getting a makeover and 30-year-old outfielder Kevin Mench has been signed from the Toronto Blue Jays to replace the outgoing Lew Ford.
Also added to the squad this season is Taiwanese right-hander Cheng Kai-wen, who comes in packing a 145-kph heater. He should offset the loss of Ryan Vogelsong, who won 10 games for the Tigers over the past two seasons, to the Orix Buffaloes.
The Tigers struck out in their attempts to land veteran free-agent pitchers Kenshin Kawakami (signed with the Atlanta Braves) and Daisuke Miura (re-signed with the BayStars), but they still have Aussie set-up man supreme Jeff Williams and closer Kyuji Fujikawa.
Possible starters include the returning Scott Atchison (7-6 in 42 appearances in 2008), lefty Minoru Iwata (10-10, 3.28 ERA), 13-game winner Yuya Ando and ageless veteran Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi (11-6, 2.99 ERA).
Offensively, it will be interesting to see if 18-year veteran Tomoaki Kanemoto can keep it going after the wily veteran, who turns 41 on Opening Day, hit .307 with 27 jacks and over 100 RBIs last season. Other offensive threats include Takahiro Arai, shortstop Takashi Toritani, an 80-RBI man last year, and infielder Kentaro Sekimoto, who flirted with a .300 average. Pesky leadoff hitter Norihiro Akahoshi will hope to duplicate his performance of 2008, when he hit .317 and stole 41 bases.
But the big news out of Osaka, of course, is that Colonel Sanders has been dredged up from the depths of the Dotonbori River (see Numbers item at left).
The BayStars have been doormats for a few years, and that may continue this season.
Despite having the top power hitter in the Central League in Shuichi Murata (46 HRs, .323 avg., 114 RBIs in 2008), the top hitter in Seiichi Uchikawa (.378 avg.), and slugging outfielder Yuki Yoshimura (34 homers, 91 RBIs), the bumbling BayStars finished last in the league last year with an abysmal 48-94-2 record.
Both Murata and Uchikawa are back after playing key roles in helping Japan win the World Baseball Classic for the second time, and Yoshimura returns as well--that's the good news. The bad news is that Murata pulled a muscle in his right hamstring during the tournament and he will not be available for Opening Day.
The BayStars jettisoned all six of their foreign imports from last season. Dan Johnson, who spent four years in the bigs with the A's and the Rays, has been brought in to beef up the offense, but the team lost veteran shortstop Takuro Ishii to the Carp and another veteran, outfielder Takanori Suzuki, has retired.
Last season, when Murata was asked how a team with some of the league's top hitters could do so poorly, he replied that he now understood the full meaning of the baseball maxim that good pitching wins games.
So, will the BayStars have good pitching this year? They were able to retain the services of veteran right-hander Daisuke Miura, a free agent who re-signed with the club despite an offer from the more "prestigious" Hanshin Tigers.
Also, the club signed RHP Ryan Glynn, who sports a 23-29 record with a 3.23 ERA over three seasons in Japan with Rakuten and Nippon-Ham. Other pitchers signed over the offseason include former Toronto Blue Jays lefty Les Walrond, who has had some good outings this spring, and former Cleveland Indians right-hander Tom Mastny, an American reliever who was actually born in Indonesia and was nicknamed "Mr. Nasty" in college.
Hayato Terahara, who was converted to a closer last year and chalked up 22 saves, returns to his role as a starter. Veteran moundsman Kimiyasu Kudo, who turns 46 in May, is also back for another go.
Tokyo Yakult SWALLOWS
The Swallows continue to be the best-kept secret in Japanese baseball. Not that the team is anything to get excited about, but they play in cozy little Jingu Stadium in the heart of Tokyo and there's not a finer place to watch a little yakyu while pounding back a few suds on a toasty summer night.
The team will likely still be recovering from the loss of their top power hitter (Ramirez) and their best starting pitcher (Greisinger), who departed for the Giants after the 2007 season, but they do have some legitimate talent.
Manager Shigeru Takada, entering his second year as the team's bench boss, has the luxury of leading off every game with the best pure contact hitter in Japanese baseball, Norichika Aoki. The problem is that while Aoki had another great year at the plate last season with a .347 average, he was also the team's top power hitter with 14 home runs.
The good news for Swallows fans is that Aaron Guiel is back and he's healthy again, after having his elbow surgically cleaned up over the offseason. In 2007, Guiel smashed 35 home runs for Yakult, but injuries limited the free-swinging Canadian to just 79 games last season. This year, Guiel could be hitting fifth behind newcomer Jamie D'Antona, a corner infielder from the Arizona Diamondbacks system with some definite pop in his bat. D'Antona has been hobbled by a balky knee but he has been swinging the bat well this spring.
Another guy who can get on base for Takada's club is the speedy Kazuki Fukuchi, who hit .320 and led the CL with 42 swipes. Speed is not an issue for this club, with four guys in the Top 10 in stolen bases last season, including Aoki with 31.
Other contributors on offense could include veteran infielder Shinya Miyamoto, Yasushi Iihara, Hiroyasu Tanaka, Shinichi Takeuchi and Kazuhiro Hatakeyama.
The jury is still out on the Swallows pitching, but they will have South Korean closer Lim Chang Yong (33 saves in '08) toeing the rubber for them again.
Free-agent catcher Ryoji Aikawa has joined the team to shore up that position and the Swallows traded OF Ryuji Miyade to Rakuten for pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba.
After a third-place finish in 2008, the Dragons go into the 2009 season having lost their best starting pitcher and two of their top power hitters.
The Dragons, who won it all just two years ago, were hit hard by free agency this offseason, with ace right-hander Kenshin Kawakami inking a three-year deal with the Atlanta Braves and slugging third baseman Norihiro Nakamura taking his big swing back to the Pacific League with the Rakuten Eagles.
While the loss of Kawakami, one of the top pitchers in Japan over the past 10 seasons, is a big blow, an even bigger blow is the departure of big-bopper Tyrone Woods, who stuck to his guns and retired after last season, just as he promised (although few seemed to think he'd actually do it).
With cleanup-hitter Woods gone, that leaves a huge hole in the middle of the lineup. Masahiko Morino and Kazuhiro Wada can both go deep on occasion, but they are not even close to being in Woods' ballpark.
So, who did the Drags go out and get to replace these guys? No one, really.
So far, Chunichi's foreign player contingent looks like a Dominican minor-league squad. Tomas de la Rosa, a holdover from 2008 (.243 avg., 7 HRs in 93 games) is joined by fellow-Dominican infielder Tony Blanco this season, while right-hander Maximo Nelson (9 hits allowed and 4 walks over 6 innings in 2008) will be competing for a spot on the big club with another Dominican, lefty Nelson Payano.
Looks like manager Hiromitsu Ochiai will have to do it with smoke and mirrors this season, although the club does have some quality pitchers on the staff.
Lights-out closer Hitoki Iwase has abandoned his MLB plans and is back in Nagoya and Masahiro Yamamoto, Kenichi Nakata, Chen Wei-yin and Kazuki Yoshimi are also no slouches. But what does it tell you when a 43-year-old left-hander leads your club in wins, as Yamamoto did last year with 11?
Defensively, Ochiai has decided to have shortstop Hirokazu Ibata and second baseman Masahiro Araki swap positions up the middle. Uh ... OK ... something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic ...