The pennant races are set to begin anew as NPB prepares to kick off another season. As Japan’s 12 clubs prepare to chase the pennant, here are six players from the Pacific League to keep an eye on.
Daiki Tajima (Orix Buffaloes)
Tajima did not garner as much attention as some of his teammates, but was pretty good in 2021. He threw a career-high 143⅓ innings, finished with a 3.58 ERA and struck out 135.
The lefty began to come into his own last season and even got a taste of pitching in the postseason. Tajima, 26, has an varied arsenal that can make him almost as much of a handful as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, though he lacks the overall quality of his teammate’s pitches.
While Tajima put up decent overall numbers, there is plenty of room to get better. He returns to the Orix rotation as a candidate to have a true breakout campaign.
Kazuya Ojima (Chiba Lotte Marines)
Roki Sasaki’s name will grace the headlines, but overlooking Ojima would be a mistake.
Ojima won 10 games last year and finished the season with a 3.76 ERA in 146 innings. It was good performance that showed a big year could be in the cards — a 4.08 fielding independent pitching shows he was at least a little fortunate. Ojima, though, made a nice jump in his third pro season and there is plenty to like about the 25-year-old.
If he can figure out what went wrong in home games — he had a 5.04 ERA at home versus 2.76 on the road — Ojima could easily take another big step forward in 2021.
Chris Gittens (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles)
Gittens was christened “Hard Hittin’ Chris Gittens” by one of his former coaches in the minors, according to Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, and the Eagles need him to live up to the moniker. Gittens didn’t play much for the New York Yankees last season, but hit .301 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in Triple-A in 2021. He’s a .265 hitter with 87 home runs in seven total seasons in the minors across all levels.
The Eagles needed a player to help Hideto Asamura and Hiroaki Shimauchi drive in runs, and Gittens was one of the players the club picked up. Gittens, despite some good years in the Yankees’ system, never got much more more than a cup of coffee with the MLB squad.
He should get the chance to contribute in Japan and make life easier on Masahiro Tanaka, another former Yankee, and the rest of the Eagles’ pitchers.
Richard Sunagawa (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks)
Sunagawa has set a high bar for himself, promising team chairman Sadaharu Oh 40 home runs. First, of course, Sunagawa has to win a regular job somewhere to get the at-bats needed.
The 22-year-old has talent and led the Western League with 12 home runs for the Hawks’ farm team. He also hit seven in 105 at-bats for the top team last year. Sunagawa will need to make a jump in terms of his hitting overall, because the Hawks are deep enough that he can get lost in the shuffle if he’s strictly a two-outcome player.
Sunagawa will get his chances, especially if Alfredo Despaigne continues to struggle to get on the field. Sunagawa is a player fans have had their eyes on for a couple of years and he may get a chance to show what he can do this season.
Chusei Mannami, (Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters)
Mannami was the only Fighters player to rival new manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo’s grip on everyone’s attention during spring camp and the preseason.
Mannami looked like a player ready to bust out during the spring, and “Big Boss” Shinjo will be hoping he carries that momentum into the regular season.
Mannami has power that belies his 192-cm, 96-kg frame, once hitting the scoreboard at Yokohama Stadium with a home run as a high schooler. Mannami has not gotten much of a chance on the top team since the Fighters selected him with their fourth pick in the 2018 draft.
While a strong showing in the spring is not necessarily the precursor of a strong season — and vice versa — Mannami is a player who could break out and take the No. 1 uniform away from Shinjo, who says he’s keeping it warm until another star player emerges.
Brian O’Grady (Seibu Lions)
O’Grady is a guy who can do it all and arrives at a time when the Lions could use someone with his talents.
O’Grady has a .284 average and 51 home runs in parts of three seasons at the Triple-A level during his career. He hit 28 home runs at that level in 2019 and 15 last year. The 29-year-old can play in the outfield and also at first base, which should give manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji more options in the event of an injury or some other roster shakeup.
There were rumors O’Grady was headed to Asia in 2021, before the San Diego Padres gave him a reason to stick around. The Philadelphia native made it to Japan this year and Lions fans will be eager to see him put his skills to good use.
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Source: The Japan Times