The lead-up to the 2011 Nippon Professional Baseball regular season has been anything but business as usual. But, after going through a natural disaster unparalleled in this nation's history, it is finally time to "Play Ball!" as both the Central and Pacific Leagues throw out their first pitches Tuesday.
Once again, the Central League looks to be made up of the "haves" and the "have-nots." It would appear that the Yomiuri Giants, Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers all have a solid shot at claiming the CL pennant, while the Yakult Swallows, Hiroshima Carp and Yokohama BayStars have none. So, what else is new?
The free-spending Giants purchased a slew of foreign pitchers over the offseason, but their most formidable acquisition may be a local boy. Rookie Hirokazu Sawamura has been impressive this spring and looks to have secured a spot in manager Tatsunori Hara's starting rotation.
Right-handers Shun Tono and Sawamura, and lefty Tetsuya Utsumi will likely start the first three games for Yomiuri with veteran right-handers Seth Greisinger and Dicky Gonzalez, both hoping to rebound from dismal 2010 campaigns, up next.
With Sawamura looking like a lock to make the big club and with revamped scheduling another issue to contend with, Hara may choose to go with a five-man rotation. If the Giants elect to use six starters, however, the competition for that last spot could come down to a battle between veterans Hideki Asai and Shugo Fujii, a left-hander, and American Carlos Torres, playing his first season in Japan.
Another pitcher who would have been in the mix is American righty Brian Bannister, who was having a solid spring camp until he left Japan after the March 11 earthquake and had yet to return by press time.
Still, with so many capable arms in the dugout, the 2011 season will likely see a lot of two-way traffic between the "ichi-gun" club and the minor-league affiliate based at Yomiuri Land. At the back end, with closer Marc Kroon no longer with the club, the stopper role could fall to Tetsuya Yamaguchi, who, along with Daisuke Ochi, saved five games last season, or newcomer Jonathan Albaladejo.
Offensively, the Giants are once again led by timeless slugger Alex Ramirez and Michihiro Ogasawara. Between the two, they have won three of the last four CL MVP awards. They will once again be complemented by a solid supporting cast, including shortstop Hayato Sakamoto at the top of the order and catcher Shinnosuke Abe in the heart of the lineup. Abe, however, suffered a right calf injury in a practice game April 5 so his status for Opening Day is unclear. He could be out anywhere from 6-8 weeks.
Rusty Ryal, whose dad, Mark, played in Japan in the early 1990s, will start the season at third base after the Giants declined to re-sign infielder Edgar Gonzalez. Ryal hit .261 with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season.
In Nagoya, the reigning CL champion Chunichi Dragons will be looking to repeat and manager Hiromitsu Ochiai is certainly no stranger to success.
Ochiai's team features a balanced lineup offensively, with a good blend of speed and power. Veteran outfielder Kazuhiro Wada put up numbers worthy of his CL MVP honor last year with 37 home runs, 93 RBIs and a .339 average, but he is 38 years old now and likely to start on the downslope of his career. Still, with a supporting cast featuring solid performers such as Masahiro Araki, Masahiko Morino and big Tony Blanco, this club can never be counted out.
On the mound, Ochiai has one of Japan's most effective pitchers in set-up man Takuya Asao, who won 12 games out of the bullpen last year to go along with 47 holds, and a solid closer in Hitoki Iwase.
Among the starters, only Kazuki Yoshimi and Chen Wei-yin posted double-digits in wins in 2010. Yoshimi is coming off elbow surgery and Chen has been battling a groin adductor muscle injury this spring. Still, the Dragons had the lowest team ERA in the CL last season, anchored by relievers Akifumi Takahashi (1.61) and Asao (1.68).
The Hanshin Tigers will be looking to shed their "loveable losers" tag and end a 25-year Japan Series drought in 2011 under laid-back skipper Akinobu Mayumi.
Led by the hitting exploits of Keiichi Hirano and Matt Murton, who hit .350 and .349, respectively, and the home-run power of Craig Brazell, who went deep 47 times last season, the Tigers finished second in the CL standings in 2010, just a game behind Chunichi and mere percentage points ahead of the Giants.
Murton, who posted an NPB-record 214 hits last year, got off to a bit of a slow start this spring but has been picking it up as Opening Day nears. With all three men returning, and with Takahiro Arai and Takashi Toritani also coming off fine offensive seasons, the Tigers could be right there in the mix again.
There are a few question marks for the club, however. Catcher Kenji Jojima is coming off knee surgery last November, hot-and-cold veteran free-agent pitcher Hiroyuki Kobayashi was signed from the Chiba Lotte Marines over the offseason, and it will be interesting to see if 43-year-old slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto's body holds up for another season.
The Yakult Swallows are blessed with the best pure hitter in Japanese baseball in Norichika Aoki and the game's top closer in Lim Chang Yong. They also have a solid pitching staff featuring Shohei Tateyama, Yoshinori Sato and Masanori Ishikawa.
American first-baseman Josh Whitesell is back to provide some pop from the cleanup spot, and the club has added outfielder Wladimir Balentien, who will get a chance to show what he can do at the dish while Aaron Guiel rehabs from offseason back surgery.
Manager Junji Ogawa's team seems to have all the ingredients to contend--it just seems to be a matter of putting it all together.
The Hiroshima Carp have a bona-fide ace in Kenta Maeda, who won the Sawamura Award last year as the league's top pitcher. Maeda, who turns 23 today, should be a gem for years to come.
The rest of the staff, however, leaves much to be desired.
The Carp have some exciting players on defense--who can forget the circus catches by outfielders Masato Akamatsu and Soichiro Amaya that were all over the ESPN highlight reels last summer--and infielders Kenta Kurihara and newcomer Chad Tracy bring some power to the lineup.
The good news for the Yokohama BayStars is that they were able to convince power-hitter extraordinaire Shuichi Murata to stick around for another season. The bad news is that their best hitter for average, Seiichi Uchikawa, decided he'd had enough of the perpetual losing in Yokohama and bolted for Fukuoka in the offseason.
The 'Stars did sign free-agent outfielder Hichori Morimoto from the Nippon-Ham Fighters, but that is hardly a fair trade for losing Uchikawa.
Also on the bright side is the return of hard-hitting infielder Brett Harper, who joined the club in midseason last year and walloped 19 homers in just 64 games while hitting .316. With Terrmel Sledge, who led the team with 28 home runs in 2010, also back, the BayStars should not have a problem going deep, new ball notwithstanding.
They can only hope that power translates into a few more wins this season.