Tomoya Satozaki is back of course, though he is turning 38 in a bit less than two months and hasn’t seen that much action this preseason (10 PA in 6 games, batting .500 with a pair of doubles and a homer). He’ll surely be the opening day starter, though I would be surprised if he starts in much more than 50% of the games this year.
His up-and-coming replacement is rookie second round draft pick Yuta Yoshida. Yoshida played in 13 of 15 preseason games and got the bulk of the work behind home plate. As a defender he was utterly lethal, cutting down 2/3 of the runners trying to steal on him, and at the plate he batted a respectable .296 in 27 ABs with a double, a homer, and 4 RBI. He’s going to see a lot of playing time this year.
After that, I would choose Naoya Emura, still just 21 years old and very solid defensively but quite limited at the plate. He appeared in 5 preseason games. Itoh-kantoku seems to like Takeshi Kanazawa a lot, though with Yoshida’s emergence and Satozaki still relevant the third string catcher is probably not the issue it was last year.
Here’s where the real intrigue begins. A bit over a month ago I wrote a post discussing my man crush on rookie 5th round draft pick Seiya “Aja” Inoue. Let’s just say that man crush hasn’t abated one bit. This spring Aja was by far the most compelling storyline in the PL, as he led all of NPB in batting average (.435) and slugging (.674) while playing in every game, mostly at first where he was error-free. He’s not only making the ichi-gun roster but he’s going to start the season as the cleanup batter, first time a rookie has done that for Lotte since the 50’s.
Is Aja pushing out our veteran 1B Tadahito Iguchi? Not yet, not yet. Even though Aja played the bulk of the time at first Iguchi-san did get in quite a few reps there himself, and in 24 ABs batted .375/.464/.542. He turns 40 this year but he ain’t done yet. Itoh-kantoku has some interesting choices to make for playing time, but this is the good sort of interesting choice to have to make.
The plan looked to be to move budding star Daichi Suzuki from the SS position where he won a spot in the PL Best Nine in 2013 to 2B, but so far he’s played more SS than 2B this preseason. He did not have an especially good preseason at the plate but was fine in the field. If he is not at second it will be Shunichi Nemoto, who rather unbelievably turns 31 this year. It’s hard to keep Nemoto out of the lineup in my opinion as he plays a decent second, gets on base at a reasonable clip, hits with some power (20 2B and 8 HR last year) and is a solid baserunner. We’ll see how this shakes out.
The person squeezing him out is new foreign import Luis Cruz, who played in MLB with the LA Dodgers and Yankees last year. He’s played the bulk of his MLB games at 3B and SS and has a reputation as a defensive specialist. There’s not a whole lot of precedent that I know of for foreign players as middle infielders so I am not sure how MLB defensive skills transfer to NPB (NPB SS frequently convert to MLB 2B, so one would think a MLB SS would make a very good defensive NPB SS). Cruz only hit .184 in the preseason but did have a pair of homers in the last week. He’s either going to play SS or if Imae is injured, 3B.
Toshiaki Imae is of course the starting third baseman, but he spent the last two weeks rehabbing an injury and may start the season in ni-gun. Last season he was second in the PL in BA, and though he was not hitting well this preseason he’s always a pretty slow starter. When he’s healthy, he’ll be back at third.
Our Marines have a surplus of talent in the outfield, and that situation if anything has gotten better this year. I can’t reasonably write about Lotte OFs without mentioning T OGINO first – he played a good CF for 9 games this preseason, batting a very nice .429/.467/.521 with 3 SB – That’s my T OGINO. Of course, he reinjured his knee – it looks minor but he’s still rehabbing it in ni-gun and will start the season there. Unfortunately, that is also my T OGINO1.
1 I firmly believe that he can be one of the elite OFs in Japan if he can just. stay. on. the. field. It’s a damn shame.
Also murdering the ball this spring has been Chiba’s own Ikuhiro Kiyota, who batted .395/.422/.651 in 14 of the 15 preseason games with 4 doubles, 2 triples, and a homer. Whew! He’d be a lock for the opening day RF spot if it weren’t for the minor ankle injury he sustained last weekend. I’ve read conflicting things as to whether or not he will be available for the opener, but if not he will be back soon.
Katsuya Kakunaka looked honestly quite lost at the plate for most of the preseason, with very little offense to be seen. His stance looks totally different at the plate, too – lower, more aggressive. In the past week, though, the 2012 PL batting champ went on a huge tear, stroking a pair of triples and a double off Hiroshima, another double off Seibu, and a 9th inning grand slam off of Yakult. He’ll be starting the season in LF.
New foreign player Chad Huffman earned his way onto the team with a great tryout at Kamogawa Fall Camp and got plenty of chances to play RF this spring with the ichi-gun squad. He had a bit of an off weekend to end the preseason to end up with a .273/360/.364 line, but to my eyes he looked to be a solid fit on the team, probably filling in off the bench or in case of injury.
Shota Ishimine took over for T OGINO when the latter was injured, and there’s a good chance he’ll start the season as the starting CF (if not him then Kiyota if available). Unfortunately his ongoing malaise shows no sign of abating, and to be honest he was rather unimpressive at the plate and in the field. If it weren’t for injuries, I wouldn’t expect him to be on the ichi-gun squad to start the season.
Saburo is Saburo. He’s 38 this year and kind of doesn’t have a position, since there are better and younger defensive guys, and with the arrival of Aja the role of right handed hitter is pretty much filled. He’ll be on the ichi-gun roster, though.
What of Yoshifumi Okada, and GG Sato? Shohei Katoh? Shoitsu Ohmatsu? I’d love to tell you, but the numbers are too complicated. Okada is a valuable defensive player for sure but is limited offensively except as a base runner. Katoh surely needs a chance to play at ichi-gun, but who knows when he will get that chance. Quite frankly, I don’t know how either GG or Ohmatsu fit into future plans, though Ohmatsu saw limited time at both first and in the OF this spring.
Craig Brazell has had a bit of an off spring, but it’s just spring. He’s going to be the DH for sure vs right handed pitching. the only other possibilities would be either Ohmatsu or Chiba legend Kazuya Fukuura, who had basically no opportunities in the spring and to my eyes looks to be out of future plans.
Against lefties, the main options would be Aja/Iguchi (depending on who gets the nod at first), GG, or Saburo, but I find it hard to envision a lineup where either Braz, Aja, or Iguchi is not the starting DH, unless it’s a matchup or injury issue.
The main problem I see, especially with T OGINO out of the lineup, is the near total lack of speed. Only 3 Lotte players went for double digit stolen bases last year – Ogino (ahem, T OGINO), Okada, and Kakunaka, though others like Nemoto and Kiyota have good speed though are not what you would consider threats to steal.
Runs are going to need to be scored by keeping the OBP up and timely hitting rather than manufacturing them on the basepaths. There’s plenty of guys who can hit for gap power if not homerun power so if the extra base hits come there should be plenty of opportunities to score runs.
The big wildcard is the performance of the newcomers: Yoshida, Aja, Cruz, and Huffman all seem likely to see significant playing time so their success or failure will have a big impact on the team’s results. It’s unreasonable to expect Aja to continue at the level he has so far this spring – he will have to make adjustments as pitchers figure him out – but if he can get anywhere near .280 with 20+ HR and 25+ 2B it will be a great season.