The 2013 season is upon us, Opening Day being this Friday, and I'm looking forward to a very competitive season. The Central League should be more competive than in past years as lower division teams have done more to help themselves, while upper division teams have remained mostly the same. Again Yomiuri looks to be the dominant favorite, but below them the teams could finish in almost any order. Here's how I see things playing out:
1) Yomiuri Giants - Just like last year the Giants just have too much talent. Unlike last year, they haven't made many big offseason moves. With an already established core, it's unlikely they will get off to as slow a start as last year when they finished the first month in last place then roared back to pass the Dragons. Some of their players are slowing down like Takahashi, Ogasawara and potentially Abe, but other players like Sakamoto and Chono are just reaching their prime. Also Yomiuri's 2012 foreign players didn't meet expectations and they've brought in a new crop to replace them, which includes former Mariner Jose Lopez, and could make the team even better.
2) Chunichi Dragons - The Dragons totally revamped their foreign players roster, but otherwise are very nearly the same team as last year. Yakyubaka has a handy additions/subtractions chart. Chunichi struggled throughout the preseason and finished dead-last in the standings. I don't see that having much bearing on the upcoming season, but it's been a little surprising to see how poorly some of the young pitchers have fared. The Dragons will be counting on some of these young guys as their rotation is not as deep as it's been. The bullpen could be a little shaky as well depending on how healthy Takuya Asao is this year and if Hitoki Iwase can rebound from a tough 2012. The new foreign players are looking good so far and could really give the team a boost, but there are also a lot of question marks and the Dragons could easily finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in the league.
3) Yakult Swallows - Yakult hardly made a move this offseason, bringing in only veteran infielder Aki Iwamura and reliever Taiyo Fujita. Neither of these moves will likely help much. On the other hand they didn't lose much either, aside from reliever Chang-Yong Lim who signed with the Chicago Cubs. The Swallows will hope for a better year from Kazuhiro Hatekeyama to supplement Lastings Milledge and Wladimir Balentien in the lineup and more consistency from their starting rotation. Yakult has some holes, but should be about as good as last year.
4) Hanshin Tigers - The Tigers are a team that has done some things to try to improve over last year's dismal season. The headline moves being the acquisition of former major leaguers Kosuke Fukudome and Tsuyoshi Nishioka. With the addition of those two players Hanshin should have a dangerous lineup, but their pitching may be what limits them from bumping either Chunichi or Yakult out of a playoff spot. If the pitching is good though, I could see Hanshin finishing as high as 2nd.
5) Hiroshima Carp - Last year I was thinking that the Carp may be moving in the right direction with how strong their starting rotation was becoming, but they don't appear to have added any difference-making bats to their very weak lineup over the offseason. Kenta Kurihara will be back, though he's already fighting injuries, Hiroshima will be relying on Kurihara, Dobayashi, Eldred and newcomer Fred Lewis to provide some run support for their stellar rotation. I'm not sure that's enough to get them higher than 5th in the division.
6) Yokohama Baystars - Yokohama has added some talent this year and should be more competitive. With the combination of Alex Ramirez, Tony Blanco, Nyger Morgan and Norihiro Nakamura they at least have a lot of personality. I'd like to see them do well, but I think they still have a long way to go.