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THE HOT CORNER: Hawks big winter winners

by Jim Allen (Dec 30, 2010)

With just 33 days before camps open, teams are well on their way toward filling their rosters for spring training. After two months of wheeling and dealing, this winter's hot stove front-runners might be the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles next on the most-improved list.

While most clubs spend the winter haggling over players of minimal value, the Hawks have soared. The club addressed its biggest weakness by signing free agent catcher Toru Hosokawa away from the Saitama Seibu Lions.

SoftBank also signed free agent outfielder Seichi Uchikawa and appear ready to sign first baseman Alex Cabrera, who was let go by the Orix Buffaloes.

Cabrera had the best season of any first baseman in Japan last season, and Uchikawa is a quality outfielder who can also play first base. The Hawks are deep at first, designated hitter and in the outfield, but there are still issues.

Jose Ortiz, 33, was hurt much of last season, while Nobuhiko Matsunaka, 37, has been injury prone in recent years and Hitoshi Tamura, 33, even more so. Incumbent first baseman Hiroki Kokubo is 39, as is Cabrera.

Uchikawa, 28, has been durable since being moved away from second base after the 2006 season, and is thus a prime addition.

While age and health remain a concern, the Hawks have few obvious weaknesses. Hidenori Tadanoue can hit and will catch when Hosokawa can't. Outfielder Yuya Hasegawa, who had a breakthrough season in 2009, could bounce back next season.

The most difficult choice for manager Koji Akiyama among his position players might be at third base, where 27-year-old Nobuhiro Matsuda won the regular job last season but will need to step up. Another option is Tomoki Egawa, who is 3-1/2 years younger and had one of Japan's best minor league seasons of the past decade.

Although he had just 183 at-bats, Egawa hit .333 with 14 homers and 45 walks in the Western League, a tough circuit for hitters. Those figures represented a new level of performance for Egawa. How much represents real ability and how much just luck is anyone's guess. Still, those figures should improve his chances in Fukuoka as the Hawks are one of the few clubs that actually care about minor league performance.

The Eagles, who finished last in the Pacific League, 15 games behind the champion Hawks, have signed former major league infielders Kazuo Matsui, 35, and Akinori Iwamura, 31.

In Japan, Matsui was a shortstop with Seibu and Iwamura a third baseman with the Yakult Swallows, but both played second base in the States.

The sale of shortstop Naoto Watanabe, 30, to the Yokohama BayStars suggests the Eagles expect Matsui to take over his position.

With right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma back for another year and Senichi Hoshino returning to manage, the Eagles should be 2011's surprise package.

The BayStars, who finished 32 games out of first place, have been hyperactive for the second straight winter, but their moves are unlikely to improve the club's bleak outlook.

Yokohama purchased Watanabe, traded for minor league infielder Ikki Shimamura and signed popular free agent outfielder Hichori Morimoto. It takes a lot of optimism to see this team progressing through those deals.

The only other big name to change teams in Japan so far this winter has been Lee Seung Yeop. After six seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, Lee was released and picked up by Orix as the club's lone big signing at Japanese baseball's annual rummage sale.

Ironically, the winter's best bargain was snapped up by a team that won't profit from it.

Ryota Arai, 27, can play first and third and is a quality hitter. But he had been stuck on the Chunichi Dragons farm team until a recent trade sent him to the Hanshin Tigers.

Given a chance to play everyday, Arai will hit. Unfortunately, the Tigers have big guns at first (Craig Brazell) and third (Arai's older brother Takahiro), so there's no place for him.

Unfortunately, that's more or less the norm for Japan's offseason.


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