Thursday, February 8, 2018

Spring Training notes: Daisuke Matsuzaka signs on, Spring Training members, Tidbits

Matsuzaka-gyu hits shelves

On the 23rd of January, former major league, koshien hero and all round good guy Daisuke Matsuzaka passed his "test" with the Dragons signing a one year deal at ¥15,000,000 ($135k USD). From all reports the test was all but a formality in the lead-up with Mori apparently already indicating he was planning on taking Matsuzaka to spring training, but it has all be made official as Dice-K showed enough in a closed bullpen session at Nagoya dome to give the Dragons some hope that he's not completely cooked.

Matsuzaka apparently passed the test after only 5 minutes after throwing only 22 pitches. For all the attention the test gathered, including over 60 members of the media hanging outside Nagoya dome, it was over very concisely and a contract was drawn up and signed only hours after. Given how quickly everything went down, it's fairly obvious that both sides had already had a basic agreement in place before the test which makes the media circus surrounding the test all the more silly.

The Heisei Monster joined the first team at Chatan, Okinawa for Spring training and will be aiming for a spot in the starting rotation. Given the need for righties, he may have a chance but to my mind there's really only one spot available to fight for and as much as Kazuki Yoshimi has regressed, I feel he's probably still a better option to start with at least.

The Dragons become Matsuzaka's first central league team after stints with the Seibu Lions and the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. He also becomes one of probably a very select few to play in all 4 major leagues in the MLB and NPB. (Boston - AL, Mets - NL, Hawks, Lions - PL, Dragons - CL)

There are some doubts as to how merit based this contract is apart from generating interest in the club with thoughts that Matsuzaka's relationship with Shigekazu Mori, who was the Seibu 2-gun coach when the 37 year old was a rookie, and Yui Tomori, whom he played alongside played a role in taking him to Nagoya in the first place. Mori strikes me as a guy who exploits his networks and connections so I don't see this as a suprise.

In terms of tempering excitement, well, there's plenty of that. There's really nothing to be excited about with this signing unless you're a diehard Matsuzaka fan of which there are plenty. I'm not sold on this being anymore than a headline generator. There is however slight hope that Matsuzaka's signing could help the team link up with the pitcher's former Samurai Japan team-mate, Ichiro. Who knows what's going to happen at this point.

In terms of team reactions, the resident clown, Yudai Ono has already started teasing him by calling him by his first name, Daisuke which if you understand Japanese baseball culture is a bit of faux pas for a junior player to do to one of such seniority and standing, but by all accounts Matsuzaka seems to have taken it in his stride. Early picture out of camp have the aging star seemingly settling in well with a big grin on his face. Questions remain over his fitness given his somewhat bulky appearance but given the archaic training methods that are often employed, we might see him shed a few kilos before the start of season.

He is however looking good so far with an improved pitching motion on last year so far in his showing during individual training sessions in Okinawa


On the first day of camp, Matsuzaka's merchandise flew out the window with the store manager remarking he'd never seen such fervor before. All Matsuzaka face towels sold out while a third of replica uniforms joined cash handed fans.

Shigeru Sugishita, the 92 year old,  3-time Sawamura Award winning pitcher was on hand as a guest coach dealing out advice and he was on hand to comment on Matsuzaka's path to redemption. 3 golden pieces of advice, open to interpretation, were given. 1. Don't become small, throw big. 2. Make strong legs your foundation. 3. Don't push yourself. If you're feeling right, throw.

Spring training member-list

The Dragons enter spring training proper next week and we now know who is going where, so here is the list of players starting in 1-gun and 2-gun. This isn't really a reflection of what the starting day roster will look like as often aging or recovering players will start with the second team and younger players may start with the top team to be given the run over by the bosses.

1-Gun

PitchersCatchersInfieldersOutfielders
11 Shinnosuke Ogasawara27 Shota Ohno3 Shuhei Takahashi1 Shota Tomonaga
12 Shinji Tajima35 Takuya Kinoshita5 Toshiki Abe8 Yohei Ohshima
13 Hitoki Iwase38 Masato Matsui9 Shun Ishikawa23 Issei Endō
14 Keisuke Tanimoto52 Takuma Kato36 Ryota Ishioka26 Masataka Iryo
16 Katsuki Matayoshi51 Yota Kyoda42 Zoilo Almonte
17 Yuya Yanagi53 Kyohei Kamezawa44 Steven Moya
18 Shota Suzuki55 Nobumasa Fukuda56 Yusuke Matsui
19 Kazuki Yoshimi63 Naomichi Donoue
22 Yudai Ohno66 Dayán Viciedo
24 Koji Fukutani
28 Taisuke Maruyama
29 Daisuke Yamai
43 Takuya Mitsuma
46 Hiroshi Suzuki
47 Shotaro Kasahara
60 Dillon Gee
64 Ryosuke Oguma
65 Junki Ito
70 Onelki García
99 Daisuke Matsuzaka

2-Gun

PitchersCatchersInfieldersOutfielders
21 Toshiya Okada39 Shingo Takeyama0 Wataru Takamatsu4 Atsushi Fujii
25 Yu Sato45 Shota Sugiyama2 Masahiro Araki6 Ryosuke Hirata
30 Takuma Achira68 Iori Katsura31 Kei Nomoto49 Kosuke Itō
33 Daisuke Sobue32 Masami Ishigaki62 Takahito Kudo
40 Shō Ishikawa37 Taiki Mitsumata67 Hiroki Kondoh
41 Takuya Asao48 Hayato Mizowaki
50 Tatsuya Shimizu59 Tetsuya Tani
54 Kento Fujishima
57 Ryuya Ogawa
59 Takumi Yamamoto
61 Shunta Wakamatsu

As you can probably already tell, the 2-gun team starts of pretty small but there'll be a lot of chopping and changing as Spring training progresses. The only 2017 draftee to make the 1-gun team from the start is Hiroshi Suzuki which is no real surprise while all the foreign legion start from the top as well. Also, something a little different this year, but all international signings have been asked to report from the beginning of Spring training whereas in previous years this was not the case.

I haven't listed development players as they usually start with the 2-gun team, but interestingly enough, Yusuke Kinoshita will be starting with the first-team. Maybe this is an avenue for promotion to the roster?

For the international signings, first impressions are everything and Zoilo Almonte started strong on the first day striking 13 homers left handed and a further 4 right handed. Almonte felt himself that he was very comfortable batting left but overall felt fairly comfortable.

Dillon Gee met with some Dragons luminaries, as he introduced himself to former slugger turned pundit, Takeshi Yamasaki. As the rest of team lined up to greet the former Chunichi position player, Gee followed suit with a "hajimemashite."  This has impressed the Japanese media who immediately praised his handle on the Japanese language but Gee, professionally, dismissed the praise as "something the staff taught me." Regardless, this is a good first impression on the team from the Texan.

So far, we don't know much about what's going to happen to the shape of the team moving toward opening day, but we'll see how things pan out. The team is showing some training sessions on their official Facebook page, so keep an eye out there if you want to catch some sessions.


In Other News

One of my favourite Dragons fans, a man that wears a Jack Elliot uniform to 2-gun games, appeared on the weekly program 燃えドラ (Moedora - short for 燃えよドラゴンズ! which is the team's song). He gave a crash course in the finer points of player analysis including bat speed, spin rate, strike-out percentage and a lot of other data that isn't traditionally used inside the Dragons. You can have a look at the video here.

Interesting takeaways here are that Steven Moya had the 2nd highest bat speed in the MLB after Aaron Judge. Hiroki Kondo generates significant backspin with his hits, Zoilo Almonte projects to be similar in ability to Ricardo Nanita and Yusuke Kinoshita has the highest spin rate out of any Chunichi pitcher. His co-guest, Yukio Fujinami, a former Dragon, seemed gushing with praise and who knows, we might see more of "Jack" in and around the Dragons over the next few years.

Otherwise, new uniforms were also released for the 2018 season. As previously announced the change from Asics to Mizuno did not affect the immediate design however one of the alternative uniforms for summer is a new one. It looks uh, interesting. The uniform with the red trim that Hiroshi Suzuki is wearing is a continuation of the fan club uniforms from the last two years.

Otherwise, in terms of whoever Spring training so far and top pick rookie watch, Hiroshi Suzuki has reached 148km/h in bullpen sessions so far which is about 8km/h of his recorded top speed. He has also set his sights on being like former starter cum closer, Genji Kaku who is one of only a handful of players with 100 wins and 100 saves. Mori has been impressed with what he's seen of Suzuki so far calling his pitches in bullpen sessions "fantastic." Not bad praise coming from a former fireman closer.

Otherwise, in batting practice last week Fukuda continues to impress in batting as he hit 14 in 40 swings with Shinnosuke Ogasawara pitching, while Steven Moya hit 11 bombs in 49 swings on Sunday.

Toshiya Okada, who was injured for much of last season, is on his way back. In Yuntan with the 2-gun team, Okada was seen doing catch-ball with Takuma Achira and later threw a practice session to Hiroki Kondo indoors. Okada returning to the bullpen in full swing would be a massive boon to what is already looking like an improved bullpen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Off-Season News: Gee whiz, Hoshino departure, Compensation drama

Time for a news update. I am working on a couple of posts that are a little bit more involved but as there have been some updates that I've fallen behind on, I thought I'd bring in some of the more important news as well as a few other not so important news items.

King Gee
First of all, the Dragons have captured former MLB regular, Dillon Gee who is expected to join the starting rotation nice and early. Gee enjoyed much of his success in the majors with the New York Mets even turning out as starting day pitcher for the team. He was a solid contributor for the Royals in 2016 but failed to make an impression with the Rangers in early 2017. The Minnesota Twins picked up Gee mid-season on a minor-league contract where Gee was very effective in a swing-man role posting very good number as mostly a long-relief pitcher. The capture of Gee addresses and important facet of the Dragons rotation which has been lacking more quality right-handed pitchers. Yuya Yanagi, Shota Suzuki and Kazuki Yoshimi were the main 3 in-house options but given reservations over all three, it's no surprise that Gee was jumped on.

Gee has signed on a one-year deal at roughly $1,000,000 USD. There's every possibility that Gee could have played in the majors this year but was likely not offered more than a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Given that the Dragons could offer guaranteed cash, this was probably the biggest appealing point in bringing him to Nagoya.

Gee's signing was announced at a "new year" address by the club in early January where the club also confirmed that they had done significant due process in signing the American born righty with some information let slip on contracts offered in the past based on little more than video evidence.

Where he will fit in is fairly obvious. I'm sure management see him as someone that will slot straight into the starting day rotation. My guess would be that we'll see Gee on the second day of the season. I'm quietly confident that Shinnosuke Ogasawara will be our starting day pitcher this year.

In terms of expectations, I feel Gee will have a significant impact on the team and marks a big upgrade on the likes of Raul Valdes and Jordan Norberto. This is the first signing in a long-time where I've thought "wow." Expect Gee to deal.

In terms of 2017 peripheral data, Gee was saved a lot by an exceptional Twins defense. While his ERA was only 3.47 this year, xFIP bumps him up to 4.78. His BABIP was a little above league average so we can see that in the MLB he was pitching at about his ability. A 13.6% HR/FB percentage is a little bit concerning but like Onelki Garcia, this will likely be helped by the larger distance to the centre-field fence and the massive walls that help protect the stadium. How all this would translate to the NPB is yet to be seen, but there's plenty to like about this signing.

Gee becomes the first American born player to play for the Dragons since Matt Clark in 2013.

Total Drama Dragons
In case you missed it, the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Dragons finally settled on a compensation pick for FA mover Shota Ono. The infamous Mr "cash considerations." There was a significant delay in coming to this conclusion as the Fighters dragged their heels significantly on deciding on a deal due to the compelling players on the unprotected list.
Cash considerations gives it's debut speech in Sapporo.

The drama however is that one of those unprotected players was legendary closer Hitoki Iwase who was apparently picked by the Fighters as their compensation pick before the veteran southpaw reportedly refused the move and threatened to retire on the spot if picked. Needless to say, it is said that the Fighters withdrew their claim and cash was sent Hokkaido way instead. Now in the MLB, leaving a veteran in the wind wouldn't really cause many headaches and I severely doubt any sane club would try to pick one of them up over any kind of youngster with upside, but that's apparently what happened, and OH the STINK this has kicked up.
Something smells funny.

I personally think this was a very shrewd move from the Dragons and my personal choice was to leave the veterans unprotected in lieu of protecting younger players with potential upside. But, to many fans and an unnamed source in the dressing room have dialed this up to a sign of disrespect to the aging Iwase for all his years of service not to mention a man that's meant to be coaching this year. It's easy to understand that side of the argument as well, but from a pragmatic point of view I think the Dragons have done a very good job. That's an unpopular opinion in Dragons fan circles, but hey, the result is we kept all of our players.

Dice-K schedule for crapshoot
Daisuke Matsuzaka will undergo his test to for joining the Dragons on the 23rd of January. The result of which will decide whether or no the Dragons will bother to give the aging ace a go but apparently Matszaka is well and truly up to it and looking forward to showing off his wares. I'm less optimistic.


We all cheer for a trio of Suzukis

To add to the roster of Shota and Hiroshi Suzuki, news has picked up that the Dragons are doing due process on bringing Ichiro Suzuki to his hometown club if the aging legend can't find a team in the MLB. The Orix Buffaloes are the next most likely team to pick up Ichiro with "money" being third. Dragons officials ruled themselves out of the Ichiro race some months ago but apparently something has changed and they're back in pursuit. Ichiro would be a massive overspend and would rule the signing of Moya or Almonte null and would also make it difficult for Hiroki Kondo, Masataka Iryo and a host of others knocking on the door to make it in the 1-gun outfield.
Ichiro good in blue?
For a team flailing in the popularity rankings, bringing home the Aichi-born slap-hitter would be a massive boon to attendances. Not only would fans flock from around the Tokai area but from much further afield as this man is a living legend. Whether Ichiro would be up to coming back to Japanese baseball is yet to be seen. One could imagine that he wouldn't take well to the reverse culture shock and being suddenly thrown into a role as a mentor for the rest of the team.

Vale, Senichi Hoshino
In more somber news, former Dragons skipper and pitching ace, Senichi Hoshino passed away on the 4th of January due to an ongoing battle with pancreatic cancer.

As a player Hoshino joined the Dragons from Meiji University in 1968 and won the Sawamura Award in 1974, helping the Dragons win their first pennant since 1954 under hall of famer Wally Yonamine. Hoshino played a swing-role through much of his career even becoming the first player to capture saves leader with it's introduction in 1974. He would go on to win one more pennant in his final year as a player under Sadao Kondo but the then 35 year old played a peripheral role in the capture of the flag.
Hoshino pitches in his Sawamura Award winning season.

Known as the "Giants Killer," Hoshino was known for his hot temper and his ability to up his game against the Giants and this passion continued as he entered a managerial role in 1987 with his former team. In the second year of his tenure, Hoshino claimed another pennant for his team in 1988 and once again in a second stint with the club in 1997. Over his managerial career Hoshino spent more than 11 years with the Dragons and including his playing time, spent a total of 25 years with the team through thick and thin.

Hoshino would not stop and spreading his legacy in Nagoya however as again in his second year as manager, this time with the Hanshin Tigers, the wily manager brought home their first pennant in 18 years, breaking the curse of Colonel Sanders, is 2003. Hoshino would leave the Tigers in 2004 with one major trophy still alluding him, the Japan Series. As a player and manager Hoshino had reached the post-season on 5 separate occasions but was on the losing side in each situation.

Hoshino then had a break from club coaching as he took the national team to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 where the team finished 4th overall. Hoshino was supposedly meant to the WBC manager in 2009 but was ultimately overlooked for the final role.

In 2011 he was offered the manager position at the 6-year old expansion team the Rakuten Eagles and under Hoshino's tutelage, the team swept through the Pacific League in his 3rd season claiming the pennant. In the Japan series Hoshino leaned on his ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka to get them through key moments in the series and it was a Game 7 save from Tanaka that allowed the team to capture their and Hoshino's first ever Japan Series win.

Hoshino would step down following the the unsuccessful 2014 campaign and found himself elevated to Vice Chairman of the team where he continued to have significant influence.

Even throughout Hoshino's career with Hanshin and Rakuten, his heart seemingly remained with Nagoya. Hoshino regularly appeared on radio and television to talk about the Dragons and always had stern and frank advice for the team. After his admission to the hall of fame in 2017, Hoshino made a speech to fans, players and staff about creating a team that someone wants to come and see and minced few words.

Few people in baseball have such a profound impact, but Senichi Hoshino was one of those people. His memory will live on in the hearts and minds of all Japanese baseball lovers for eternity.

Former Dragons catcher at Hoshino protege Takeshi Nakamura possibly said some of the best words in the aftermath of Hoshino's passing.

"I still can't believe it. That Hoshino had passed. My memories are of him being angry with me. He was always angry. There was no other man as scary as him but I have nothing but feelings of gratefulness toward him."

He has left a big hole in this blogger's heart even though he wasn't alive or aware of his accomplishments for much of his career but looking into what he has done there's fair few words to describe the loss.

Vale, Senichi Hoshino.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Official Signings & Daisuke Matsuzaka Pursuit News


Matsuzaka beef stocks rising

Since my last post there has been a little bit of movement on the Daisuke Matsuzaka saga. While team owner Bungo Shirai essentially called the former flamethrower useless, the following day he made a 180 degree turn and okayed the pursuit of the aging righty.

The latest news is that the Dragons have offered Matsuzaka an opportunity to

show off his wares in a "test" taking place in late January 2018. Dragons reps will be watching over Dice-K's progress in the meantime checking in on training sessions but the ultimate decision will likely be made after the one day trial at Nagoya dome. There's already a bit of fluff surrounding this as Matsuzaka will be taking his Yokohama High School catcher and former Chunichi Dragons player and staff member, Yoshio Koyama to catch for him during the trial.

The Dragons have more or less said that if he can still throw and has reasonable contract conditions, the team will have a serious look at him. This does seems to be a bit of a media masquerade but the Dragons haven't really been in the limelight for some time and it makes sense to make a move like this. Popularity is in a bit of a lull thanks to sub-par results and the Matsuzaka side-show might grab a few more headlines to keep the team relevant.

The team will make it's decision before Spring camp. We'll then see what we can expect after that.

Dragons add more Latin flavour

The team has otherwise made the signings of Zoilo Almonte, Steven Moya and Onelki Garcia official. All three players will be signing incentive laden, one-year, 50M yen (approx $500k) deals. This is, well, to say the least incredibly cheap. Alex Guerrero's one-year deal added up to about the sum that all three are getting. Whether this is an indication of their quality or not is something I'm not sure of but the signings of these players represent a low-risk high reward scenario for the Dragons. Whether Mori and the scouting department have really done a deal here, I don't know, but only time will tell. Personally I think Almonte is going to be a very good capture while I think that Garcia will be useful. Moya seems like a guy that will strikeout a lot, but if he can get some semblance of plate discipline together he could be a contributor. Numbers have also been decided. Almonte will wear Guerrero's 42 while Moya will wear Raul Valdes' 44. Garcia will wear the 70 which was vacated by Tetsuya Tani who took on the 58.

On joining the Dragons the 3 new captures had this to say:

Zoilo Almonte - 42

Zoilo Almonte
"I am extremely happy to be able to play for the Dragons in 2018. I am currently
playing in the Dominican Winter League. I would like to get ready for the season and help the Dragons reach the playoffs and contribute 100% of my power to helping the team win.
I'm also planning to grow my trademark beard before coming to Japan. I look forward to your support!"





Steven Moya - 44

Steven Moya
"I am very happy to be able to join Japan's Chunichi Dragons for the 2018 season.
I hope to proactively learn about Japan's language and culture and learn how to adapt to Japanese baseball as soon as possible. I would like to try my very best for my family and my incoming children to contribute to a Dragons victory"






Onelki Garcia - 70



Onelki Garcia
"I am very happy to say that I have signed a contract with the Chunichi Dragons for 2018. My motto is to throw with my heart and I will try my best to contribute to a team victory."








All three players are hoped to be available from the start of spring training unlike foreign captures in previous years who have been allowed to arrive a bit later than the Japanese players.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

News and Rumours: Onelki Garcia incoming, the Heisei Monster to tear down Spring training?

A couple of interesting point to bring to you this off-season as the Dragons look to the strengthen, reboot and make themselves relevant.

One of the interesting pieces of news to come in is that the team will not only be installing Trackman, but are currently looking to establish a department devoted to analysing the data. This is quite a big step for a team that is on the conservative side of things. Even considering the Central League, which is generally filled with the more conservative old boys of Japanese baseball, the Dragons are a bit old school so this is a surprising move toward modern baseball thinking. The team is looking to get experts to give lectures on analysing Trackman data as well as getting club scorers and staff in on the ground level to ensure the team isn't left behind by the rest of the league.

In roster news, as mentioned in the previous post, the Dragons were after 2 foreign pitchers at the winter meetings. It appears as though one of those targets has been revealed as sources close to the Kansas City Royals have confirmed that Cuban southpaw Onelki Garcia is on his way to the Dragons.
This is certainly a relief signing but it also spells a bit of concern to me. Looking over Garcia's minor league numbers there's nothing to be overly impressed about. He has a high ERA, a high WHIP, bad FIP and so-so SO/9 numbers. The only thing that sticks out is his one season in Chicago with the White Sox where  he had a 12.23 SO/9 in 17.2 AA innings along with a 11.27 SO/9 in 38.1 innings in AAA. With the Omaha Storm Chasers (AAA) in 2017, Garcia started half of his 20 games with a pretty bad 4.88 xFIP. His BABIP was an insanely high .435 which indicates he was a bit unlucky while Fangraphs predicts that should get down to around .297 in 2018 which is just about right. A 7.4% FB/HR rating should play well in Nagoya with even bigger fields so there might be some upside to this signing.
Garcia started his MLB career with the LA Dodgers.

Garcia throws a 93 mph four seam pitch and generates a generous amount of spin with MLB clocking his average at 2,101rpm which should put him in good company in the NPB. I was pretty skeptical of this signing on first glance, but a look at Garcia's peripherals and what he can otherwise offer, I'm keen to see what he can do for the Dragons.


It will be interesting to see if Garcia will be expected to start, but it seems perhaps unwise to stretch him out too much. We might see him be a bullpen guy that will get spot starts. He's a lefty and with only Iwase really being the most active LHP in the bullpen last year, it makes sense to bolster those options. Toshiya Okada should however be back and Ryuya Ogawa is always there to bolster the bullpen.

Otherwise, if you've been keeping your finger on the pulse you may have noticed that former Boston Red Sox and Seibu Lions star, Daisuke Matsuzaka is looking for one last hurrah before throwing in the towel. The injury ridden starter had a torrid time at the Softbank Hawks pitching only one inning in the first team where he gave up 2 earned runs in the 3 years he was with the club after returning to Japan from the New York Mets. It was a generous $4 million a year deal that really didn't work out for the Hawks at all.
Will the former major leaguer ever see the first team again?

After being released by the Hawks in November, Matsuzaka and his team have been sounding out NPB clubs and even clubs in Taiwan for one last crack at the big time. The 37-year old received and offer for a try-out in Taiwan but it appears there has been a bite closer to home, you guessed it, the Dragons.

If the news can be believed, and there are half a dozen outlets reporting this, the Dragons look very likely to be targeting Matsuzaka and are extending an invitation to him to join Spring camp. The only major stumbling point is likely to be the wage that Matsuzaka will ask for. Outlets are claiming he'll drop his demands to the $150 - $200k range but even then that's a lot for a guy that's not guaranteed to be good enough to pitch innings in the first team particularly when you consider that his addition would upset roster flexibility and take away innings from young arms on the farm.


This signing is not the most unlikely thing to happen this off-season. The Dragons have been reportedly nosing around veteran help to foster the development of the young core of pitchers the team has. Whether Matsuzaka is the right kind of veteran is another thing, but if nothing else he will give the Dragons some much needed time in the spotlight as they force themselves to be newsworthy for their results once more. Cynically speaking, this a publicity stunt but perhaps the presence of the "Heisei Monster" will boost morale a bit and give the younger pitchers someone to look to for advice and guidance.


Realistically, outside of a pity appearance at the end of the season, I don't see Matsuzaka as fixable. His efforts on the farm last year were barely mentionable and his form seems to be in a complete mess. I am concerned that signing Matsuzaka means fewer appearances on the mound for guys that still have a lot to prove and can be the Dragons backbone for many years to come and give the state of the club I think the team needs to pass on this opportunity. Media attention will be much greater if "Dice-K" signs on in Nagoya, but I sincerely doubt it's worth the potential cost to player development.

Monday, December 11, 2017

2018 Off-season acquisitions: Guerrero gone; Zoilo Almonte, Steven Moya, Shota Ono in.

The Dragons have shed the roster along with most of their foreign players ahead of the 2018 season. Araujo, Rondon and Valdes were turfed early due to poor performance or optimistic contract expectations, while it has recently been revealed that Alex Guerrero will no be returning to the club after taking Central League homerun champions honours in 2017. Somewhat surprisingly as well, Jordan Norberto appears once again to have been released. The Dominican lefty was released from the club in 2016 only to be re-signed after few better options were found. This seems an unlikely course of action this time around as the Swallows are hovering to capture the former A's man.

That leaves only Dayan Viciedo whom was underwhelming in his second season aside from some hot streaks. He had his issues with injury and spent a month away from the team finalizing his US citizenship where he took a leave of absence. The club seems to like him however and I would be surprised if he weren't retained possibly at a slightly decreased rate than his initial signing of a two year $3.5M deal.

That brings us to speculation over who Mori and the scouting crew have found over in the US, DR and Cuba over the last month or so and who they've turned up in the FA market.

Through foreign recruiting three names have come up in the media. Former Baltimore Orioles slugger and 2013 American League homerun king, Pedro Alvarez is one but negotiations appear to have broken down.
Former Yankee Almonte with Aichi native, Ichiro Suzuki.

The second name mentioned from the get-go was Zoilo Almonte, a Dominican switch-hitting outfielder who previously played for the New York Yankees in the MLB. Almonte has recently come off a year playing in the Mexican Baseball League with Sultanes de Monterrey. Almonte appears to be able to hit for average and power and has a very appealing stat line in Mexico. He was previously well lauded within the Yankees organisation but fell on hard times and bounced around the minors in Atlanta before heading to Mexico. Almonte has the ability to hit for power and average who looks like a significant upgrade on Fujii but maybe not quite as good an acquisition as Alex Guerrero. The 28 year-old hit 35 homers in two seasons for Monterrey at an average of .321 and a .897OPS. Almonte actually looks like a very handy little acquisition. I had a quick chat with former Dragons 1st baseman, Matt Clark about Almonte whom he has come up against in Mexico and it was his belief that Almonte should do pretty well in Japan. I certainly hope so and I'm quietly optimistic he will add plenty of danger to the line-up.

Almonte has 5 HR's in 141ABs for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League this year at a passable .262 average with a .755OPS. 
Moya was a top prospect with the Detroit Tigers in 2014
Steven Moya is a Puerto Rican outfielder from the Detroit Tigers organisation. As recently as 2014 he won the Tigers minor leaguer of the year award but somehow it's all fallen apart in recent years. Moya is said to moving to the Dragons on a one year contract. The former Tigers starlet stands at a staggering 2 meters tall which would make him one of top 3 tallest players in NPB alongside Fighters closer Chris Martin and Baystars starter Phil Klein. Moya's profile seems to be one of a frustrated power hitter who seems to strike out a lot. His stats in MLB with the Tigers aren't the worst with a .250 average 5HR and 11RBIs in 422 PAs but his 2017 season in AAA and later AA sealed his fate as a failed prospect in Detroit. He has been playing in the Dominican Winter League in the off-season which is where Mori and his team likely ran into him.  He hasn't been all that good in Winter League play either as he's currently averaging .203 with .619OPS with Toros del Este.

Moya is an outfielder, which if we add Almonte to the mix means we have a fairly busy looking set of positions. Almonte seems like a lock for left, while Moya, a right-fielder by trade, is likely to compete with Ryosuke Hirata for a shot. I don't know what the contract numbers are, but I can't imagine Moya will be on a lot. All murmurs surrounding Hirata is that he is working to get back to fighting fitness for next year. If fit, Hirata is certainly a lock for right-field given his defensive capabilities and high average with RISP. If Moya is on around $500-700k it represents a low-risk investment for if and when Hirata doesn't work out this year and it also offers insurance for injuries. It also however spells a vote of no confidence in the abilities of Yusuke Matsui, Atsushi Fujii, Hiroki Kondo, Masataka Iryo and others who were called up and did reasonably in those positions in the tail end of last season. As it stands however, I'll be surprised if Moya can turn it around even in the 2-gun.

Both Almonte and Moya have now been confirmed by various sources as having signed with the club and there is apparently an expectation on the Chunichi side that they both report with the rest of the Japanese staff on the starting day of Spring training. Foreign signings in the past have been given leeway on this point, but the Dragons want to get them and work with them as soon as possible.

No other names have been mentioned so far but Dragons representative are attending the Winter Meeting in Florida looking specifically for starting pitchers. The team is looking for two arms that can slot into the rotation. There is also a strong likelihood that development contracted Raidel Martinez will be added to the first team roster giving us a total of 3 international arms. The team is also on the look out for one more bat, but the rumours so far have been a catcher on a development contract from either the DR or Cuba.
Shota Ono will take the catcher's mask in Nagoya.

That brings us to one of the longer ongoing sagas of the off-season, the signing of Nippon Ham Fighters catcher, Shota Ono. Ever since the end of the season there have been murmurs of the team looking for a new catcher. I mentioned this in my post about the future of the Dragons early in November. As of the 11th of December however, Ono will officially sign-on as a Dragon after accepting a 3 year $2.5M deal. This works out to around $833,000 a year..ish which will make him the third highest earning fielder after Yohei Oshima and Ryosuke Hirata.

Ono's capture comes after the Dragons failed to find a regular catcher this year. Sugiyama, Matsui, Kinoshita and Takeyama all had significant spells in the first team this year and none of them really had it all. Matsui got the closest to being called the default starting catcher, but it was simply a continuing story of who will take over the dish full-time in the post-Tanishige era. After feeling unsatisfied with in-house options, the Dragons looked on the open market and found Shota Ono, a native of Ogaki in neighbouring Gifu prefecture open to a move closer to home.

If you look at Ono's 2017 slash line, as a batter he hasn't really done much better than Masato Matsui this year. Behind the plate, his ability to catch runners decreased as well but the hope will be that given his guidance, the younger group of pitchers at the Dragons might have the confidence to grow more and more. Ono helped mentor the MLB bound Shohei Otani, 2015 ROTY Kohei Arihara, 2016 ROTY Hirotoshi Takanashi, Takayuki Kato and a host of other pitchers to make in the professional baseball. One can't deny the prodigious talent of Otani, but Ono has surely left a mark on many of those named above which is what the Dragons are banking on. Also, as a recent Japan Series winner, I guess the hope would be that Ono can help bring in a winning mentality to the team.

The interesting caveat is not that the Dragons gain Ono, which is of course all well and good, but it's who the team stands to lose. With FA transactions in the NPB, the team who signs the FA player must then return compensation to the club that has lost that player. The Dragons can protect up to 28 players on the roster from being taken as compensation. This opens up an interesting conversation over who the Fighters would be interested in versus who the Dragons are willing to give up.
I've seen a couple of theories so far, but I'd like to take some time here to discuss who we can and should leave unprotected with reasons for the more eyebrow raising selections.


Pitchers
Shinnosuke OgasawaraShinji Tajima Hitoki Iwase
Yu SatoKatsuki MatayoshiYuya Yanagi
Shota SuzukiKazuki YoshimiToshiya Okada
Yudai OnoKoji FukutaniTaisuke Maruyama
Daisuke YamaiTakuma AchiraDaisuke Sobue
Takuya AsaoTakuya MitsumaShotaro Kasahara
Kento FujishimaRyuya OgawaKeisuke Tanimoto
Shunta WakamatsuRyosuke OgumaJunki Ito

I'm playing the percentages a little bit here, but also throwing caution to the wind with others. What the Fighters want is pitching after losing Otani to the MLB and Hirotoshi Masui to the Buffaloes. First of all, there's no need to protect veterans as the Fighters won't want them. Yoshimi, Asao, Yamai and Iwase should be safe. Wakamatsu and Fukutani are the two that are enticing pieces that the Fighters might be interested in. My reason for including them is that whatever we're doing, it's clearly not working. Wakamatsu is still a one-trick pony and he's not particularly well liked in Nagoya. However, if he can develop a couple of more dangerous breaking balls, he's a good looking-starter. At present thought he has a fastball that can't take strikes and a change-up that is being sat on by batters all over the NPB. Fukutani I would leave unprotected because Hiroshi Suzuki is coming in, a very similar type of pitcher and because we have quite a few right-arm relievers that are doing the job. I've also protected anyone under 21 and anyone drafted last year. Tanimoto I leave out simply because I doubt the Fighters would take him back so soon after letting him leave.


Catchers
Takuya KinoshitaMasato MatsuiTakuma Kato
Iori KatsuraShota SugiyamaShingo Takeyama

I am not a fan of Matsui and given his closeness in age to Ono, it makes little sense to keep him. Kinoshita and Sugiyama have the highest ceilings out of this group and are still young enough to challenge Ono for the position in the future. Kato and Katsura have fallen down the pecking order and should be left unprotected. The Fighters aren't likely to take a catcher as they seem to have a few.


Infielders
Masahiro ArakiShuhei TakahashiToshiki Abe
Shun IshikawaIssei EndoMasami Ishigaki
Ryota IshiokaTaiki MitsumataHayato Mizowaki
Yota KyodaKyohei KamezawaNobumasa Fukuda
Naomichi DonoueTetsuya Tani

I was very tempted to leave Donoue out before I realised it would leave us with no immediate cover at short so he stays for his glove and as the club's only real utility infielder. Araki stays unprotected as like the veteran pitchers he's very unlikely to be poached while the other unprotected players would no significant loss. Ishigaki and Mizowaki could be the future of the infield so they stay and Kamezawa just had his best season in Dragons colours and is a clubhouse leader so he definitely stays. The others speak for themselves.

Outfielders
Shota TomonagaAtsushi FujiiRyosuke Hirata
Yohei OshimaMasataka IryoKei Nomoto
Yusuke MatsuiTakahito KudoHiroki Kondo

Outfielder decisions are a little easier. Hirata and Oshima are arguably two of the clubs best hitters while Matsui had a great hot streak at the end of this year. Fujii had a great year too but he's 37 and an unlikely choice. Kondo is the only one I was a little worried about, but I don't think he's done enough to be an appealing piece.

Largely, I think the Fighters will look to take a pitcher in compensation or some cash. Leaving Wakamatsu and Fukutani unprotected should focus the Fighters pursuit of some of our other talent. Personally, I don't think the team is missing out if we put those two out to dry. I really like Fukutani and would love for him to stay but something tells me he'd thrive at the Fighters so I'd be okay with him leaving if he goes on to bigger and better things.

Overall, is there enough here to get excited about? Kind of. I think Almonte and Ono will big big deciding factors on how our season goes this year. Ono's ability to lead the pitchers is going to be important and his acquisition will also remove any doubts over who will be wearing the mask the majority of the season. Someone with considerable experience catching is going to be a positive I feel for this team and will aid the development of the likes of Suzuki, Yanagi, Ogasawara, Kasahara and co.

We're still on the lookout for pitchers at the Winter Meetings, but we'll see what comes back. I'm not going to hold my breath and in a way I'm okay with the team the way it is.