These are not the Yomiuri Giants a lot of us are used to. After a generation of being Team Underachievement, manager Tatsunori Hara's Giants have become the team you have to beat to claim the title as Japan's best.
The Giants are now gunning for a second straight Japan Series championship, a feat the franchise has not achieved since that year--when then-manager Tetsuharu Kawakami's club won its ninth straight Japan title.
Last autumn marked just the third time the Giants reached the Series in two straight seasons since 1973. The team's .659 regular-season winning percentage was Yomiuri's best since 1990. That Giants club, too, was coming off a second straight Series appearance but crashed to fourth the following season--despite a solid offensive season from a 31-year-old outfielder-third baseman named Hara.
Despite being overwhelming favorites, repeating is no simple feat.
"It's never easy. Everyone wants to beat us," back-to-back Central League MVP Alex Ramirez said.
Of course, the desire to beat the Giants, whether or not they are the champions, is a constant, as much a part of the game as ballpark bentos since 1936, when former Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutaro Shoriki was the driving force in the creation of the Japan League.
"Everyone expects the Giants to be strong," said Aaron Guiel of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. "If they haven't got good players and the personnel to do it, then they can go out and get free agents and kind of buy their way [into contention]."
The Giants have traditionally thrown their weight around, but it hasn't always produced results.
Hara, however, has built a club that is amazingly deep.
When Lee Seung Yeop slumped last season, Hara did not hesitate to leave him on the farm team and give his playing time to youngsters eager to prove they could play at the top level. Yoshinobu Takahashi, a former Giants captain, returns after missing all but one game last season due to injury. Despite solid numbers over his career, he will have to battle for playing time like everyone else.
After decades of using the farm team as a scrap heap, where low-round draft picks were left to lose their ambition, the Giants have gotten Rookie of the Year seasons from a pair of guys who weren't worthy enough to even be selected in the main draft. In 2008, reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi became the first former developmental roster player to win the award. Last season, outfielder Tetsuya Matsumoto became the second.
No player in Japan has a brighter future than Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.
"The feeling is different this year," Sakamoto said. "[As a defending champion], I feel more responsibility for the team's results than a year ago."
Hara allows little room for complacency on his roster and that will make the Giants a very tough team to overtake.
Still, this may be the CL's most competitive season in a few years. The Chunichi Dragons, who like the Giants have reached the second stage of the CL Climax Series since the format was inagurated in 2007, are a solid bet to do so again in 2010.
Although Hara has rejuvenated the Giants, manager Hiromitsu Ochiai has taken the venerable Dragons to new heights. Chunichi, which won the Japan Series in 1954 before losing in 1974, 1982, 1988 and 1999, has gone to the Series three times since Ochiai took over in 2004 and won it once. Despite replacing a number of key veterans with relative unknowns in 2009, the Dragons still finished second.
Chunichi made no trades over the winter but kept its two biggest foreign stars on board, ERA leader Chen Wei-yin and home run and RBI king Tony Blanco.
Last autumn, the Swallows reached the playoffs for the first time at the expense of the Hanshin Tigers. The Tigers, however, hooked the winter's biggest catch--Kenji Jojima.
The slugging catcher abandoned his career in the majors after three seasons with the Seattle Mariners and chose the Tigers over his old club, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.
Second-year manager Akinobu Mayumi's Tigers are getting long in the tooth with three key players, left fielder Tomoaki Kanemoto, catcher Akihiro Yano and lefty Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, all over the age of 41. Yano was good when healthy last season.
The Tigers had a poor year defensively, particular in the outfield and behind the plate, where Japan's 2009 World Baseball Classic catcher can have an immediate impact.
The outfield defense, however, is another story with Kanemoto getting no younger in left and a neck injury forcing star center fielder Norihiro Akahoshi into retirement.
Yakult fielded Japan's most youthful team last season, giving manager Shigeru Takada's club more growth potential than any other team.
Guiel said the key will be the sprint out of the gate.
"If we start strong and put pressure on some of the other teams I think we'll be in good shape," he said.
The Hiroshima Carp are under new management as former Carp star Kenjiro Nomura takes over from Marty Brown.
Nomura will have the advantage of more support from ownership and the youth Brown injected into the lineup as well as a fresh outlook. But Hiroshima's offense has been weak for years and it doesn't appear that is going to change overnight.
New Yokohama BayStars manager Takao Obana and new top management did more offseason dealing than anyone and have given the 'Stars hope of escaping the cellar.
As tough as the CL is to predict from third to sixth, the Pacific League could see a wild season from top to bottom, with no team a strong favorite to win it all.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks have not won a PL pennant since 2003 or led the league in the regular season since 2005 and this could easily be the year they rebound in manager Koji Akiyama's second year in charge.
Despite the threat of aging big guns Nobuhiko Matsunaka, Hiroki Kokubo and Hitoshi Tamura, the Hawks are one of Japan's three youngest teams. Two of the best Hawks are a pair of 25-year-olds, center fielder Yuya Hasegawa and second baseman Yuichi Honda.
Any kind of rebound from the older guys and any growth from the youngsters could see the Hawks offense get nasty on the scoreboard.
The Saitama Seibu Lions are the next-youngest team in the league and our pick to finish second. Manager Hisanobu Watanabe got next to no offensive production from his lone foreign hitter last season and outfielder Dee Brown was brought in to rectify that situation.
Lions relievers were 12-21 last season with a 4.60 ERA that ranked fifth in the PL, and veteran lefty Kimiyasu Kudo, Japan's oldest active player, returns to the Lions for the first time in 16 years to try and do something about that.
The heart of the Lions, Series champs in 2004 and 2008, is slugging shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima.
"We are going to win the championship," Nakajima said. "We've brought in Kudo, and I think he can come in and contribute right away. Everyone has experienced a championship--even our young players have a title. They have also experienced finishing out of the playoffs."
For the second straight season, the PL's second-place club was a dark horse. In 2008 it was the Orix Buffaloes. Last year it was the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Despite finishing second, the Eagles shoved manager Katsuya Nomura out and replaced him with Brown.
Brown had the Carp playing the fastest games in Japan and Eagles fans, used to the slowest under Nomura, should welcome the change in tempo as Sendai seeks to return to the postseason.
Inheriting the PL's best pitching and defense from last season, Brown is not out to turn a succesful club on its head. After four seasons in the wilderness, he finds himself in a progressive organization that badly wants to do things the right way.
"We don't want to be the same [as every other] team," he said. "We want to win championships. We just don't want to win one and that be a lucky year."
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have won the league championship in three of the last four seasons and have a good chance of making it four out of five.
Manager Masataka Nashida's club was second only to the Eagles in pitching and defense, but had the league's best offense. The club, however, gave up on solid-hitting outfielder Terrmel Sledge and imported a trio of foreign pitchers.
The Chiba Lotte Marines and Buffaloes, are under new management as they try to rebound from defensive collapses in 2009.
Norifumi Nishimura, long Lotte's head coach, steps up to the top job in Chiba, while former Tigers boss Akinobu Okada seeks to pick up the pieces for Orix.