Last week, I got a pretty good question Twitter - who would my Japanese national team be today?
It's a good question, and a nice change of pace from the Darvish questions I frequently get, so I decided to write up a post about it. Coincidentally back when I was teaching English at the now-defuct NOVA, I used to do a lesson like this with my baseball fan students, and it was always a fun one.
I'm picking my team as if they would have to compete at the highest level, so as cool as I think the World Port Tournament is, I'm following the WBC roster rules. In summary, I get a maximum of 28 players, with a minimum of two catchers and 13 pitchers.
No reason to deviate from the 2009 WBC starting outfield of Ichiro, Kosuke Fukudome, and Norichika Aoki. For my fourth outfielder I'll go with the gap power, strike zone judgement, and defensive prowess of Nippon Ham CF Yoshio Itoi.
There's one easy call for me in the infield: Hiroyuki Nakajima at shortstop. At second base, I'll start Tsuyoshi Nishioka, without regard to his current injury.
The corners are a little trickier. At third base, I like Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura's bat and Eiichi Koyano's glove, with Takahiro Arai striking a balance between the two. Choices are a bit limited on other side of the diamond, and Sho Nakata might be the best choice by the end of the year, but for now I prefer the contact bat of Seiichi Uchikawa.
This group of four gives me some flexibility. I can play the stronger defensive group with Koyano at third, Arai at first, and Okawari-kun DH'ing, or I can for the better offensive lineup and have Arai at third, Okawari-kun at first, and one of my other candidates batting DH. The presence of Uchikawa gives me the option of playing the hot hand as well.
On the bench, I'll stash Yasuyuki Kataoka and Munenori Kawasaki, both of whom can pinch run, steal bases, get bunts down and play good defense all over the infield.
Nakamura would DH for my team when he's not playing in the field. Hideki Matsui never participates in these things, but dammit,this is my dream team, so he's in.
Catcher is an easy call. Kenji Johjima starts, Shinnosuke Abe backs up.
The first three starters are easy choices: Yu Darvish, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda. The next three are pretty easy too: Masahiro Tanaka, Hideaki Wakui, Kenta Maeda. Hang on, no lefties in there, so I'll call on Tsuyoshi Wada, Toshiya Sugiuchi, and Masaru Takeda.
That's nine starters, so some of these guys are are going to relieve. In particular, I like Tanaka as a power arm out of the bullpen, and Takeda as a lefty specialist.
I'm rounding out my 13-man pitching staff with four full-time relievers for my squad: Kyuji Fujikawa, Takuya Asao, Hitoki Iwase and Tetsuya Yamaguchi.
Those last two are kind of risky picks, given Iwase's struggles in the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that Yamaguchi got lit up for 10 home runs last year. But Iwase is a good pitcher, and I like Yamaguchi's ability to get lefthanded batters out.
The last name I deleted off my list of candidates was Chihiro Kaneko (ignoring the fact that he's been out injured all season). It was either him or Koyano, and I went with Koyano for his third base defense and gap bat. Kaneko's righty starter skillset is already well-represented.
I would love to have another power bat on this team, but the only other guy I really thought about was Shuichi Murata. A few years ago, his inclusion would have been a no-brainer, but I prioritized defense, and his down numbers last season concern me. Nobuhiko Matsunaka would have been a great inclusion, but he is a shadow of his former self.
I gave some consideration to Koji Uehara and Takashi Saito, but they are too injury-prone to displace either Fujikawa or Asao, and too righthanded to bump Iwase or Yamaguchi.