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THE HOT CORNER: Buffaloes, Marines looking up

by Jim Allen (Feb 4, 2010)

Being at the bottom gives you room to improve. After riding high in 2008, the Orix Buffaloes resumed their habitual place at the bottom of the Pacific League standings. Barely a step ahead of the bumbling Buffaloes were the warring Chiba Lotte Marines.

The Marines had no business finishing fifth, but it is a reminder of how low a good team can sink when it comes apart at the seams.

Often a new manager helps, and both clubs have new leadership this year. The Marines promoted head coach Norifumi Nishimura to replace Bobby Valentine, who lost a divisive war with management to stay on.

In Kansai, Orix continues its policy of repackaging Hanshin leftovers by hiring former Tigers boss Akinobu Okada.

Orix was shredded by injuries in 2009 to all its big hitters as well as hard-hitting second baseman Mitsutaka Goto and catcher Takashi Hidaka. And while the offense and fielding struggled, the pitching staff took a big step backward.

The starting pitchers' ERA jumped by nearly 13 percent. Satoshi Komatsu, the 2008 rookie of the year, flailed. Yoshihisa Hirano, one of Orix's best pitchers, failed to make an impact after arm surgery.

If the rotation was suspect, the bullpen was worthy of conviction. Orix's relievers allowed 31 more runs in 50 fewer innings than the year before. In addition to being a former Orix player and Hanshin star, Okada had a first-rate bullpen in five seasons at Hanshin's helm. Under Okada, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota became the "F" and "K" in the Tigers' famous "J-F-K" bullpen trio.

On the down side, the Buffaloes have given up on signing their best run producer over the past three seasons, 41-year-old designated hitter Tuffy Rhodes.

So what do the Buffaloes have to look forward to?

Unfortunately, not much in the way of pitching help. The best Orix could do in the offseason was a trade for right-hander Hiroshi Kisanuki, who had three useful seasons among his eight with the Yomiuri Giants.

On the other hand, Orix should be better at catcher and third base.

Hidaka suffered through his worst season and will probably be better. He will have to be, with 25-year-old Tetsuya Yokoyama poised for more playing time.

If newcomer Aarom Balderis gets regular playing time, he could be a revelation. Balderis played for Okada in 2008 but was exiled to the minors last season. He won the Western League batting title but was ignored--like so many solid minor league Tigers before him--and released.

The Buffaloes' best player last season, center fielder Tomotaka Sakaguchi, is just 25, as is shortstop Keiji Obiki, while Balderis is 27. Those are three good players who could easily be better this season.

Unless the pitching is vastly better, Orix won't be in the playoffs, but there are enough positives elsewhere to give Buffaloes fans some hope of escaping the cellar.

In Chiba, it will be interesting to see if the Marines remember how to play ball after merely playing at it much of last season. Valentine's clubs may not have been flashy, but they could pitch and catch--at least until last season.

At the center of the fielding collapse was star shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka, who missed 14 games with a mystery injury.

In the field and at the plate, Nishioka's numbers were not much worse than in previous seasons, but it was a banner year for PL shortstops and his ratings suffer by comparison. Bill James' Win Shares system says the Marines saved fewer runs at short than any other Japanese club since the 2005 Carp.

Despite his less-than-sparkling play, Nishioka earned plenty of brownie points by publicly ripping fans critical of the front office. And, wonder of wonders, look who's the new captain.

Even with Team Tsuyoshi as captain and without ace Naoyuki Shimizu and sweet-swinging catcher Tasuku Hashimoto, the Marines could easily be better--and not just because of the acquisition of star South Korean slugger Kim Tae Kyun.

With Valentine's exit, the Chiba Civil War is over.

For the first time in over a year, the Marines will take the field knowing the guys they have to beat are in the other dugout.


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