Spring has arrived in Okinawa, and NPB camps are underway. As with every new season, there are a number of stories developing. Here are a few to look out for:
- How long before Nippon Ham settles on a position for Shohei Ohtani?
Part of Nippon Ham's pitch to Ohtani was letting him pitch and hit. Ohtani has the physique and high school track record to make this a very interesting idea, but I suspect that reality will eventually settle in and he'll wind up sticking to his best role. That said, here's hoping he pulls it off. I'd love to see him come in from right field to close a game.
- How will top draftee Shintaro Fujinami adapt to life as a pro?
There is no such positional debate about the other high school prize of last year's draft, Hanshin pitcher Fujinami. The sentiment echoed throughout the Japanese media following the draft was the question of whether Hanshin has the ability to develop a pitcher with the potential of "Mount Fuji"; now we begin to find out.
- How will Yomiuri draftee Tomoyuki Sugano perform after a year away from competition?
Sugano took a year off in 2012, after his rights were won by the Nippon Ham Fighters in the 2011 draft. Undeterred, the Giants grabbed him uncontested in the first round of the 2012 draft, and he immediately signed. If he's some approximation of this, the Giants will be quite happy he was insistent on playing for them.
- Which of the bari bari Major Leaguers will sink and which will swim?
Andruw Jones, Bryan LaHair, Casey McGehee, Jose Lopez, Vincente Padilla and Nyjer Morgan are among this year's NPB imports. It's always hard to predict who will do well in Japan, but I'm particularly pessimistic about Padilla and Morgan.
- Who will step in to Hiroyuki Nakajima's shoes for Seibu?
History repeats itself. 10 years ago, Nakajima stepped forward as the replacement for star shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who had departed for the Majors. Now Seibu finds itself needing a replacement for Nakajima. It looked like Hideto Asamura could emerge as a successor, but he failed to impress last season. A return to form from speedster Yasuyuki Kataoka would be welcome, and perhaps Esteban German could see time at shortstop.
- Who is Eddy Rivera?
Billed a "mystery" player, Rivera is in camp with the Chunichi Dragons on a trial basis ("testo sei"). Rivera has Dominican Summer League experience with academy affiliates of the Cardinals and Padres, but hasn't appeared in a game since 2010.
Rivera stepped off his flight from the Dominican and immediately impressed with his velocity. Chunichi has found Latin American bargains such as Tony Blanco and Enyelbert Soto in recent years, we'll see if lightning strikes again.
- Has Orix improved?
Orix recently grabbed headlines for acquiring star outfielder Yoshio Itoi in a trade with Nippon Ham, but has made a couple other interesting moves this offseason. The Buffaloes signed 2B Keiichi Hirano, picked up starter Shun Tono in a trade with Yomiuri, and snagged closer Takahiro Mahara as compensation for losing free agent starter Hayato Terahara. On the negative side of the ledger, the B's parted ways with talented, but health-challenged starters Terahara Hiroshi Kisanuki, as well as Alfredo Figaro. Orix is still on the outside looking in at a top-3 finish, but if everything goes absolutely right for them, they could make things interesting.
- Has Yokohama DeNA improved?
DeNA's offseason largely consisted of poaching Tony Blanco, Jorge Sosa and Enyelbert Soto from Chunichi, getting OF Hitoshi Tamura back from Softbank, and signing Nyjer Morgan. All of these moves, with the probable exception of Morgan, improve the Baystars, but none really addresses the team's main weaknesses of the starting rotation and middle infield. The real step forward will have to be lead by the 'Stars young players: 3B Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, C Shuto Takajo, pitchers Yuki Kuniyoshi and Kisho Kagami, and 2012 draftees IF Hiroyuki Shirasaki and pitcher Kazuki Mishima.