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Chiba Lotte Marines 2008 Preview

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Chiba Lotte Marines 2008 Preview
2007 for the Chiba Lotte Marines was anything but what was expected. A team that peaked in 2005 started showing it's age. Long time ace Naoyuki Shimizu struggled to provide quality starts for the entire season. Soichi Fujita was unusable even as a one point reliever after years of being solid in the Marines' bullpen. Julio Zuleta was signed to be the slugger Lotte desperately needed, but he ended up on the DL for most of the year. Kazuya Fukuura batted under .300 for the first time in six years.

Despite these key players not performing up to par in 2007, the fantastic scouting and player development the team had developed under Bobby Valentine lead to a group of fresh faces ready to pick up the ball. Yoshihisa Naruse had his way with batters all season long, giving his team a chance to win with every start. Daisuke Hayakawa fit in immediately after being traded from Orix and quickly became a fan favorite as a spark plug at the top of the order. Tadahiro Ogino and Yusuke Kawasaki came out of nowhere to become dominant relievers. Young fielders Naotaka Takehara, Shoitsu Ohmatsu, and Takeshi Aono took yet another step to becoming regular starters.

Rebuilding Relief

Perhaps the biggest change in 2008 will be the loss of YFK. Yasuhiko Yabuta and Masahide Kobayashi of course went to MLB and Fujita was released after his worst season ever. The success of Kawasaki and Ogino in 2007 makes the transition to a new bullpen a little easier to swallow, but the team is still missing a closer. Both pitchers showed top quality control last year, but they both have fastballs that linger in the high 80s. They aren't stereotypical closers and it's still not known whether either of them have the mentality to close games.

With Koji Takagi and Satoru Komiyama not getting any younger, there are definite questions about the Lotte bullpen. The front office wisely sought overseas help by signing Brian Sikorski, who began his NPB career with the Marines. Sikorski doesn't have good enough control to be a closer, but he can throw in the mid 90s and is a proven top reliever in NPB. He's also a work horse and doesn't need much time to recover between appearances. If he can pitch like he usually does, Chiba won't be missing Yabuta too much.

Rotation

Lotte will be pretty much sending out the same rotation they sent out in 2007, but with one big difference. Yoshihisa Naruse, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, and Shunsuke Watanabe are like King Ghiddra now and everybody knows it. They're a three-headed monster, and they actually stay healthy for the whole season. Shingo Ono is pretty much a guaranteed low 3 ERA. The big question marks are Naoyuki Shimizu and Yasutomo Kubo. If Shimizu can keep his ERA under 4 and put up his usual 10 wins, Lotte could easily make the playoffs. Kubo had a terrible 2006 and had a very average ERA of 4 in 2007. If he doesn't put up good numbers in 2008, he could see his spot in the rotation given to a young prospect waiting in the wings. Satoshi Tejima has been waiting down on the farm for a while, and there could always be an unexpected growth from Yuta Ohmine.

Marine Gun Dageki

With Tsuyoshi Nishioka solidifying himself as one of the best shortstops in Japan, it's pretty much a guarantee that he's going to be batting #1 at shortstop for the entire season. It'll be interesting to see whether he continues progressing as a contact batter or whether 2007 was just a fluke year for him. Hayakawa will probably be back at #2 if he can bat consistently. If he can't hit around .290 or so, I expect Bobby to switch things up a lot and perhaps experiment with Shunichi Nemoto there. Nemoto was my pick to be regular second baseman in 2007, but he just didn't impress Bobby enough. He won the batting title down on the farm in 2006 and hit .383 in 32 games in 2007. He's on the verge of having a break out season. The last player I saw who put up averages like him down on the farm was Norichika Aoki.

Middle of the order should have Fukuura holding down #3, hopefully healthy and hitting well over .300 like usual. Saburo is fun at #4, but I'd take 30-40 jacks from Julio Zuleta in that spot any day. Whether he stays healthy and hits well is the difference between this team coasting into the playoffs or fighting until the final game. Benny and Satozaki will most likely be switching between #5 and #6. I don't expect much from an aging Benny, and wouldn't be shocked to see Ohmatsu, Takehara, or Aono replace him. I think Ohmatsu and Takehara will be platooning if Benny can't hit. A dark horse for that third outfield spot is Katsuya Kakunaka, who hit .335 down on the farm in 79 games.

Rounding out the bottom of the order will probably be Bobby's personal choices depending on the starting pitcher and Toshiaki Imae at third base. Imae was brilliant in 2005, but his bat has been pretty lousy since his great Nihon Series performance. His power seems to top out at 10 homers and he's looking more like a .250 batter instead of a .300 guy. Lotte doesn't have anyone waiting to take his place, so a lot is riding on Imae being able to put up decent numbers. His defense and arm are very good, so I'm guessing Bobby is going with the mentality of good batting results being a bonus. It'd be nice to see him hit either .300 or 15 homers, though. He has one of the best attitudes in the game and will probably find his swing again.

Prospects

Ranked by many fans as having the best draft in 2007, Chiba Lotte has been drafting very well since Bobby Valentine came back to the team. During the high school draft, as all the other teams went after Yoshinori Satoh and Sho Nakata, Lotte went the safe route and drafted Yuki Karakawa. Karakawa has a pitching form very similar to Daisuke Matsuzaka. He tops out in the low 90s and doesn't walk batters. His career numbers could end up blowing away Satoh's, in my opinion.

Other interesting draft picks in 2007 included Yasutaka Hattori, a lefty industrial league ace who relies on his breaking balls to make his 85 MPH fastball look a lot faster than it is. He was well known for his stability, as he started, occasionally worked relief, and never gave up more than 3 runs per start.

Yuuta Shimoshikiryo brings a very long name and another very low release point submarine delivery to the team. He is a long shot prospect that the Marines picked in the 5th round, but it'll be interesting to see if he can learn anything from Shunsuke Watanabe. Watanabe was also a long shot prospect when he was drafted in the 4th round in 2000.

Last year saw the Marines score with Yuta Ohmine, who was arguably the #2 high school prospect available after Masahiro Tanaka. Ohmine has to develop control and breaking pitches more to accompany his very good heater, but most people believe he'll be an ace eventually. Last year's grumpy kid who didn't want to sign with Lotte turned into a smiling, patient, and mature young man. He's still probably a few years away from being usable at the top level, as he also needs to get some meat on his bones to gain some velocity.

As good as the pitchers are, the Marines also have a lot of quality prospects in the field. I already mentioned some above, but I also like Takumi Kohbe a lot. He's a 191 cm 98 kg outfielder that the Marines signed in 2006 as a long term project. They like his athleticism, as he moves well for a big guy. He also has raw power, as it's been rumored he's hit a ball over 150 meters before. He just lacks consistent power. He played in 87 games last year down on the farm and hit .290 with only 4 homers. His Ks were also very high, so he still has a way to go.

Keisuke Hayasaka also looks like he could win that second base spot. He hit .332 in 72 games on the farm team and stole 22 bases. He walked 26 times and struck out 26 times, so he also has solid plate discipline.

Finally, in case Kazuya Fukuura is on the decline, there's Kei Hosoya. He'll be 20 next year and was called Gunma's Godzilla in high school when he hit 46 career homers. He hit 9 homers in 78 games down on the farm with a .270 average. He's still at least a couple years away.

Prediction

I expect Chiba Lotte to make the playoffs and put up more of a fight than they did in 2007. They're a rebuilding team in a lot of ways, but still very competitive. I think even more young players will step up and make the team very exciting to watch for any baseball fan. I'm looking forward to seeing the development of the younger players more than anything, though. The scouts should be commended for insuring the future of the franchise for years to come, so that 2005 won't be the one and only year of Bobby Magic.
Comments
Re: Chiba Lotte Marines 2008 Preview
[ Author: Christopher | Posted: Jan 14, 2008 7:41 PM | HAN Fan ]

Many thanks for that. A very nice and interesting piece. It does look like the Marines' rebuilding is going well.
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