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Japan pro baseball teams gear up for preseason training camps

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The 12 Japan pro baseball teams open spring camps this week on Feb. 1, in Okinawa, south Kyushu and Shikoku, and next week we’ll give a rundown of who’s training where and for how long. Meanwhile, here is a look at what has been happening in the final days of the off-season break.

One of the newest members of the Yomiuri Giants, outfielder Alex Ramirez, came in early to try on his new Kyojin jersey on Jan. 21 in Tokyo.

Often a veteran foreign player, after an all-too-short winter, will ask and get permission from his team to report to camp later in February.

“I’ll be there maybe about the 10th,” a guy would say. Or, “Look for me around Feb. 15.” But Rami’s face without his goatee, in keeping with his new club’s no-facial hair policy, graced the front page of the Sports Hochi newspaper, the fun-and-games publication affiliated with The Yomiuri Shimbun, on Jan. 22. He’ll be playing his eighth year in Tokyo after seven seasons with the Giants cross-town rival Yakult Swallows, and getting here early is starting off on the right foot with his new team.

Ramirez was followed on another early bird flight by new teammate Marc Kroon, whose clean-shaven face graced the Hochi’s front page on Jan. 26. Yomiuri’s new closer tried on his Giants jersey and cap, which he wore in his trademark crooked style in Tokyo the previous day.

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Former Hanshin Tigers and Taiyo Whales outfielder Hirokazu Kato died Jan. 21 in Tokyo. He was 56, and the cause of death was reported as lung cancer. Kato began his career in 1972 with the then-Nishitetsu Lions in Fukuoka but transferred to the Tigers for whom he played from 1976 to 1982. He wrapped up his active days with the Whales, playing in Yokohama from 1983 to 1990.

In recent years, Kato was a well-known commentator with the Fuji-Sankei group, mostly doing game analysis on Fuji-TV’s late-night “Pro Yakyu News.”

A fun guy with an outgoing personality, Kato will be missed.

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Relief pitcher Shinya Okamoto has moved from the Chunichi Dragons to the Saitama Seibu Lions as compensation for the Lions having lost free agent outfielder Kazuhiro Wada, who signed with Chunichi.

Okamoto was the holds point leader for the Dragons in 2007, performing in a setup role for ace closer Hitoki Iwase.

He nailed 33 holds, a recently new baseball statistic created to recognize the efforts of middle relievers and setup men who “hold” a lead for their team over an inning or two, so a starter can get a victory and the closer a save.

Okamoto had a 5-2 won-lost record and a 2.89 ERA in 62 appearances, and several American and National League team scouts have said Okamoto, 33, could have major league value. For now, he’s staying here with the Lions.

Obviously, Seibu needs all the help it can get, having been stung by the loss of No. 1 pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka this past season, and now the Lions have lost Wada, one of their big sluggers, and main power source Alex Cabrera, who has moved on to the Orix Buffaloes.

New Saitama manager Hisanobu Watanabe’s club may not be that bad, however.

Veteran lefty and former major leaguer Kazuhisa Ishii has come over from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and the pitching staff has some great young arms with leader Hideki Wakui (17-10 with a 2.79 ERA in 2007) and sophomore Takayuki Kishi (11-7, 3.40), as well as veteran Fumiya Nishiguchi (9-11, 4.28).

Former New York Yankee Alex Graman, who saved 17 games after assuming the closer’s role midway through the 2007 campaign, should be given the opportunity to keep that job again this season.

The main Japanese position players are shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (12 homers, 74 RBIs and a .300 average), outfielder G.G. Sato (25, 69, .280) and second baseman Yasuyuki Kataoka (a Pacific League-leading 38 stolen bases).

That’s assuming G.G. and the team can work out their arbitration and salary dispute. Bet they will.

Watanabe is also counting big time on first-year foreign players Craig Brazell, taking over for Cabrera at first base, and Hiram Bocachica, an outfielder who can also serve as DH.

Brazell has major league experience with the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals, and last year belted 39 homers and had 91 RBIS while hitting .315 in the minors, splitting the season between Omaha and Wichita. Bocachica played for four teams in 2007: the San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics and their AAA affiliates at Portland and Sacramento, respectively.

He’s also played in the majors with the Dodgers, Detroit and Seattle.

What I’m saying here is don’t write off the Lions just because they finished fifth last year (their first time in the second division since 1981) and have lost several key players.

This team could be the surprise of 2008.

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Reader Sparky Patrick from Gunma Prefecture e-mailed to ask where Andy Sheets is going to play in 2008. The answer: nowhere.

Sheets has opted to retire at age 36 after a five-year Japan career and seven years in the majors prior to that. Andy played two seasons at shortstop for the Hiroshima Carp and three at first base and third base with the Hanshin Tigers.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at wayne@JapanBall.com