State of the NPB League 2012

Features Sports - March 7th, 2012
Baseball

Feature: Nippon Professional Baseball

The saddest folks in Japan are the non-Japanese that have elected to become Yomiuri Giants fans. At the risk of brow-beating the choir, let us briefly review how backwards the pro league is here.

The Yomiuri Shimbun editor-in-chief and chairman, Tsuneo Watanabe, divides his time between meddling in politics and making sure that other NPB teams don’t get in the Giants’ way.

He has been called the George Steinbrenner of Japanese baseball, but that analogy doesn’t do Watanabe’s power justice. He’s more like the owners of the New York Yankees, Real Madrid FC, and Manchester United all wrapped in one.

He’s the Cartman of Japanese baseball, and accordingly he wastes no opportunity to air his myopic views and belittle those who disagree with him. An enjoyable metaphor, except that this is reality and not a cartoon.

Robert Whiting, venerated author of the irreplaceable “You Gotta Have Wa”, described Watanabe as “a blustering alpha male who did everything but urinate on the floor to make his mark.” He gets what he wants, and to hell with everyone else.

Tsuneo Watanabe

You’ve had a boss like this before. The future is bleak so long as he’s allowed to be a part of it.

But there’s a lot of ignorance out there, so you’re in good company if you choose to bypass reality and voice approval of the only team that has been televised regularly in Japan for the past fistful of decades.

The masses have been brainwashed, and Watanabe continues to operate as NPB’s shadow commissioner.

Not coincidentally, the home of the Yomiuri Giants, Tokyo Dome, is set to host some MLB-NPB games in March that culminate in the start of the MLB season for the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners.

It’ll be cold, so the only dome in Tokyo is a logical venue. But annoyingly, the two visiting MLB teams will take on the Central League’s Yomiuri and Hanshin as an opening act.

This happens every year, but why are two obscenely well-funded but consistently underachieving teams representing Japan?

Why not the Fukuoka Hawks and Chunichi Dragons, last year’s pennant winners? Tsuneo Watanabe, of course!

Well…partly anyway.

As much as many true baseball fans here in Japan hate to admit it, Watanabe (call him Nabetsune, he likes it) and Yomiuri are not solely to blame. The owners of other Central League teams are comparably stodgy and change-averse.

They may have little influence over the upcoming MLB visit to Japan, but moves to increase parity in NPB have been routinely stonewalled by a plurality of the companies that own CL teams, and initiatives to improve the league’s international competitiveness are an afterthought at best.

How little do the gatekeepers of NPB care about the future health of the league?

Exhibit A: there’s a four-person limit on non-Japanese additions to the active roster.

This is indicative of an unwillingness to embrace the international competition inherent in top-flight baseball despite the ongoing exodus of the league’s top talent.

Exhibit B: the majority of teams only have one minor league team, (if you can believe that!).

Parent companies clearly have no genuine interest in providing for the future of the team.

When you’re finished snickering, please continue reading.

Shoving against the grain, cash-strapped Hiroshima has an academy in the Dominican Republic. If NPB’s non-Japanese roster limit were lifted, Hiroshima would likely be immediate Central League favorites.

They’d have two extra power bats in the lineup and at least four more serviceable arms in the bullpen.

However, altering the non-Japanese player limit would not immediately benefit Yomiuri.

Concurrently, most parent companies are not prepared to shell out for a second farm team to accommodate increased competition, so we’re basically just talking crazy now.

But more competition is decidedly what Japanese baseball needs. Just look at all the talent that left town last off-season in search of it: Darvish is now in Arlington. Chen and Wada are in Baltimore. Iwakuma and Kawasaki are in Seattle, and Aoki is in Milwaukee. But NPB teams have been busy.

The following is a list of the more notable imports that should fill the gaps:

Brad Penny

Brad Penny (RHP – Fukuoka)

Desperate to recoup the 43 wins gutted through free agency, Fukuoka snagged 12-year MLB veteran pitcher, Brad Penny. He’s got the stuff to succeed, but does he have the motivation and patience?

Lastings Milledge

Lastings Milledge (OF – Tokyo)

Speed, defense, pop, and arm, the guy can do a bit of everything. Tokyo’s quest to make up for Aoki’s departure resulted in signing still-young former New York Mets golden boy, Milledge, in the hope that he can help terrorize Yomiuri’s newly-juiced pitching corps.

Wily Mo Peña

Wily Mo Peña (OF – Fukuoka)

Another nice snag by the defending champs, Peña can contribute and should have an immediate impact so long as he can adjust to the way that things are done here. Milledge’s teammate in Washington, Peña is another player with the potential to have a multi-year impact.

Other players to keep an eye on:

Toshiya Sugiuchi

Toshiya Sugiuchi (LHP – Yomiuri)

Yomiuri’s biggest off-season free agent acquisition is also half of the aforementioned raid of Fukuoka’s starting rotation. Sugiuchi has recorded at least 15 wins four times in his NPB career, and is coming off a season in which he went 8-7 but had an impressive 1.94 ERA over 171.1 innings of work.

He’ll compete with Tetsuya Utsumi for the title of ‘staff ace’ and should help the Giants reach the postseason with ease if he stays healthy.

Masahiro Tanaka

Masahiro Tanaka (RHP – Tohoku)

Now that the Pacific League has been gutted of most of its best starting pitching talent, Tanaka is the frontrunner to lead the league in several key pitching categories.

He won the Sawamura Award last season with Darvish, Iwakuma, Sugiuchi, and Wada keeping him on his toes, so the hard-throwing 24-year-old will have some unfamiliar breathing room and extra time to recover from a season in which he pitched a career high 226.1 innings.

Dae-ho Lee

Dae-ho Lee (INF – Orix)

Playing his first year in Japan, Orix is hoping that Lee is the missing offensive piece that will help the team make a deep run into the playoffs.

In 2010 he made headlines by homering in nine consecutive games for the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization.

He was named league MVP that year, and is coming off of a 2011 campaign in which he posted a slash line of .357/.433/.578 in 133 games. If he transitions smoothly and stays motivated, look for him to hit 20+ homers, OPS over eight hundred, and notch at least 80 RBI.


Weekender’s 2012 Predictions:

NPB

Central League:
Yomiuri Giants

Pacific League:
Orix Buffaloes

Japan Series Winner:
Yomiuri Giants

MLB

American League:
Texas Rangers

National League:
Philadelphia Phillies

World Series Winner:
Philadelphia Phillies

For more info on NPB visit: www.npb.or.jp/eng

Text by Christopher Pellegrini

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Publisher.