Despite their furious swapping and dealing through the offseason and spring, the Yokohama BayStars find themselves treading water. Tuesday's 4-0 shutout of the Dragons in Kofu left the BayStars at 34-63--that's just one game off last season's "pace" through 97 games.
The BayStars are often thought to be a good offensive team but that is only because people don't realize Yokohama Stadium inflates run production by nine percent. Under new skipper Takao Obana, however, the BayStars addressed that need with their first serious injection of foreign hitting since Tyrone Woods arrived in 2003. Terrmel Sledge, Jose Castillo and Brett Harper provide more foreign offense than Yokoham's seen in over a decade.
Yet, the BayStars are still in last place with a record that, on the surface, is little different from last year's.
Although Obana has had the Midas touch as a pitching coach, improving every pitching staff he's worked with, the BayStars' pitching is essentially where it was a year ago. Despite the offensive upgrades, the overall run production has also changed little from 2009.
So is Yokohama where baseball hopes go to die?
There is hope by the Bay, but the BayStars' management may need to take some bold steps to realize it.
For several seasons, the club has seriously lacked balance. Since 2008, Yokohama has staked its offensive fate to the fortunes of two-time home run king Shuichi Murata, 2008 batting champ Seiichi Uchikawa and young slugger Yuki Yoshimura.
Although Uchikawa remains a top-quality hitter, Murata and Yoshimura have stopped pulling their weight.
Yoshimura, who hit .311 with 24 homers as a 22-year-old in 2006, is playing like he's washed up at the age of 26. His .229 on-base-percentage and three homers in 132 at-bats. He is overdue for a trip to the Eastern League. Although a surprisingly good outfielder for a man built like a fireplug, Yoshimura has done little this season but suck the energy out of the offense.
Murata, 29, saw his offense dip significantly last season, when he missed 41 games through injury. Although the BayStars had serious trouble scoring without him in the lineup, they still won more often when he was gone.
This year, Murata has been healthy but his bat hasn't. His average, power and walks have all declined from last season's lows, leaving Yokohama strapped to a second-rate producer in the cleanup spot.
It is a tribute to both the young talent on the team and the new imports that the BayStars have been as good as they are.
A year ago, second and short were offensive holes, while center field and right were nothing to write home about.
Now, with Sledge in left, Uchikawa in right and 25-year-old Tatsuya Shimozono in the process of taking Yoshimura's job away in center, the 'Stars have a solid outfield.
Shimozono, who hit .359 with plenty of walks in the minors last season, had been consigned to the role of left-handed pinch-hitter and platoon outfielder, but he should be playing everyday. Leaving Yoshimura and overused veteran Tatsuhiko Kinjo on the bench will improve the offense in an instant.
Castillo has dramatically increased the run production at second, while Takehiro Ishikawa's new-found ability to hit lefties gives the club offense at shortstop. To spell them, 28-year-old Kazuya Fujita has a superior glove and is having a breakthrough season at the plate.
In their final 47 games of the 2009 season, the BayStars went 16-31. They should be better down the stretch this year.
Last season, the team played as if it couldn't beat the Central League's big three. The BayStars went a combined 21-51 against the Giants, Tigers and Dragons, while going 24-24 against the Swallows and Carp. Obana's club is under .500 against every CL club this season, but they are playing the big teams tougher. As of Tuesday they were 13-27 against the big three, and 15-18 against the other two clubs.
The BayStars are a better team than a year ago. But for that quality to show in the standings, the skipper will need to either spark Murata and Yoshimura or throw them overboard.