They aren't condemned to finish last just yet, but sixth place would be a deserving finish for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles after the team failed to make major upgrades in the offseason.
It is bound to be a disappointment for their Sendai supporters. After three straight seasons out of the cellar, including a second-place finish in 2009, has something gone wrong?
Eagles skipper Marty Brown told The Hot Corner on Monday that this year's club has changed little--and that is the fundamental problem.
"You think we're a good team?" Brown said. "I like our character, but our offense is worst in the league, we have little team speed, little power and we're old. That's no different from last year."
The Eagles last year were fifth in runs scored in the Pacific League with the league's fifth-oldest offense.
Last year's pitching staff, on the other hand, was the league's youngest.
Masahiro Tanaka, 20, has worked 155 innings this year with a 2.50 ERA, but his season has been marred by injury. He hurt his ankle in camp, his hamstring early in the summer and a pectoral muscle last week that might end his season.
With youth and quality on the mound working in their favor, pitching has remained the Eagles' strength. A study in last week's Hot Corner indicated the Eagles were Japan's best when it came to keeping their big starters on regular rest.
Brown's efforts to keep his pitchers on schedule may have had positive results.
In a season that has seen most teams' rotations struggle, the Eagles have been the quality start champions. Following Tuesday's six scoreless innings by Hisashi Iwakuma, the Eagles had a Japan-high 70 quality starts: those in which the starter allows three or fewer earned runs in six or more innings. The PL-leading Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, in comparison had 52, fewest in the league.
The Eagles, however, have a Japan-high 20 tough losses: a loss suffered by a starter in a quality start. The Hawks have a PL-low seven, but lead Japan with 16 cheap wins: wins by starters in nonquality starts. Eagles starters have "lucked" into just five wins this season.
The Eagles would be pretty good if the team's other elements were up to the league average. Unfortunately, they aren't.
The Eagles have never had any kind of a shutdown combination in their bullpen. Rakuten's offense, underpowered in 2009, took a step backward in 2010 and is now on the bottom of the PL barrel.
On the positive side, the Eagles have gotten younger in center field, where 24-year-old Ryo Hijirisawa earned the starting job, and right, where 27-year-old star Teppei Tsuchiya shifted this season. Hijirisawa is not yet among Japan's elite outfielders but has a chance to get there.
The other bright spot has been 25-year-old catcher Motohiro Shima, a lock to win a Best IX award. He, Tsuchiya and Hijirisawa are the only position players likely to be regulars five years from now.
"Look at the other teams and see how we compare, position by position," Brown suggested.
The Eagles are strong at catcher and right field, and are holding their own at center and third base, thanks to a productive year from 37-year-old Norihiro Nakamura. At every other position, Rakuten is either last in the league or next to last.
Designated hitter and first base, both strengths last season, have fallen well below the league average, largely because of 40-year-old Takeshi Yamasaki's disastrous .301 on-base percentage.
The two big winter additions, infielder Andy Phillips and hard-throwing reliever Juan Morillo, have failed to produce results.
Morillo was supposed to close, but his elbow injury left Rakuten's closing job in its customary state of disarray. Phillips was forced to undergo knee surgery. First baseman Randy Ruiz, 33, (.318 OBP, .434 slugging average) has been useful as a stopgap.
Although only in their sixth season, the Eagles are overdue for a major overhaul. The organization needs to find replacements for Yamasaki and Nakamura and a solution for the bullpen.
Should Rakuten opt to post Iwakuma this winter without finding a replacement, there will be little standing between the Eagles and last place in 2011.