Hawks hoping to get over playoff hump


CHIBA LOTTE MARINES – Manager Bobby Valentine’s club won it all last season and will no doubt be a contender for the Pacific League again. The lineup is solid with veterans Kazuya Fukuura (6 home runs, 72 RBIs, .300 average in 2005) at first base and Koichi Hori (7, 46, .305) at second, National Team members Tsuyoshi Nishioka (4, 48, .268 with 41 steals) at shortstop and Toshiaki Imae (8, 71, .310 and the 2005 Japan Series MVP) at third.

In the outfield are Americans Benny Agbayani (13, 71, .271), Matt Franco (21, 78, .300) and Val Pascucci (8, 20, .284 in limited action), along with Saburo Omura (14, 50, .313), to man the three positions and the DH slot in the batting order. Valentine can also call on Akira Otsuka (8, 32, .293) to fill in. Behind the plate is the best pair of platoon catchers in the country, righthand-hitting Tomoya Satozaki (10, 52, .303 and another WBC member) and lefty-swinging Tasuku Hashimoto (7, 31, .257).

News photo
Hawks manager Sadaharu oh congratulates closer Takahiro Mahara after
their Opening Day win over the Marines. Softbank has had the best record in the Pa
League for the last three seasons and is off to a good start in 2006.

The pitching is also superb with four double-figure winners returning: starters Shunsuke Watanabe (15-4, 2.17 ERA), Naoyuki Shimizu (10-11, 3.83), Hiroyuki Kobayashi (12-6, 3.30) and setup man Shingo Ono (10-4, 2.81). Masahide Kobayashi (2-2, 2.58 with a league-leading 29 saves) remains one of the best closers in either Japanese league.

The Marines will have to overcome the loss of Korean slugger Lee Seung Yeop and southpaw pitcher Dan Serafini, but Lotte has picked up right-hander Kevin Beirne. He was only 4-13 with a 4.69 ERA with Orix last year but has the potential to turn around that record, especially with a great team such as Lotte.

Chiba also has the famed No. 26, that boisterous cheering section to back up the 25 bench players at each game, home and away, and it will be a shock if the Marines do not at least make the postseason again this season.

FUKUOKA SOFTBANK HAWKS – The Hawks, managed by WBC team skipper Sadaharu Oh, will need to offset the loss of all-star catcher Kenji Jojima (gone to the Seattle Mariners) and fill a hole left at third base after the team cut Tony Batista. Fukuoka finished first in the PL the past three seasons but suffered from a “playoff jinx” and lost to the second place teams in 2004 and 2005.

Softbank is set at first base with the pride of Panama, Julio Zuleta (43, 99, .319 and runnerup in all three Triple Crown categories in 2005) and at shortstop with Munenori Kawasaki (4, 36, .271 and 21 stolen bases). Oh has to find a couple of guys to play second and third, and the answer to the latter may be rookie Nobuhiro Matsuda. An option would be to hire another foreigner.

The Hawks’ outfield lineup has Colombian Jolbert Cabrera (8, 58, .297) in left, Naoyuki Omura (8, 48, .270) in center and Katsuhiko Miyaji (3, 36, .311) in right. The leading candidate to replace Jojima behind the plate is Naoki Matoba who hit only .186 in a backup role a year ago, and the catcher problem is Oh’s biggest worry. The entire lineup revolves around designated hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka (46, 121, .315).

The pitching is solid with the Pa League’s MVP, lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi (18-4, 2.11) leading the way. The rotation also includes southpaw Tsuyoshi Wada (12-8, 3.27) and righties Nagisa Arakaki (10-6, 4.61), Kazumi Saito (16-1, 2.92) and Junji Hoshino (8-5, 4.30). There are twin closers in lefty Koji Mise and righty Takahiro Mahara, who posted 18 and 22 saves, respectively.

American newcomer D.J. Carrasco (6-8, 4.79 with Kansas City) will fit in there somewhere as well.

SEIBU LIONS — The Lions made the playoffs last season with a record below .500, and this year Seibu may be headed for the second division. Manager Tsutomu Ito’s best hitters are slugger Alex Cabrera (36, 92, .300) at first base, Yoshihito Ishii (6, 38 .312 and a PL batting title contender) at second and Kazuhiro Wada (27, 69, .322 and the batting champ) in left field. After that, it’s all a big question mark.

News photoKazuhiro Kiyohara returned to the Pacific League this
season after playing 10 years with the Yomiuri Giants. Kiyohara belted his 500th career home run last season but was

Shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (11, 60, .274) slumped last year, and it remains to be seen if Takeya “Okawari-san” Nakamura (22, 57, .262) can be the third baseman full time. Or perhaps he will be the DH, and newcomer American Jeff Liefer (19, 68, .321 at Triple-A Buffalo) will assume a defensive position in the infield.

The Lions other two outfield slots will most likely go to Takumi Kuriyama (10, 28, .297) and Shogo Akada (3, 24, .272), and the best catcher is Toru Hosokawa (8, 32, .194), so the offense needs some propping up.

Ito should also have problems with his pitching staff after his three capable starters: WBC hero Daisuke Matsuzaka (14-13, 2.30), Fumiya Nishiguchi (17-5, 2.77) and Kazuyuki Hoashi (13-8, 4.03). He lost closer Kiyoshi Toyoda to free agency and the Yomiuri Giants and needs to find someone to take up the slack. Two wild cards here are first-year American hurlers Chris Gissell (8-8, 3.54 at Triple-A Memphis) and Alex Graman (5-6, 3.18 at Triple-A Columbus).

Unless there are a couple of rookies or “sleepers” who can emerge and give the Lions some offensive punch, it looks as if it may be a long season at Invoice Seibu Dome.

ORIX BUFFALOES. — The Osaka-Kobe franchise looks to be the Pa League’s most improved team in 2006. The Buffaloes will be playing under the spirit of their late manager Akira Ogi, who died in December, and new skipper Katsuhiro Nakamura has a lot with which to work

Start with first baseman Kazuhiro Kiyohara (22, 52, .212 with Yomiuri) and third sacker Norihiro Nakamura (22, 67, .249 with Las Vegas). Their names and drawing power mean more than their stats, and their presence will bring the fans to Kyocera (Osaka) Dome and Skymark Stadium in Kobe.

Other capable infielders are Mitsutaka Goto (9, 42, .295), Keiichi Hirano (3, 33, .285), Hirotoshi Kitagawa (16, 67, .259) and Makoto Shiozaki (4, 25, .315). Newcomer Jason Grabowski (6, 33, .309 with Triple-A Las Vegas) is also on board.

In the outfield are two Japanese players who need to bounce back after off-seasons: Arihito Muramatsu (0, 30, .247) and Yoshitomo Tani (6, 36, .248), and two foreigners: Cliff Brumbaugh (19, 57, .263) and Karim Garcia, who led the team last year with 21 homers and 60 RBIs, along with a .307 average. The No. 1 catcher is Takeshi Hidaka (1, 31, .217).

The mound staff lost a good one in 14-game winner Jeremy “J.P.” Powell, gone to the Giants, but Orix now has Tom Davey (6-6, 2.98 with Hiroshima) and lefty Dan Serafini (11-4, 2.91 with Lotte). After that, the starting rotation is thin, but there is great relief with Daisuke Kato (6-3, 2.76 in 60 games), Ryota Katsuki (3-1, 2.36 in 47 appearances), Jun Hagiwara (3-2, 3.89 in 49 outings) and Tsuyoshi Kikuchihara (3-1, 1.38 in 71 games).

The Buffaloes also have a great closer in Masanobu Okubo (2-2, 1.60 with 22 saves) and overall, Orix should have enough to make the playoffs in October. It all depends on how well Nakamura can assemble the talent available and maybe use some of the old “Ogi Magic.”

HOKKAIDO NIPPON HAM FIGHTERS – Manager Trey Hillman’s job may be on the line after a fifth-place finish in 2005, but there is great hope for improvement.

The offense is strong with Panamanian pounder Fernando Seguignol (31, 86, .288) at first base, Kuniyuki Kimoto (18, 73, .281) at second and Michihiro “Guts” Ogasawara (37, 92, .282) at third. Competition for the shortstop’s job is between Makoto Kaneko (4, 24, .240) and a new foreign player, Jose Macias (1, 13, .254 with the Chicago Cubs), also from Panama.

Hillman’s outfield has Tsuyoshi “Mr. Spaceman” Shinjo (20, 57, .239), Hichori Morimoto (7, 25, .264) and Atsunori Inaba (15, 54, .271) and for backup Tomichika Tsuboi (2, 19, .309). The Fighters’ best catcher is Shinji Takahashi (5, 27, .226).

How far Nippon Ham can advance this season will depend a lot on the arm of 20-year-old sophomore pitcher Yu Darvish (5-5, 3.53), expected to win in double figures along with last year’s top hurler, Satoru Kanemura (13-10, 3.62). American lefty Corey Lee (3-4, 3.42) should also be in the starting rotation. The middle relief corps is strong, led by Micheal Nakamura (3-0, 2.31), and Australian southpaw Brad Thomas (1-5, 4.66) needs to make a significant contribution.

Closer Yukiyo Yokoyama (1-4, 4.47, 12 saves) must revert to form (3.39 with a league-leading 28 saves in 2004) or a new closer has to emerge to shore up the bullpen and excite the fans in Sapporo. I don’t think Nippon Ham has the horses to finish in first place during the regular season, but a playoff slot is a reachable goal.

TOHOKU RAKUTEN GOLDEN EAGLES — Japan’s 2005 expansion team should be a little better this time around after a season of just getting used to playing as a pro baseball franchise. Veteran 70-year-old manager Katsuya Nomura, takes over for the youthful Yasushi Tao, and we’ll see what the guy can do about improving a 38-87-1 record.

The No. 1 starting pitcher is Hisashi Iwakuma (9-15, 4.99), followed by Yasuhiro Ichiba who took his lumps last year, going 2-9 with a 5.56 ERA. Both are much better hurlers than those record indicate. Also expected in the starting rotation are two foreign left-handers, American Cedrick Bowers (7-5, 3.83 with the Yokohama BayStars) and Taiwanese Lin Ying-Chieh (12-10 with Taiwan’s Macato Cobras).

A 23-year-old rookie, Shingo Matsuzaki, has looked great in exhibition games and should be a regular starter, but Nomura needs some relief help and must find a closer.

The best position players are infielders Takeshi Yamasaki (25, 65, .266) and Yuji Yoshioka (10, 52, .282) and outfielder Koichi Isobe (16, 51, .264). No other holdovers from last year have double-figure home run totals or respectable batting averages except outfielder Koichi Sekikawa who hit .287. First-string catcher Akihito Fujii batted .232 with no homers and only 21 RBIs.

Good news, though: The Eagles have picked up third baseman Jose Fernandez (26, 84, .293) from Seibu, and they’re giving another chance to Rick Short who played in 2003 with Chiba Lotte. Utility-man Short hit. 400 in 11 games with the Washington Nationals in 2005 after posting 11, 70, .383 stats with Triple-A New Orleans.

Pacific League predicted order of finish: 1) Hawks, 2) Marines, 3) Buffaloes, 4) Fighters, 5) Lions, 6) Eagles.

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