Japan Series champion Tigers may be tough to dethrone

Despite a poor record in the preseason, the defending Central League and Japan Series champion Hanshin Tigers have the balance and youth to make a strong title defense once Nippon Professional Baseball’s season gets under way Friday.

The Tigers brought a huge surprise to the table last year, when Shoki Murakami won his first CL ERA title. The right-hander earned CL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, the latter unexpected considering the huge contributions of center fielder Koji Chikamoto and first baseman Yusuke Oyama.

NPB’s oldest manager last year, Akinobu Okada is a low-stress leader and a perfect tonic for a franchise accustomed to performing in a pressure-cooker environment, but Hanshin goes into Opening Day against the Yomiuri Giants after a 3-14-1 preseason record.

Hanshin Tigers right-hander Shoki Murakami, a standout for the Central League and Japan Series champions in 2023, is pictured pitching in a preseason game against the SoftBank Hawks at PayPay Dome in Fukuoka on March 19, 2024. (Kyodo)

After back-to-back fourth-place finishes, the Giants are under new manager Shinnosuke Abe, who espouses an old-school hard-nosed style, and will try to hold the line offensively behind slugger Kazuma Okamoto and 35-year-old infielder Hayato Sakamoto while improving last year’s pedestrian pitching and defense.

The Hiroshima Carp, and DeNA BayStars finished second and third, respectively, more than 11 games back of the Tigers, with the Carp scoring fewer runs than they allowed, a trick that does not bode well for their success going forward.

The Carp lost the offseason’s biggest free agent, outfielder Ryoma Nishikawa, to the PL champion Orix Buffaloes, while the BayStars lost left-handed ace Shota Imanaga to Major League Baseball. DeNA did, however, get a promising hitter in the draft.

Ryuki Watarai, a 21-year-old outfielder out of the corporate leagues, went to DeNA after a three-way draft-day lottery for the first-round pick. Watarai then set fire to the preseason by going 23-for-53 in 56 plate appearances.

The Yakult Swallows, CL champions in 2021 and 2022, will look to return to respectability after a punishing fifth-place finish, when numerous injuries were compounded with poor seasons from 2022 Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami and lefty strikeout artist Keiji Takahashi.

File photo shows the Orix Buffaloes 2023 Pacific League Rookie of the Year Shumpeita Yamashita in a preseason game against the DeNA BayStars at Yokohama Stadium on March 19, 2024. (Kyodo)

The Chunichi Dragons, who finished last behind Yakult on winning percentage, will learn if manager Kazuyoshi Tatsunami can finally resuscitate Japan’s worst offense and move out of the cellar in his third year at the helm.

In the Pacific League, manager Satoshi Nakajima will see if he can match Hall of Fame skipper Toshiharu Ueda as Orix’s second manager to win four straight pennants.

The Buffaloes took a big hit when their ace, three-time reigning PL MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, moved to MLB, and lost another pitcher, Sachiya Yamasaki, to the Nippon Ham Fighters as a domestic free agent.

But there is plenty of room for growth from a pair of key youngsters, powerful pitcher and 2023 rookie of the year Shumpeita Yamashita and shortstop Kotaro Kurebayashi, while two of the PL’s best hitters, catcher Tomoya Mori and first baseman Yuma Tongu are still in their prime.

The Lotte Marines finished second last season by a hair ahead of the third-place SoftBank Hawks. Lotte’s Roki Sasaki and Atsuki Taneichi are two of the PL’s best strikeout pitchers, but whether the batting and fielding can provide the support the team needs to win is a question.

Superb seasons from outfielders Kensuke Kondo and Yuki Yanagita boosted SoftBank to great offensive heights but new manager Hiroki Kokubo’s issue will be pitching consistency, something converted reliever Livan Moinelo and maturing right-hander Carter Stewart Jr. might help fix.

File photo shows center fielder Koji Chikamoto in a preseason game against the Yakult Swallows at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan, on March 14, 2024. (Kyodo)

The Rakuten Eagles barely missed a playoff spot last year, when the offense misfired early on, a problem new manager Toshiaki Imae is credited with fixing last year as batting coach. Masahiro Tanaka has not impressed since returning from MLB in 2021, but perhaps he will improve following his October shoulder surgery.

The Seibu Lions were fifth last season despite some superb pitching and defense. The pitching could be even better with the addition of marquee rookie Natsuki Takeuchi, while new imports Franchy Cordero and Jesus Aguilar might boost the offense.

The Nippon Ham Fighters, last-place finishers for two years under Tsuyoshi Shinjo, pitched well in 2023, and have one of Japan’s most dynamic talents in strong-armed power-hitting outfielder Chusei Mannami leading the way in what could be an interesting season in Hokkaido.

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