The Tokyo Yakult Swallows not only made a surprise run to the Central League pennant last season, the team capped off the year by beating the Orix Buffaloes in a wildly entertaining Japan Series to become the first CL team since 2012 to take the crown.
Yakult’s long climb from last place to first might have been the easy part, as the club will now face the pressure of trying to defend the throne from five challengers with ambitions of grandeur.
The following is the first of a two-part NPB preview beginning with the 2022 Central League.
In order of predicted finish:
2021: 61-62-20 (3rd)
Yomiuri started well, fell apart late and withstood a late charge by the Hiroshima Carp to reach the Climax Series last season. This year, manager Tatsunori Hara is hoping for a smoother ride into the playoffs — and perhaps the pennant.
The Giants struggled to score at times and signed Gregory Polanco, who played in 107 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, to help in that area. Hara also has high hopes for Sho Nakata, who the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters couldn’t get rid of fast enough last season. Nakata, who says he’s back at his ideal playing weight, looked good during the spring and is only two years removed from a 31-home run, 108-RBI season.
If those are the side dishes, Kazuma Okamoto is the main course. Okamoto finished with 39 home runs and 113 RBIs to take two-thirds of the triple crown last year. The 25-year-old is a premier power hitter and has posted at least 30 homers and 90 RBIs the past four seasons. If Hayato Sakamoto and Yoshihiro Maru return to their normal levels, the Giants will finish higher than fourth in runs scored.
The optimistic view for the pitching staff is that ace Tomoyuki Sugano — 6-7 with a 3.19 ERA in 2021 — is back at his optimum health and effectiveness and that Shosei Togo, Shun Yamaguchi and Yuki Takahashi pitch better than they did last year. The Giants also have a couple of promising young arms to keep an eye on, including right-hander Kenshin Hotta.
Last season’s losing record probably did not go over well at Tokyo Dome. The Giants have the pieces to return to glory, the question is whether Hara can keep the engine running smoothly.
2021: 77-56-10 (2nd)
Tigers manager Akihiro Yano stunned NPB a day before spring camp by announcing this season would be his last in the dugout. He’ll need to get more production out of his lineup if he wants to go out on top.
The key to doing so may lie with 23-year-old sensation Teruaki Sato, who hit 20 home runs in the first half of his rookie season but could only manage four — while batting .158 — after the All-Star/Olympic break. Sato adjusted his batting form in the fall and the early returns were positive — he hit .327 with a pair of homers in the preseason.
Hanshin also needs Mel Rojas Jr. to reclaim the form that turned him into a star in South Korea before a disappointing NPB debut last year. Jefry Marte and Yusuke Oyama, who hit 22 and 21 homers, respectively, last season, are two more potential run-producing threats, while Koji Chikamoto is coming off a career year that saw him bat .313, hit 10 homers and finish with 24 stolen bases.
Hanshin’s starters had a league-best 3.04 ERA last season and should be good again with Koyo Aoyagi and Haruto Takahashi leading the way. Joe Gunkel and Takumi Akiyama are two more reliable arms and a bounceback season by Yuki Nishi — 6-9 with a 3.76 ERA last season — would be the icing on the cake. Shintaro Fujinami will start on opening day and is still the wildcard of the staff.
There is a large hole to fill in the bullpen with Robert Suarez, who led NPB with 42 saves, in MLB with the San Diego Padres. New import Kyle Keller will get the first crack at replacing him. The Tigers’ subpar fielding in recent years is another potential problem spot.
Hanshin will contend because of its pitching. If the Tigers’ hitters show up too, Yano may very well finish on top.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
2021: 73-52-18 (1st)
The Yakult batters got the headlines, but the pitching staff was the backbone of last season’s run to the CL pennant and Japan Series title.
The Birds’ pitching will also be key to the club’s title defense. Yasunobu Okugawa, Yakult’s prized top draft pick in 2019, delivered on his considerable hype when he was on the mound last year — he was 9-4 with a 3.26 ERA in 18 starts — but only threw 105 innings. Yakult did not have any qualified starters last season, and Yasuhiro “Ryan” Ogawa led the club with 128⅓ innings pitched. Okugawa, Ogawa and Keiji Takahashi, among others, give the Swallows quality arms, but they may need to shoulder a heavier workload.
The Yakult bullpen was second in the CL with a 3.25 ERA and Noboru Shimizu and Scott McGough are major weapons. But like the starters, Yakult’s bullpen depth may be tested more this season, as NPB returns to a maximum of 12 innings after limiting games to nine in 2021.
Expect the Swallows to score with a lineup featuring reigning MVP Munetaka Murakami, who hit 39 homers, drove in 112 runs and was second in Japan with an 7.4 WAR last year, and Tetsuto Yamada, a former MVP who has at least 30 home runs his last three seasons with at least 100 games played. That duo may power the engine, but the Swallows have firepower elsewhere and will be a constant threat to put crooked numbers on the scoreboard.
The last time the Yakult pitching staff followed two very bad years with an excellent one was when the team won the pennant in 2015. The pitching and the team both sank back down toward the bottom the very next year. The Birds’ pitchers caught fire again last season, after two poor seasons, and avoiding a repeat of history will be the key factor in repeating as champions.
2021: 54-73-16 (6th)
The BayStars finished last in Daisuke Miura’s first season in charge but have vowed to bounce back.
DeNA’s pitching staff, the worst in the league last year, may have been a particular sore spot for Miura, a former longtime pitcher for the franchise. Thing are already looking up in 2022, with lefty Katsuki Azuma slated to get the start on opening day.
Azuma was the CL’s top rookie in 2018, when he was 11-5 with a 2.45 ERA in 154 innings. He missed the majority of the next two seasons after Tommy John surgery, making seven starts in 2019 and three last year. Azuma is a big addition if he can pick up where he left off, and Miura could also get productive innings out of Fernando Romero, who finished 2021 with five wins in his last seven outings — six were quality starts. Shota Imanaga is a good pitcher and Shinichi Onuki could be in line for a rebound season.
The BayStars began 2021 without sluggers Tyler Austin and Neftali Soto due to travel issues last year and will start this year without them due to injuries. Austin has been great since landing in Yokohama in 2020, hitting .296 with 48 home runs, 130 RBIs and a .992 on-base plus slugging percentage in two seasons. Soto, meanwhile, has 130 home runs in four seasons.
That is a lot of firepower to lose, but Toshiro Miyazaki and Keita Sano are solid contributors at the plate. There will also be a big spotlight on Shugo Maki, who made a compelling case for CL Rookie of the Year with a .314 average, 22 homers and 71 RBIs while also performing well at second base. Maki’s 5.6 WAR last season was the fourth best in NPB.
The BayStars got off to a horrible start last season and will have to overcome another early period without Austin and Soto as they work to climb out of the cellar.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
2021: 63-68-12 (4th)
Seiya Suzuki was so electric down the stretch last year that he almost carried the Carp into the postseason himself.
Suzuki is with the Chicago Cubs now, and it will take more than one player to fill the hole he leaves behind.
With Suzuki in MLB, more pressure shifts to Shogo Sakakura to replicate or improve upon last season’s strong performance, when he hit .315 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs. Kaito Kozono and Ryoma Nishikawa can hit for average and get on base and another season with 16 homers from Ryosuke Kikuchi would also help Hiroshima’s cause.
Ryan McBroom, who spent most of 2021 in the Kansas City Royals system, hitting .261 with 32 home runs in Triple-A, is a candidate to take over the cleanup role and veteran Ryuhei Matsuyama could see his fair share of at-bats.
On the mound, Daichi Osera and Masato Morishita give the Carp a very good 1-2 punch. Aren Kuri, 13-9 with a 3.81 ERA in 2021, slots in nicely behind them and manager Shinji Sasaoka will need quality innings out of the back of the rotation. The bullpen needs improvement, but the team found a star last year with Ryoji Kuribayashi, who beat out Shugo Maki for Rookie of the Year honors.
Hiroshima has enough young players that if they all blossom together this season, the team could make some noise in the race for the Climax Series.
2021: 55-71-17 (5th)
Change is in the air in Nagoya, as the Dragons embark on their first season under “Mr. Dragons” Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, who succeeds Tsuyoshi Yoda. The Hall of Famer inherits a team with good pitching, but little offense.
Yudai Ono took an expected step back from his Sawamura Award season of 2020 and still posted a 2.95 ERA in 143⅓ innings and remains one of NPB’s best. Yuya Yanagi was even better last year at 2.20 over 172. It’s a bit of a mixed bag behind them, though Shinnosuke Ogasawara and Koji Fukutani are good pitchers. The Dragons also still play in Vantelin Dome Nagoya, a venue suited to pitching and defense.
The bullpen has taken a hit with the departure of Katsuki Matayoshi to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in free agency. The Dragons claimed reliever Sho Iwasaki as compensation and still has Daisuke Sobue to help get the ball to electric closer Raidel Martinez.
The pitchers might have to be lights out to support an offense that finished last in the CL in most categories.
Dayan Viciedo hit .275 with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs in 2021. Takuya Kinoshita was next best with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs. Chunichi has not really addressed its shortcomings at the plate and will have to hope some of the younger players, such as Akira Neo and maybe even Kenta Bright, the club’s top draft pick last fall, begin to develop quickly.
The Dragons should pitch and play good defense. Where the runs come from, however, may be a more pressing issue than the team can overcome.
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Source: The Japan Times