Tonight we take a look at eight guys who could take a step forward this season.
Sho Nakata (1B/LF/DH, Nippon Ham Fighters) - Nakata was on my list last year, and had an interesting season: a slow start followed by an injury, then a hot stretch immediately after the injury, and finally a slump to end the season. The important thing is that he showed he can handle ichi-gun pitching, which was a new development. If he can put together a full year he'll likely be Ham's best or second best home run hitter.
Shota Ohba (P, Softbank Hawks) - Like Nakata, Ohba was on my list last year, and also like Nakata he's had stretches of success. Last year he only threw 9.1 innings at the ichi-gun level; if he were to make 20 starts this year it would be a boon to Softbank's lefty-dominated rotation.
Naomichi Doue (IF, Chunichi Dragons) - The Arakibata Combi can't continue forever, and when the Hirokazu Ibata half was down with an injury last year, Doue was there to fill in. He's been touted as a prospect for some time now, we'll see if this is the year he breaks through.
Keijiro Matsumoto (OF, Yokohama BayStars) - Developing young talent should be a high priority for a Yokohama team that can't realistically expect to compete this year. But 'Hama has started the season with an outfield of Termel Sledge, Hichori Morimoto, and Yuki Yoshimura, and to get playing him he'll have to take it from one of those guys. Matsumoto hit for average at ni-gun last year, but without many walks or home runs.
Wirfin Obispo (P, Nippon Ham Fighters) - Obispo has always had a good arm, and showed a lot of promise in 2009 with Yomiuri. In Hokkaido he'll be a part of a deep pitching staff, but won't have to compete for a roster spot with more established foreign veterans, so he should get a few more innings at the top level.
Takashi Ogino (SS, Chiba Lotte Marines) - Ogino's not strictly a breakout candidate, given that he performed extremely well prior to his injury last year. But he's new to shortstop and if he stays healthy, he should be a lot of fun to watch.
Yusei Kikuchi (P, Saitama Seibu Lions) - After a disappointing rookie season, Kikuchi had a strong spring and made Seibu's opening day roster, in a middle relief role. I only saw him pitch one inning this spring, and while his velocity topped out around 142 kmph, his mechanics were smooth and he kept the ball down in the zone. There's no doubt about his talent.
Hideto Asamura (IF, Saitama Seibu Lions) - I'm cheating on this one a little bit, as Asamura has started Seibu's first two games at first base. I first saw Asamura this spring, in an exhibition game against Yomiuri, where the announcers were describing him as a potential successor to Hiroyuki Nakajima. I was impressed at how much confidence he showed at the plate against Brian Bannister. That swagger has apparently carried over to the regular season as he's 5-9 so far.