About two weeks to go until Opening Day and the start of a new season. Chunichi will be looking to "Start it Again" with a new front office and coaching staff after a disappointing season last year. They will be starting off on a bit of a bad foot with the news of Kaz Yoshimi not being ready until mid-season (hopefully) and more arm problems for Takuya Asao. Hector Luna though is back from injury and the Dragons have added some other veteran foreign players in an effort shore up some holes, including the loss of long-time Dragon Hirokazu Ibata.
On paper it doesn't look like Chunichi will likely be one of the top contenders in the Central. They will probably need some breaks to fall their way to even end up in playoff position, but they do still have some top players and if they can stay healthier than last year they have a chance to do some damage. Here are my predicted standings for 2014:
Yomiuri Giants - The Giants will again be the team to beat. They were the most complete team in the NPB last year, though they were cut down by the trio of Tanaka, Norimoto and Mima in the Japan Series. Yomiuri's stars are still mostly in their prime and they gained more over the offseason by signing top free agents Kan Otake and Yasuyuki Kataoka than they lost in Dennis Houton and Ryota Wakiya. If anyone other than Yomiuri wins the regular season title I would be very, very surprised.
Hanshin Tigers - Hanshin has some holes, but they were pretty solid last year. Their starting pitching sets them apart from the teams below them, though Hiroshima is close. Over the offseason they lost Jason Strandridge and Yasutomo Kubo, but were able to re-sign Randy Messenger. Messenger together with starters Atsushi Nomi and Shintaro Fujinami make for a formidable 1-2-3 punch. The Tigers also signed Korean pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh to bolster their bullpen. Matt Murton led the offense last year which has some good hitters, but not a lot of power. All together they look like the second-best team in the Central.
Here's where things get tougher to predict:
Chunichi Dragons - I think Chunichi has the talent to take third this year even starting the season with some key injuries. They seemed a little dysfunctional last year under manager Morimichi Takagi, hopefully that will change this year under Tanishige and Mori. Their lineup should produce reasonably well with Luna and Morino at the infield corners and Hirata, who looks like he's figured things out, and Wada in the corner outfield positions. If Oshima can bounce back to the All-Star-type level he's capable of in centerfield it would make for a pretty strong outfield. It remains to be seen how much the Dragons will get out of Shuhei Takahashi and newcomer Alexis Gomez. Anderson Hernandez may get a lot of playing time in the middle infield if Takahashi doesn't look like he's ready for ichi-gun to start the season.
While the offense and the bullpen should be ok, the starting pitching could be what gets the Dragons off to a bad start. With Yoshimi out, Yudai Ono will be looked to as the No. 1 starter, and he has looked it so far in the pre-season. Behind him youngster Toshiya Okada, who pitched well out of the bullpen last year, will transition to a rotation that includes Daniel Cabrera, Daisuke Yamai, Kenshin Kawakami, Soma Yamauchi and potentially Masa Yamamoto. Each of those guys has had success in the NPB, but there is a lot of unpredictability there.
Yokohama BayStars - DeNA is probably the hardest team to read. They've been bad for so long that it's hard to expect much from them, but on paper they are starting look competitive. Their biggest problem in the previous years has been starting pitching, but over the offseason they picked up some interesting pieces. They've added Yasutomo Kubo, Hisanori Takahashi and foreigner Guillermo Moscoso to the mix of Daisuke Miura, Kazuki Mishima and Shugo Fujii. Though a couple of those guys are getting older it looks a lot better then the ni-gun quality pitchers they been rolling out for years. Adding free-agent Aarom Baldiris at third should boost an already decent offense with Tony Blanco, Takehiro Ishikawa, Hitoshi Tamura, Takayuki Kajitani, Tatsuhiko Kinjo and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.
Hiroshima Carp - The Carp lost a big part of their starting rotation in Kan Otake over the offseason, they will hope to replace him with draft picks Daichi Osera and Allen Kuri. The two rookies will join a strong top half of the rotation made up of ace Kenta Maeda, Bryan Bullington and Yusuke Nomura. Hiroshima's lineup is still weak, but got stronger with last year's mid-season pick-up of Kila Ka'aihue. I wouldn't be surprised if the Carp finished as high as second or third place, but a lot of their success will depend on their very young starting rotation with the two rookies and even Nomura is only a third-year player who was not as sharp last year as he was in his first year.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows - Outside of Wladimir Balentien and Yasuhiro Ogawa the Swallows didn't have much go right last year and this year isn't starting much better. Shohei Tateyama, who missed almost all of last season with an arm injury, won't be ready to go to start the season. First-round draft pick Toshihiro Sugiura has a torn ligament in his elbow and Wladimir Balentien has been dealing with serious personal issues. They did pick up former MLB pitcher Chris Narveson, who could help and they still have Lastings Milledge who could bounce back after an off year, but it seems unlikely that Yakult will be in the top three this year.