Sunday, January 08, 2006

That's What I'm Talking About! The Tokyo Swallows are Here!!

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Swallows, Buffaloes add muscle to lineups for 2006 season

By WAYNE GRACZYK

Happy New Year.
I am not quite ready to make the prediction that the Yakult Swallows and Orix Buffaloes will win their respective league pennants this coming season and face each other in the 2006 Japan Series come October.

However, both of these two clubs have made some interesting player acquisitions and appear to be doing their utmost to improve on their fourth-place standings in 2005.

Both teams have new field leadership, with the Swallows tapping catcher Atsuya Furuta, the 40-year-old veteran, as the first player-manager in Japan since 1977.

Furuta, the popular former players' association chief and the one most credited with saving Japanese baseball as it went into crisis in 2004, is expected to bring a new spirit and charisma to the franchise.

The Swallows have also hired infielder Greg LaRocca, let go by the Hiroshima Carp, and the Birds will apparently go with three foreign players in what has become a power-packed lineup.

LaRocca joins a pair of holdovers, left fielder Alex Ramirez and first baseman Adam Riggs and, together with Japanese third sacker Akinori Iwamura, the team has four guys with the potential to post 40-home run seasons.

Rami has already put up a 40-home run year in 2003 for Yakult, and LaRocca slammed 40 for the Carp in 2004.

Iwamura tied Roberto Petagine's team record and became the first Japanese player on the Swallows to pass the 40-homer barrier when he blasted 44 in 2004.

You can be sure Iwamura will be doing his best to impress, as the Yakult ownership has supposedly promised to post him for major league transfer following the season -- if the Swallows win the CL pennant. His double goal will be to take the flag and show MLB team scouts he is ready for North America.

Riggs had 14 round-trippers in 2005 but did not start playing as a regular until mid-summer. Projecting his long ball total over a full 146-game season, we can see Adam would have hit 27 homers for the year and is clearly capable of hitting a lot more if he plays every day.

Also, keep in mind that all four of these guys will be following leadoff man and center fielder Norichika Aoki, the 2005 Central League batting leader, Rookie of the Year and first CL player to mark 200 hits in a season.

Assuming they all stay healthy, I see a lot of RBIs coming from the middle of that lineup.

Yakult has a chance to get back left-handed starting pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii, recently let go by the New York Mets, and American Rick Guttormson won eight games in half a season in 2005. If he has a full year like that, he'll post 15-18 victories in 2006.

The Swallows are also incorporating the name "Tokyo" into the official club designation, and I think that will help present the image of Yakult being "Tokyo's team," especially after the Nippon Ham Fighters moved to Hokkaido, and the Yomiuri Giants dropped the "Tokyo" from their road uniforms.

Meanwhile, Katsuhiko Nakamura is now the Orix manager, but the team will play under the influence of the spirit of former skipper Akira Ogi, who died of cancer at age 70 on Dec. 15.

The Buffs have signed veteran sluggers Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Norihiro Nakamura to bolster that fence-busting lineup which also includes American holdover Cliff Brumbaugh (the former Korean baseball home run king) and newcomer Jason Grabowski.

Expect Karim Garcia to return to the Osaka-Kobe franchise, too. He led the Buffaloes with 21 home runs and a .307 average in 2005, despite playing in only 100 of 136 scheduled games.

The loss of 14-game winning pitcher Jeremy Powell to the Yomiuri Giants will hurt, but the Buffs got another U.S. right-hander in Tom Davey from Hiroshima.

T.D. was 6-6 with a 2.98 ERA for the last-place Carp in 2005 and should be at full strength after shoulder surgery in 2004.

They may also sign lefty Dan Serafini (11-4, 2.91 with Lotte last year).

It would be cool and smart if Orix were to bring back Tuffy Rhodes as well, and there are rumors about a Tuffy return to the Kansai.

Rhodes is close friends with both Nakamura, with whom he played eight years on the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and Kiyohara, his teammate in 2004 and 2005 with the Giants.

As one who has played 10 years in Japan, Rhodes would not be considered as a foreign player and could be in the lineup along with Brumbaugh, Grabowski and Garcia, even while Davey or Serafini is pitching, without compromising the four-foreign player limit.

Nakamura (32 years old and returning from a failed try at the majors with the Los Angeles Dodgers), Kiyohara (38) and Rhodes, if he were to come back, would all be out to show they are not washed up.

Tuffy had shoulder surgery in August and should be good to go when spring camps open next month.

Rhodes, at 37, is four months younger than Hanshin Tigers slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto who proved a player of their age still has the capability to enjoy a super season. Kanemoto slammed 40 homers, drove in 125 runs and batted .327 to earn CL MVP honors last year.

It remains to be seen how this will all pan out, but the Yakult and Orix clubs have already given their fans a lot about which to be excited when Opening Day rolls around at the end of March.

* * *

Finally this week, in a followup to my Christmas Day column, I am happy to say Santa came through, and I have a new digital camera to last me another 35 years, I hope. Domo arigato, Mr. Claus.

* * *

Contact Wayne Graczyk by e-mail at wayne@JapanBall.com

The Japan Times: Jan. 8, 2006
(C) All rights reserved

I love it when sports journalists agree with me! Mr. Graczyk is right. If we stay healthy, we should be OK. We've also got a strong group of young pitchers that really started to come around last season. I think that we should be seeing some more big things from Fuji, and this could be the summer that Igarashi finds his footing again.


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