Online Yakyu Writer Insights: NPB Moving Forward?

Takada resigned in May.

Tokyo Swallows fans witnessed it all in 2010: the resumption of the 2009 slump which ended up consuming the first two months of 2010; a change in manager; the addition of a cleanup bat; veteran pitchers refinding their form; an authoritative return to winning; and a bit of flirtation with the third and final playoff spot.

With any luck, 2011 will pick up right where 2010 left off. Minus all of the bunting, of course.

And while hopes may be high at Jingu, there will surely be a lot of optimism when several other teams start spring training in the not-too-distant future.

In an effort to survey current NPB trends and what changes may be afoot, Tsubamegun talked to some of the more well-known writers (English language) in the online yakyu community.

This is the first in a short series of articles featuring their thoughts and insights.

One thing that we asked everyone about was whether or not non-Japanese managers, who have fared very poorly in the league since Trey Hillman’s Fighters won the championship back in 2006, are finished in Japan for the foreseeable future.

Gen Sueyoshi, the one-man show at the irreplaceable Yakyu Baka, thinks that there won’t be any more work visa-toting managers in Japan any time soon.

“Some people think I’m over-reacting when I say this, and perhaps I am, but I tend to think that Marty Brown ruined things for non-Japanese managers.

“It also doesn’t help that the Chiba Lotte Marines won the Nippon Series the year after Bobby Valentine left.  And if Senichi Hoshino manages to do something similar with the Eagles…”

Ah, the Eagles.

Former Tokyo third baseman, Akinori Iwamura, decided to sign with them during the off-season after seeing

Hoshino got Rakuten to open the purse strings.

his MLB career get derailed by a knee injury. They should definitely be an improved unit considering the changes they’ve made over the past couple of months.

Marty Brown is out, and Hanshin-resurrecter, Senichi Hoshino, takes over a retooled offense (Kaz Matsui was also lured back to Japan from MLB).

Additionally, ace pitcher Iwakuma’s somewhat unexpected return to the starting rotation should keep naysayers at bay for the time being.

How nice would it be if the Yakult front office put a little extra coin into attracting top free agent talent like the Eagles and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks?

But before that happens, actually, it would be most prudent to develop the farm team in a way similar to what Yomiuri does. But alas, in the eyes of the parent company (Yakult) the minor league club doesn’t help market the yogurt/feminine beauty products manufacturer.


So how about a new owner for the Tokyo Swallows?

As stated repeatedly on this site, Tsubamegun is not at all opposed to the idea of the team being sold. We’d love to see a group of investors, a la John Henry’s NESV (Boston Red Sox; Liverpool Football Club), buy the team and show the rest of the league how to run a club as a profitable business in its own right.

Nevertheless, that won’t happen because non-Japanese are still banned from owning NPB teams, and even if they weren’t, NESV would quickly discover that doing business their way would involve the inevitable anchor of locking horns with the crusty owners of the Central League’s other five teams.

Where is this league headed?

Indeed, Patrick Newman, lead researcher and writer for NPB Tracker, says that NPB in general, and the Central League in particular, is in need of some fresh thinking.

“I’d really like to see a scrappy, competitive group come in and shake things up a bit,” Newman remarked.

Coincidentally perhaps, it seemed for a brief moment last month that the Swallows might be on the auctioneer’s block. But they weren’t.

Yakyu Baka’s Sueyoshi made the intriguing observation that the Swallows would ideally be purchased by an Internet or technology company of some sort. He pointed to the strength of the teams fronted by Rakuten and Softbank as a model for where NPB might find some fresh legs.

Fresh legs and a second wind are definitely what the league needs as it continues to lose the talent battle with MLB.

There are obviously so many things holding NPB back here. The league shoots itself in the foot, both of them really, at nearly every conceivable opportunity.

As mentioned earlier, player development is still a big concern. So is the way that the owners deal with the athletes and their neutered player’s union.

And these foundational issues, while integral to the righting of NPBs ship, are just the tip of the enormous yakyu dumb-berg.

Sueyoshi pointed to the non-Japanese active roster player quote as one of a litany of problems.

“The NPB could do with more foreign players, especially if good players continue to leave for the MLB.

“I know there are people that are against it because it might end up keeping Japanese players out of the line-up, but really I think it would lead to more competition and would improve the league in general.

“And a more competitive league could help keep current players more interested in staying in the NPB.  It could also lead to better performances on the international stage.”

Newman, for his part, urges increased use of the ikusei contracts to expand the pool of talent that teams have access to.

“Signing and developing amateur talent from other countries is another opportunity; Wei-Yin Chen is obviously the current big success story to look at.”

Indeed, these are concepts that many teams  find hard to grasp. The Tokyo Swallows are no exception.

I’m dreaming a little bit here, but it wouldn’t be a prohibitively expensive investment in a team’s long-term future to set up a second farm team, especially when considering the size and worth of the parent companies involved.

And I’d like to remind owners that their team’s farm club doesn’t necessarily have to be within a 30 minute

The tourist city of Nasu (Tochigi Prefecture) would likely foot part of the bill to bring a minor league baseball club to town.

drive of the top team’s stadium.

There’s nothing wrong with having an ikusei/rookie/second year player squad in a small city a couple of prefectures away. This country isn’t that big, and transportation here is second to none, so why can’t the Swallows place a second farm team in a small tourist city such as Nasu, Izu or Tsukuba?

But since the team’s farm system is mostly an afterthought, the birds seem content to rely on the luck of the annual amateur draft, a gambit that didn’t play out particularly well in 2010.

Further compounding Tokyo’s climb into the playoffs is the well-established fact that Yakult refuses to spend money on talent like Central League rivals Yomiuri, Hanshin and Chunichi routinely do.

In the next edition of this multi-part interview, Tsubamegun asks our yakyu journalism colleagues how well they think the Tokyo Swallows will do in 2011. Please check back here for part two in early January.

In the meantime, Tsubamegun would like to wish you and yours a very happy new year!

You can follow Sueyoshi and Newman on Twitter at @gwynar and @npbtracker, respectively.

About Christopher Pellegrini

Christopher is a budding sabermetrician and long-time supporter of Tokyo's more lovable team, the Swallows. He has publicly volunteered, several times, that he plans to buy the team at some point in the future. When he finally runs the joint, it is likely that he will fine any player who swings at the first pitch or sac bunts (unless it's a pitcher, of course). Follow him on Twitter: @chrispellegrini

  • Simon

    Great start to an interesting series! There’s a lot to be gained from a second farm team so that young players in development do not get their playing time taken away by vets recovering from injury or poor form. But the MLB/NHL minor league system may be accidental, as we don’t see the same in NBA/NFL. (Soccer, with its promotion/demotion system is entirely different, of course.)

  • Nice job, thanks for including me.

    I’m going to be one of those people who thinks that Gen is overreacting about Marty. I didn’t want them enough over the two seasons to compare directly, but they played to about the same run differential as they did under Nomura in 2009, when they finished 2nd. Rakuten just got outdone by Orix’s superior player-personnel moves and Lotte’s resurgence. Speaking of which, in retrospect it’s not surprising that they made a comeback in 2010, though I didn’t see them winning the Series. The whole Bobby situation in 2009 was a huge distraction and it obviously had a negative impact on the team. It might be a while, but I think we will see foreigners manage in NPB again.

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