Coming: Wirfin Obispo, Yuki Saito, Micah Hoffpauir, Kenta Matsusaka, Tomohisa Nemoto
Going: Hichori Morimoto, Hideki Sunaga, Toshimasa Konta, Yoshinori Tateyama, Takayuki Takaguchi, Kazunori Yamamoto, Buddy Carlyle, Tomochika Tsuboi
Staying: Yu Darvish, Kazuhito Tadano, Kensuke Tanaka
Summary: Did anyone else hear that Yuki Saito is on his way to Hokkaido? Yes? Believe it or not, there was news concerning other members of the Nippon Ham Fighters this winter. While the Fighters welcomed two new foreign players this offseason, said goodbye to one, and saw a fan favorite slip away, the most anxiety surrounded the fate of their ace.
Despite some ominous sounding tweets from Yu Darvish saying that his “situation had changed,” it hadn’t from a baseball standpoint. The Fighters’ ace and most important player is staying in Sapporo for at least one more season. He reeled in a JPY 500m contract, NPB’s top salary, as we welcomed in 2011. Carrying the load behind him will be Bobby Keppel and Masaru Takeda, who make up the top of a stingy staff that was arguably the best in Japan in 2010.
The back of the rotation faces some uncertainty, though, as Hirotoshi Masui comes into spring camp proclaiming that he wants to be the #4 starter. Throw newcomer Wirfin Obispo and incumbent Tomoya Yagi into the mix along with perhaps Saito and some other worthy candidates, and you have a full-on battle. We’ll have to see how it shakes out.
One name who won’t be in the mix this year is Buddy Carlyle. The man who was once traded for Marc Kroon in America finds himself back in the States… along with Kroon, as fate would have it. Joining them on the other side of the ocean will be Yoshinori Tateyama, who skipped town as a free agent to join the Texas Rangers.
Lovable goofball Hichori Morimoto took his talents south to Yokohama. It’ll be strange for a while seeing him donning a blue and white uniform. Coming into the lineup to hopefully supply more pop will be self described “doubles hitter” Micah Hoffpauir. The left-handed veteran of the Chicago Cubs system will presumably play first base; he’ll try to match or surpass the 22 home runs he hit at AAA last year.
In my assessment, despite having a power starved lineup, their pitching should get them into the playoffs. They nearly made it wast year, being edged out by 1/2 game in a frantic scramble. They need Hoffpauir’s bat to be what they hope it is, and could really use a big contribution from Sho Nakata, in what could be a make-or-break year for him. Players like Atsunori Inaba, Makoto Kaneko and Tomohiro Nioka aren’t getting any younger, and 2011 may be their last chance (and Darvish’s) to bring Hokkaido another title. While I don’t see them finishing atop the Pacific League, I think a playoff spot is theirs to lose.