Rakuten’s Championship Roster
In 2004, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles didn’t exist. The Kintetsu Buffaloes did, and after years in the red, the Kintetsu corporation decided to divest itself of it’s baseball operation. When no buyer could be found, Kintetsu’s management opted to merge with the neighboring Orix Blue Wave franchise, resulting in the contraction of the Kintetsu organization. Both the Osaka-based Kintetsu and the Kobe-based Orix were minnows in terms of fan base compared to the region’s beloved Hanshin Tigers, so some market contraction actually made sense.
But no one liked the idea of league contraction. The Orix-Kintetsu merger would leave an 11-team NPB, and there were talks of contracting another team and doing away with the two-league format. Fans held protests, Livedoor.com founder Takafumi Horie stepped in with an offer to buy the Buffaloes, and late in the season the players union held the first, and so far, only, strike in its history, refusing to play weekend games. It worked, and the owners agreed to allow an expansion franchise. By this time, Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani had gotten involved, and a hearing was held to decide whether Livedoor or Rakuten would be awarded the new franchise. The hearing panel chose Rakuten, citing its more stable business and ownership of the Vissel Kobe J-League soccer team. The Orix-Kintetsu merger proceeded as planned, with the resulting team to be known as the Orix Buffaloes.
And so the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were born, to begin play in 2005, based in Sendai in Japan’s Tohoku region (northern Honshu). The team would play in Miyagi Stadium, the 1970′s home of the Lotte Orions (now the Chiba Lotte Marines).
Eight years later, in 2013, the Eagles won their first NPB championship. So how’d they get there?
Rakuten started out with a roster of zero, and there was to be a surplus of players from the Orix-Kintetsu merger, so NPB held a dispersal draft of sorts. All of the players from the previous Orix and Kintetsu teams were placed into a pool, then the new Orix team was allowed to select 25 players all at once, in the first “round”. Then Rakuten could choose 20 players from the remainder of the pool. The Orix could choose another 20, and so on until all the players were assigned to a new team.
While the initial draft process was stacked in favor of Orix, it did yield two players who played in game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series for Rakuten: outfielders Toshiya Nakashima (from Orix) and Akihisa Makita (from Kintetsu). More notably, Kintetsu ace Hisashi Iwakuma refused to play for the merged team, and demanded a trade to Rakuten. The Eagles started off as kind of a literal embodiment of the common sports radio topic “if you had one player to start a franchise with, who would it be?”
From there, Rakuten set about building their team the traditional way, mostly building through the draft. There are enough words in this already, so let’s fast forward to 2013 and look at where the Eagles’ primary contributors came from (2013 acquisitions bolded):
|C||Motohiro Shima||2006 draft, 3rd round|
|1B||Ginji||2005 draft (high school), 3rd round|
|2B||Kazuya Fujita||2012 mid-season trade from Baystars (Kensuke Uchimura)|
|3B||Casey McGehee*||2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent|
|SS||Kazuo Matsui||2010-2011 offseason MLB free agent|
|IF||Tatsuro Iwasaki||2012-2013 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)|
|OF/C||Takero Okajima||2011 draft, 4th round|
|OF/DH||Andruw Jones||2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent|
|OF||Ryo Hijirsawa||2007 draft, 4th round|
|OF||Shintaro Masuda||2005 draft (high school), 3rd round|
|OF||Teppei**||2005-2006 offseason trade with Dragons (cash)|
|SP||Masahiro Tanaka***||2006 draft (high school), 1st round|
|SP||Takahiro Norimoto||2012 draft, 2nd round|
|SP||Manabu Mima||2010 draft, 2nd round|
|SP||Brandon Duckworth||2012 midseason acquisition from Red Sox|
|SP||Kenji Tomura||2009 draft, 1st round|
|SP||Wataru Karashima||2008 draft, 6th round|
|SP||Satoshi Nagai||2006 draft, 1st round|
|RP||Koji Aoyama||2005 draft, 3rd round|
|RP||Darrell Rasner||2008-2009 offseason acquisition from Yankees (cash)|
|RP||Takashi Saito||2012-2013 offseason MLB free agent|
|RP||Kohei Hasebe||2007 draft, 1st round|
|RP||Kenny Ray||2013 midseason acquisition from Mexican League|
|RP||Norihito Kaneto||2012-2013 offseason trade from Yomiuri (cash)|
|RP||Hiroshi Katayama||2005 draft (high school), 1st round|
* Signed with the Marlins for 2014 ** Traded to Orix for 2014 *** Has been posted to MLB for 2014 but not yet signed with a new team
The first thing that jumps out is the obvious divide between position players and pitchers Rakuten’s drafts. Rakuten has never used a first round pick on a position player, and has never developed a home-grown offensive star. 65 of the Eagles’ 97 home runs were provided by MLB free agent signees McGehee, Jones, and Matsui. The home-grown players are on-base types, at best.
Rakuten’s pitching staff was primarily acquired through the draft as well, mostly with earlier round picks. The Eagles mostly hit singles and doubles with their picks, but connected for a home run with Norimoto, and launched an epic grand slam with Tanaka. Beyond those two picks, the pitchers in this list are a bunch of singles and doubles. Hasebe finally broke out a bit in 2013, but still only provided 34.1 innings of relief work, and that’s the first sign he’s shown of coming anywhere close to his 1st round billing.
So does Rakuten have another championship-caliber roster in 2014? Maybe. Signing Kevin Youklis to replace the departing McGehee was a gutsy move, but Youk’ll have to be healthy to fill Casey’s shoes. And key offensive cogs Jones and Matsui are another year older.
The bigger departure, obviously, is Tanaka. Filling his shoes is obviously going to be impossible, but the Eagles might be able to claw back some of his competitive value with improved depth. Rakuten’s three and four starters were pretty mediocre (Mima, 4.12 ERA in 98.1 IP; Duckworth, 4.31 in 87.2). Maybe Travis Blackley shows up and pitches 150 innings of 3.50 ball. Maybe Satoshi Nagai bounces back toward his 2010 form (182.2 IP, 3.74). Perhaps lefty Takahiro Shiomi, who missed all of 2013, recovers and provides 100 IP. Or maybe wakawashi like Yoshinao Kamata and Yudai Mori chip in some value.
Or, even if none of that happens in 2014, at least the Eagles get to play the season as defending NPB champions. In their 55 years of existence, the Kintetsu Buffaloes never did.