This is part two of a three-part interview series with some of the regulars from the NPB mainstream and independent media.
Click here for part one: OYWI: NPB Moving Forward?
After a detailed trip through some of the prevailing wisdom on NPB in general, which we’ll return to in the next edition of this interview series, it seemed like the right time to focus exclusively on the birds for a bit. That’s what part two is all about.
The 2010 season, as you’ll recall, was quite the ride! And if the Central League had been more like the 2009 edition, then the birds would have easily walked into the playoffs in second place with home field advantage for the first stage of the Climax Series.
However, 2010 saw three teams put together solid full-season performances while Tokyo didn’t get its act together until June. Even though they were the winningest team in the league from July to the end of the season, it wasn’t enough to overtake the coasting Yomiuri Giants.
The big question now is whether this whole coming-up-short act is going to continue. As the Japan Times’ Jason Coskrey aptly told us, Tokyo “is the Houston Texans of the NPB. They have the pieces, they just seem to underachieve.”
Credit where credit is due though. The Tokyo Swallows finished the 2010 season at 72-68-4 even though they were in 6th place with a record of 13-32-1 on May 26th when former manager Shigeru Takada finally stepped down.
The post-Takada turnaround, as we’ve said many times before, was other-worldly when considering how badly the team was playing just a week prior to Takada’s throwing in the towel (check here for the mid-May, Takada-inspired offensive stats).
My routine pouting about sacrifice bunting notwithstanding, Tokyo fans were afforded many reasons to be excited about baseball last season, and they are desperate for the good times to continue!
The pitching, of course, looks pretty good for 2011. The birds just re-signed Tony Barnette, the right-handed starter who showed flashes of dependability last season, and Lim inked a nest egg for his great-great-grandchildren during the off-season to ensure that we have a fearsome closer in the bullpen.
Teamed with the Daisuke Araki-guided rotation and middle relief, the Swallows look to have the makings of another solid pitching corps.
The offense, on the other hand, is a little bit more of a question mark. Guiel and Whitesell will be back, but D’Antona was unfortunately let loose. He had a rough season last year, but then again he was never given the day-to-day starts that helped him earn July MVP honors in 2009. Whoever picks him up will be getting a bargain.
An unknown quantity in the form of Wladimir Balentien has joined the squad
to compete with Guiel for a spot in the outfield, but no matter how that works out, expect big things from their neighbor in center, Norichika Aoki.
Barring major injury or posting system foolishness, Aoki will be playing in North America in 2012, so don’t be shocked if he puts up career-best numbers this season.
Iihara, Hatakeyama and Tanaka should continue to make their presence felt this year, and the competition for the starting spot at short should be fun to watch.
If Miyamoto and Aikawa can stay off IR (hey, can we get the deep-muscle-massage crew that keeps all the old guys on the Phoenix Suns roster healthy?!), then there’s definitely sustainable hope for the offense. Third place in the Central is what I’m thinking for 2011.
But that’s just my opinion.
Apparently, I don’t have a whole lot of company.
The general consensus seems to be that the birds will finish fourth. Gen Sueyoshi from Yakyu Baka and Patrick Newman from NPB Tracker explain that the top three teams from 2010 are still too strong for Tokyo to easily make a move into the playoffs.
“[Tokyo] obviously has some top-notch talent, but they have challenges in that they won’t score as much as Yomiuri or Hanshin, and they’re looking up at Chunichi in terms of run prevention.
“Yakult has great rotation depth and a pretty good bullpen though, so if they can hit a little more consistently and one of Yomiuri/Hanshin/Chunichi falters, they have a shot at a playoff spot,” said Newman.
Sueyoshi largely agreed that the Swallows are likely destined for fourth place this year due to the relative strength of the wealthier clubs that finished ahead of them last season.
At the same time, he pointed to the young talent that all three of 2010’s B-class teams have waiting in the wings as a source of excitement for the next few seasons.
“The Swallows have a fairly solid core of young players and might be poised to make some noise in the near future.
“But I also think that Yokohama and Hiroshima have a fairly solid core group of young players and things could get interesting in the CL over the new few years,” he said.
Good point. Especially as far as Tokyo is concerned. The Swallows haven’t got short figured out yet, but there are three or four very interesting young players who could easily keep veterans Fujimoto and Kawashima on the bench in 2011.
Kawabata (23), Morioka (26) and Onizaki (27) are three players who showed promise last year, and Tokyo’s first round draft pick, Tetsuto Yamada, should also get a decent shot at playing between Miyamoto and Tanaka in Tokyo’s infield.
Accordingly, another reason for Tokyo fans to be optimistic, at least over the medium to long-term, is the fact that Chunichi, Hanshin and Yomiuri’s lineups are a bit ass-heavy with aging superstars.
Sueyoshi pointed to Yomiuri as a case in point: “While they’re putting a lot of effort into growing their farm system, I don’t know if/when they’ll be able to replace stars like Michihiro Ogasawara, Alex Ramirez, and Shinnosuke Abe.”
It should be very interesting to see if homegrown stars such as Sakamoto and Yamaguchi can live up to the expectations that have been placed on them by the Yomiuri organization and their fans.
At any rate, even if they can’t plug those holes with talent from their farm team, I think we can be confident that Yomiuri will just buy an all-star from another team as they did with Ogasawara and Ramirez.
And Kroon, Greisinger and Lee.
Coskrey was just slightly more optimistic about Tokyo’s chances when he talked to us.
“If they can convince themselves they can compete, then they will. Which is why I like Ogawa as their manager. He’s a good influence in the clubhouse.
“The new ball may keep more balls in the park and could be a great equalizer for their pitchers.
“The top three are going to be tough to beat. The team’s cheap ways of the past, losing Seth and Rami for instance, I think will keep them fourth, but I wouldn’t be that surprised to see them finish third.”
Well, the good news is that nobody, including us, has the team pegged to get run into the ground this season.
But the outlook for 2011 is not entirely rosy if you listen (as we do) to the opinions of Coskrey, Sueyoshi and Newman, three of the most attentive NPB writers you’ll find in English on the Internet.
In part three of this series we will return our focus to the general state of affairs in NPB and myriad minor details such as the value of Japanese print, TV and Internet media baseball coverage.