Prediction: Central League
1. Hanshin Tigers: This could be the year for Hanshin. Colonel Sanders has been exhumed from his resting place at the bottom of the Dotombori River, which should be enough to put the team over the top. Hanshin led the Central League for most of the season last year, despite a serious lack of home run power. If Takahiro Arai and Kevin Mench can combine for 45 home runs or so they should be tough to beat.
Key Players: Arai, Mench
2. Yomiuri Giants: Yomiuri slipped past Hanshin for the Central League crown at the end of the season in 2008, then took the Japan Series down to the wire before losing to Seibu. Look for a bounce-back year from Sun-Yeop Lee. The departure of Koji Uehara creates an opportunity for someone like Kentaro Nishimura, Shun Tohno, or Takahiko Nomaguchi to step up.
Key Players: Nishimura, Tohno, Nomaguchi
3. Hiroshima Carp: The Carp took a big step forward last season despite the loss of ace Hiroki Kuroda to the Dodgers. The lineup is respectable 1-5 and they have three good starters in Colby Lewis, Kan Ohtake, and Kenta Maeda. Look for a breakout year from Maeda.
Key Player: K Maeda
4. Yakult Swallows: Yakult has a number of good arms in its bullpen, some young starters that could develop, and Japan’s top hitter in Norichika Aoki. The big concern with the Swallows is a lack of team power, so their ability to compete for a playoff spot will depend on whether or not some of the non-Aoki batters can hit for average.
Key Players: Jaime D’Antona, Yoshinori, Tatsunori Masubuchi
5. Chunichi Dragons: The Dragons finished third last year despite being outscored by 21 by opponents on the season. This year they’ve subtracted Kenshin Kawakami, Norihiro Nakamura, and Tyrone Woods and have replaced them with untested players. I expect a fall in the standings.
Key Players: Tony Blanco, Kei Nomoto, Kazuki Yoshimi
6. Yokohama BayStars: Yokohama had by far the worst pitching in the Central last season, and despite moving Hayato Terahara back into the rotation, retaining Daisuke Miura, and adding Ryan Glynn, I don’t think they have enough depth to get out of the cellar. I think they’ll be more competitive than last year though.
Key Players: Terahara
Any thoughts? Pacific League is coming up next.