Offseason pickups have turned the always-high expectations for the Yomiuri Giants into a Japan Series-or-bust year.
And the Giants are ready to strap that burden onto the capable shoulders of their new-look rotation and deliver as the clear favorites of the Nippon Professional Baseball season, which opens for both the Central and Pacific Leagues tonight.
Both Toshiya Sugiuchi, a two-time Pacific League MVP, wins leader and strikeout king, and D.J. Houlton, who shared the PL lead in victories last year, cut ties with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to join the Giants.
The rotation also features No. 1 man Tetsuya Utsumi, who shared the CL lead in wins and starts tonight against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and 2011 Rookie of the Year Hirokazu Sawamura. Just mentioning the rotation brings a hard-to-wipe-away smile to face of pitching coach Masaki Saito.
"There's a lot to be pleased about," Saito said recently about the Giants, who were third in the CL last year.
He said the front of the rotation is solid, and they'll figure out the back end as the season goes along.
"If you look at the numbers they've all put up in the past, the guys one through four--just as the manager has said--there's no question who those guys are going to be. The other spots we'll decide as we progress. "
Saito said he had no wild fantasies about 20 wins from each of the top four starters.
"If those guys could all win about 15 games each for us, that would be ideal," he said. "But we'll just ask them to go out and keep us in games--try not to give up the first runs of each game and I think that will give us a chance to win a lot of the time.
"The most basic part baseball is how well the pitchers control the opponent. When you pitch well, it's the main reason you win games."
Veteran catcher Shinnosuke Abe, while also thrilled about the chance to handle four proven winners in the rotation, said he has more to do than just call pitches and set good targets.
"We have some great pieces, but we have to figure out the best way to use them," said Abe, who turned 33 on March 20.
"We have to help them win games so that they feel like a four-pronged attack, and it's my job to get them there," said Abe, who added that won 't just be calling games and patting them on the back after a job well done.
"It'll be my job to also take care of them on the mental side. The guys in the rotation have the ability and have performed at a high level it's up to me to support them," said Abe, who has no trouble tackling pressure situations.
"I need to have that pressure on me so I work hard," he quipped.
But opponents will also feel some pressure when they face the Giants.
Houlton expects teams to put pressure on themselves when facing the front end of the Giants' rotation.
"I just noticed the last few years, like when [former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu] Darvish would face the Hawks, or [Tohoku Rakuten ace Masahiro] Tanaka of the Eagles, the guys would kind of tense up--not give up, but change their ways a little bit when they face those guys," Houlton said. "Hopefully that will work to our advantage this year."
Former Giants slugger Alex Ramirez, who took his talents to Yokohama as a free agent over the winter, said his old team's starters are intimidating--on paper.
"These guys are all pretty good pitchers now," he said of Yomiuri's new-look rotation. "By the numbers, the Giants should not have any problem winning this year.
"It depends on how they approach the game--but I think [the rotation] is the best. But you never know what's going to happen."
The Giants had the CL's second-best ERA last season and can always turn to Dicky Gonzalez, who was 15-2 for them in 2009, as well as Shun Tono. They might also give second-year right-hander Ryosuke Miyaguni a look after his strong spring (3.97 ERA in 11-1/3 exhibition innings).
Newcomer Scott Matheson has performed well and is expected to get opportunities early in the season.
Although the rotation is a source of pride, Saito admitted the bullpen is a concern. Five relievers combined for 37 saves last season, with Yuya Kubo getting 20 of them. He has been injured and didn't make his first spring appearance until last week, and there's pressure for him to return quickly.
"We don't have a closer right now," Saito said bluntly. "We're not sure how it's going to go, and that's the area we're most worried about.
"If we don't know who the closer is, the other guys have trouble understanding what their roles are, so the best situation would be for Kubo to get back as quickly as possible."
Another area that slowed Yomiuri last season was run production. The Giants led the league in longballs (108), yet finished third in the CL in runs (471).
The club picked up two-time CL home run leader Shuichi Murata, a 31-year-old free agent from whom the team expects to make up for the loss of Ramirez.
First-year import John Bowker has shown a lot of promise and if the top of the lineup can set the table, the Giants figure to win their first league title since 2009.