With 60 games left in the regular season the Dragons have a very good shot at making the playoffs for the 7th straight year. They've been better than I expected, leading the Central League for a majority of the first half. Chunichi has struggled some of late, especially on the road, but still the rotation has been good (2nd in the CL in ERA) and the offense has had more punch than I was expecting. The team has been dealing with a lot of injuries, which was expected with have such a veteran team. Yoshimi, Morino, Asao, Kawakami, Araki, Blanco, Tajima, Soto and Nelson have all missed significant time. Blanco is still out for another month or two and his injury could be a critical factor in the Dragons position in the playoff race. Morimichi Takagi has done a pretty nice job so far as the manager, but we are at the point of the season where he will really have to earn his money, managing the injury situations and fatigue of a long season. Lets take a look at some of the players I labeled as x-factors coming into the season:
The whole rotation, except for Kazuki Yoshimi:
Overall the rotation has been great, due to injuries quite a few guys have gotten starts, the guys below have gotten the majority of them.
Shinji Iwata - He was brought up early in the season has consistently given quality innings. He hasn't won a lot lately due to a lack of run support, but has continued to pitch well. He's been a bit of a surprise and young guy who taken advantage an opportunity. He should be in the rotation to rest of the way, though I'm not sure if he would be called on in the playoffs.
Yudai Kawai - Kawai has been up and down this year. He's been skipped in the rotation a few times and I don't think Takagi knows what he will get from him right now.
Kenshin Kawakami - He's missed most of the season because of injury, but has been good when he's pitched. He's a veteran and was a star, so I'm sure he'll be called on to pitch whenever he is able.
Kenichi Nakata - He pitched very well early in the season, but has struggled lately. His overall numbers are still good and he leads the team in strikeouts.
Takashi Ogasawara - He was brought up near mid-season and made five starts. Things didn't go all that well in most of his starts and he was sent back down to ni-gun.
Masa Yamamoto - He did well to start the season by began to be hit hard as the season progressed. He may get some spot starts down the stretch, but we may not see much of him.
Soma Yamauchi - He's been solid and a border-line all-star. He's pitched to contact, only has 34 strikeouts in 88 2/3 innings, but been successful in getting outs.
Going forward the rotation looks to be Yoshimi, Kawakami, Nakata, Soto, Iwata and Yamauchi. That group should do well, if healthy, and be one of the better rotations in the CL.
Masahiko Morino - He's had some clutch hits and had a lot of game-winning RBIs early in the year prior to missing some time with injury. Overall, though, he has struggled and has only 9 extra-base hits. He was even dropped in the batting order for a while. The Dragons need more from him if they are going to overtake the Giants.
Kazahiro Wada - He's been the most consistant hitter on the team. His OBP is .360 and SLG is .411, way better than last year, he already has almost as many hits this year as he had all of last year. He was moved to the 3-hole a couple months ago and has been hitting cleanup lately after Blanco's injury. Hopefully he can keep hitting he's been a big part of Chunichi's success so far this year.
Ryosuke Hirata - He's been a little disappointing. He's hit 8 home runs, the second most on the team, but he hasn't gotten on base enough and has been losing playing time lately.
Naomichi Donoue - He's filled in well defensively, but has been pretty mediocre at the plate. Still a very useful player but not playing well enough to win a starting job on the infield.
Victor Diaz - He has been a non-factor, hasn't played much and hasn't done much in his few opportunities.
The Dragons have definitely hit better this year over last, though the offense has slowed down lately. They are third in the Central in batting average, although they are fifth in runs scored, still that has been good enough and should continue to be good enough going forward considering how good their pitching is. Yohei Ohshima has been a good top of the order hitter and Hirokazu Ibata has been getting on base alot as well. Blanco's injury will hurt, but I think Chunichi will hold their position in the standings, the other the teams behind them all have flaws as well.
Here's what I projected and how things have gone up to now:
2012 Projected Central League Standings:
DeNA Bay Stars
(3) Hiroshima (tied)
(3) Yakult (tied)
Not a ton of surprises so far, Yomiuri took a while to get things figured out, but baseball has a long season and they easily overcame a bad first month. Chunichi has been a little better than I expected and Yakult and Hanshin have been worse. Yakult's pitching has been worse than I would have thought and while they have hit well, they haven't hit consistently enough. Hanshin had a really bad two week stretch that hurt them, but they seem to be a team that consistently under-performs their talent level, this season is no exception. Hiroshima has been the biggest surprise to me; they have made up ground lately in the standings despite catastrophic injuries. It would be nice to see them stay in contention, they have some good pitching, but their lineup is weak and they've lost some of their best hitters for the season. DeNA has been out of it since almost Game 1, but any of the other teams could still make the playoffs, should be fun to see how things play out.