2016 Preview: Calling the Pacific League

The season starts this Friday – Hamu @ Lotte in a sold-out Q, Wakui vs Otani (the Younger), all teams with a clean slate. Yup, time for some predictions!

Everybody’s calling Softbank to win it all for the third year in a row, everybody’s also calling Rakuten to be terrible again. Of course we are biased at We Love Marines, but who do we got?

Daiei Hawks (Or Vodafone, or whatever they are called these days)

Oh suuuuure Steve, go with the trendy pick. But it’s hard to see how Daiei finishes out of the top two, and that’s being generous to the rest of the PL.

This is a stacked team, with tons of depth across the board. Their pitching is clearly their strength, and they only got better by bringing back lefty Wada. They have all-stars at basically every position but catcher, and their bullpen is pretty much bulletproof.
Last year’s offense was fueled by career years from Yanagita and Matsuda. The latter had his best season by far and is turning 33 this year – hard to imagine he will play at the same level this year.

Uchikawa dropped off a bit from his career numbers last year, and given his age I would expect that decline to continue. Big hitting DH/1B Lee Dae Ho is gone to MLB, and that’s quite a hole to fill.

They’ve won the championship 2x in a row now, easy to see how a bit of a hangover might start to creep in. They’ll be very, very good for sure, but doubtful as good as last year.

Our Marines

You say “HOMER!!!” but I say “Yes, indeed, but I am not crazy here.”

For first time in my Lotte fan memory, the pitching staff is not just not terrible, not just decent, but could be really, really good. In previous years there was a struggle to fill all 6 starter positions, but this year there’s – gasp! – competition for the rotation. The bullpen looks great, especially the double danger duo of Uchi and Nishino, both of whom could close on basically any other team.

The position players are more of a question mark, but that’s mostly due to youth – the talent is there. The middle of the lineup could be very special should the newcomers pan out. We get a healthy, well-rested Despa in the heart of the order, an outfield all in their peak years, a very talented second baseman with great range and a bat full of promise, a young first baseman who looks ready to do some damage at the plate (and is greatly improved in the field), and a young catcher who’s making a name as Someone You Do NOT Run On.

Plenty of question marks for sure, but loads of potential if things go the right way. I think they will.

About those question marks – there are many. How does Navarro adjust from KBO? Aja as full time starter? Can Shogo fill Cruz’s cleats? Who will play 3B for the first month? Can Tamura make another leap forward like he did last year? Will we see late 2014-Despa or late 2015-Despa?

Will Chen continue to shine like he did late last year? What about Yuta? Does Standridge have another great year left? Can Uchi stay healthy?

So many questions. I don’t doubt why some observers rate Lotte chances as pretty low in a tough PL.

Hamu Fighters

Hamu is competitive year in, year out these days, and they’ve got plenty of star power to finish in the top 3 in the PL. I would be very surprised if they did not, honestly.

Nippon Hamu has some of the best players in Japan including the best pitcher in Shohei Otani, up and coming young players like Nishikawa and Kondoh, and big star Sho Nakata. Yoshikawa’s a former Sawamura award winner, Luis Mendoza is a heck of a nice pitcher, and Arihara was the rookie of the year last year.

Kuriyama-kantoku always seems to get more out of his squad than it seems should be possible. It’s hard for me to see how they won’t be highly competitive in the PL this season.

I think this WILL be a good team, definitely better than Orix, Seibu, and Rakuten, but I do not believe in the bullpen at all, and the rotation outside the top 4 guys (to be a bit generous, honestly) is a giant question mark.

This is the team that is still trying to make a serviceable starter out of the Handkerchief Prince.

Orix Buffaloes

I like Orix, I think they have a lot of really really good players but not enough to push into A-class.

Orix has an absolutely killer top end of the rotation in Kaneko, Nishi, and Dickson. Tomei also performed well as a starter last year. I’m a fan of T-Okada and Hikaru Itoh is a very nice catcher.

Nishino showed really strong promise before getting injured last year, and rookie Oda put on a bit of a show in limited OF time. Lots of good players in Osaka.

Their highest paid players are Kaneko (good), Hirano (ummmmm he was pretty decent for a while there) and Nakajima (who has clearly entered the Saburo stage of his career).

They’re paying a lot of money to Itoi (who got old very quickly last season), starting Koyano (whom I like, but is also well past prime), and bringing back Tony Blanco for another go (who was both fat and terrible last season).

If you know who is closing for them this year (Satoh?) please let me know. You probably should let them know, too.

Despite a lot of good components, I see them clearly below Softbank, Lotte, and Nichiham.

Seibu Lions

Am I anti-Seibu? You betcha. But even Objective Steve can’t find much on the Saitama roster to recommend that they will finish higher than 5th in the standings.

These guys can hit. Okawari-kun’s probably the best power hitter in Japan, year after year. Mejia can really smash the ball a long way. Asamura had a massive year at the plate 3 years ago, was still good last year, and just turned 25. Akiyama set the single season record for hits last year while playing ++ center field. Mori looks to be a future star at the plate.

Kikuchi and Kona Takahashi are two great young starters, while Kishi + Togame are still quite decent starters. I like Makita a lot.

Here it is: health, depth, and that horror show of a bullpen.

Mejia had a huge drop-off between his 2014 and 2015 seasons – last year he basically hit home runs, played terrible D, and struck out a lot. Name any player of his type who has actually improved in his third year in Japan – I can’t think of any.

Okawari-kun is awesome but he’s turning 33 this year and does not exactly inspire confidence that he will either stay healthy or perform at that level much longer. No way Akiyama comes close to hitting as well as he did last year, though he will be good. Mori can hit but has no position, Ginjiro has a position but can’t hit.

And that bullpen. That. Bullpen. I can’t see them anywhere above 4th, and I’m calling them 5th.

Rakuten Eagles

There’s a reason this team is the universal pick to land in the PL cellar.

Norimoto’s great, one of the best pitchers in Japan, and he’s still quite young. Yuki Matsui was fantastic as closer last year, and just turned 20. Kamata was really promising before his arm injuries, and he should be back at full strength. Anraku shows huge promise.

Rakuten picked up our hero Imae in the offseason – he’s pretty much the best position player on the team. Shima’s a quality catcher, Fujita’s defense is sublime. Okoye is a really exciting, young talent.

Total lack of depth, big questions on health, the talent in the position players is dire – relying on 41 year old Kaz Matsui to be your big hitter only goes so far.

I don’t know how they are going to score runs, and I doubt they can prevent runs from scoring outside of Norimoto and Matsui.

This is just a poorly constructed team that needs an infusion of talent ASAP.

That’s my list, feel free to disagree in the comments!

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Steve Novosel

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I've gotta write, usually my voice is shot from yelling too much during Lotte games!

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