15 October 2008

NPB Notes::::::Rakuten Golden Eagles

Founded: 2004, so the Eagles haven't yet developed any kind of rich history.
Owner: Rakuten online shopping mall operator
Home base: Miyagi Stadium, making them the official team of The Karate Kid. Kidding....at first it was known as Kleenex Miyagi Stadium but is now
Fullcast Miyagi Stadium. Hold that, they just changed it back this year to Kleenex Stadium Miyagi.
Titles: none yet

While the major leagues in the U.S. spent the '90s diluting pitching league-round by adding the Marlins, Rockies, Rays and Diamondbacks to the ranks, expansion had been a rare commodity in Japan. Then, in 2004, Kintetsu's financial problems became too much to handle and the Buffaloes merged with the Orix Blue Wave to become the Orix Buffaloes. This left a void in the Pacific League that was filled when the Sendai area of northern Honshu Island was granted a franchise that has become the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The Eagles made their first splash by stepping out on a limb and hiring Ameri
can Marty Kuehnert, a longtime Japan resident, former president of the White Sox's Birmingham Barons farm club, and sports management professor and sports bar owner, as the first American general manager in NPB. The Eagles won their first official game in 2005, 3-1, over Chiba Lotte but then lost the second game, 26-0, on a 1-hit shutout, and things went downhill from there. The Kuehnert experiment lasted 27 games until the team was 5-22, then he was demoted and is now an advisor to the team president. The inaugural Eagles team ended up 38-97-1 and 51 games back of first. The team slugged a Royals-like .365 and had a 5.67 team ERA, .305 OAV and 1.59 WHIP. Aging OF Tetsuya Iida hit .331 in 54 games for his best season's batting average since 1997, and SS Yoshinori Okihara came over in a June trade from Hanshin and hit .313 in 67 games but had only 1 HR, which was one more than Iida. OF Manabu Satake also hit .310 for the fledgling Eagles but also hit only 1 HR. The top sluggers on the team were Orix import 1B Takeshi Yamasaki, who hit .266 with a team-leading 25 HR and 65 RBI, and OF Koichi Isobe, who hit 16 HR with 51 RBI and hit the first homer in Rakuten history. He also led the team in runs scored with 65. Yamasaki is an interesting story, as he reportedly saved some people from a burning building in 1990, and in 2005, he promised some elementary school kids he would hit a home run for them and hit a grand slam in that night's game. His best was yet to come for Rakuten, however. 3B Luis Lopez came over from the U.S. and hit 12 HR with 49 RBI for Rakuten in '05 but hit only .223 before heading back stateside after the season. To illustrate the first Eagles' team's pitching, the ace of the staff was righty Hisashi Iwakuma (right), who led the team in wins at 9-15 and in ERA at 4.99. He was one of only 3 Eagles to log more than 100 innings and batters hit .301 off him. He was also the only Eagle with more than 100 K at 124. The only pitcher with more than 50 IP for Rakuten who logged a sub-4 ERA was RP Kazuo Fukumori, who led the team with 11 saves and had a 3.57 ERA but a 1.57 WHIP in 63 IP. Fukumori would escape Rakuten in 2008 to join the Texas Rangers. Other than that, there were a bunch of guys logging innings with ERAs over 6 and WHIPs over 1.5. The other bright light was a 1.93 ERA, .196 OAV and 1.11 WHIP from lefty Koki Watanabe in 28 IP out of the pen. Watanabe was the team's #2 draft pick in 2005.

With Kuehnert demoted, his managerial pick, Yasushi Tao, also didn't return for 2006 and Nankai legend (see the Softbank Hawks post) Katsuya Nomura was brought i
n. The result was a slightly better but still bad finish at 47-85-4, 33 games back of first and, again, last in the Pacific League. Team slugging was again poor, and pitching was still bad but improved with a 4.30 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and .279 OAV, although all three marks were good for last in the PL. The team had its first all-stars in 2006 in IF Jose Fernandez and P Fukumori. Free agent signing (from Seibu) 1B/3B Fernandez earned his only Best Nine appearance to date by hitting .302 with a .911 OPS, 28 HR (led team) and 88 RBI (also led team). He also led Rakuten with 33 doubles and 72 RS. Yamasaki followed up his 2005 slugging performance by hitting .241 with 19 HR and 67 RBI. The other big splashes for the Eagles in '06 included American IF/OF Rick Short, who played for Lotte in 2003, came back to the U.S. and chased .400 for the Nationals' AAA team in '05. Rakuten brought him back to NPB in 2006 and he replied by hitting .314 with 27 doubles and set a team record with a 5-hit game in August. OF Teppei Tsuchiya also emerged after coming over from Chunichi to hit .303 with a .748 OPS and led the team with 7 triples. 2B Yosuke Takasu played more than 100 games for only the second season in his career and hit a career high .300 with 16 doubles. Despite the improved pitching numbers as a whole, three pitchers tied for the team lead in wins at a lowly 7. American righty Ryan Glynn led the team in winning percentage in going 7-7 with a 3.96 ERA but a 1.41 WHIP in 127 1/3 IP. He was one of three Eagles to pitch more than 100 innings and, with 121 Ks, was one of 2 with triple digit strikeouts. The other was '05 #1 pick righty Yasuhiro Ichiba, who went 7-14 with a 4.37 ERA and 1.43 WHIP with 151 Ks in a team-leading 193 2/3 IP. He did have 5 complete games for the Eagles. Veteran righty Hiroki Yamamura matched his career high in wins by going 7-10 but had a 5.35 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in his 136 1/3 IP. The pitching trio combined to give up 56 HR on the season. Fukumori had another exceptional year as closer with 21 saves and a 2.17 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP in 58 IP. Batters only hit .231 off of him in '06. Two other pitching highlights were veteran righty relievers Rui Makino and Hisashi Ogura. Makino came over from Hanshin to post a 2.49 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 43 1/3 IP and Ogura was even better with a 2.18 ERA and 1.10 WHIP along with 51 Ks to only 13 BB in 62 IP.

Nomura was back for 2007 and the Eagles were competitive for the first time as a franchise before finishing 67-75-2 for fourth in the Pacific League, 13.5 games out
of first. The Eagles had a cadre of 8 all-stars including Fukumori, Tsuchiya, Takasu and Yamasaki (right), and also rookie sensation righty Masahiro Tanaka, the Eagles '07 #1 pick. Tanaka would take rookie of the year honors but it was Yamasaki's year to shine. The 38-year-old became the first Eagle to lead the league in a major category with 43 HR and 108 RBI while hitting .261 with a .936 OPS. He also led the team by striking out 142 times and scoring 86 runs. Short didn't make the all-star cut but did come within 4 percentage points of a batting title by hitting .330 with an .813 OPS. He led the team with 31 doubles. Fernandez followed his '06 by hitting .270 with 22 HR and 79 RBI, which was a distant second on the team in both categories. Tsuchiya hit .254 with 10 HR and 48 RBI; OF Isobe hit .277 to earn an all-star nod; C Motohiro Shima proved the difference in cultures by getting an all-star bid despite hitting .183 thanks to his defense; and Takasu earned an all-star bid before finishing the season at .283 with a career high 26 doubles, although he couldn't match his '06 slugging and OBP rates. Second-year 3B Daisuke Kusano also made a splash by hitting .320 with an .845 OPS with 19 2B and 8 HR, and rookie SS Naoto Watanabe hit .268 in his debut with a team-leading 25 SB. Tanaka (right) was at the forefront of a more potent Rakuten pitching attack by finishing with a team record in wins at 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.34 WHIP along with a .260 OAV. The rookie also pitched 4 complete games and struck out a team-record 196 batters with only 68 walks in 186 1/3 IP. Righty reliever Akira Matsumoto got an all-star spot but finished the season with a 6.12 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 32 1/3 IP, and Fukumori also played as an all-star and finished with 17 saves, although his other numbers weren't as good with a 4.75 ERA, .306 OAV and 1.69 WHIP in 36 IP. Righty Shinichiro Koyama ended up being the go-to guy at the end of games with 16 saves, 0.58 ERA, .183 OAV and 1.06 WHIP in 31 IP, which probably made it a little easier to let Fukumori fly stateside. Starter Hideki Asai ended up behind Tanaka in IP at 144 1/3 but finished strong at 8-8 with a 3.12 ERA, .274 OAV, 1.29 WHIP and 107 Ks. '07 #1 draft pick righty Satoshi Nagai was next with 127 IP of a 7-7 record, 3.61 ERA, .249 OAV, and 1.32 WHIP with 98 Ks, and Iwakuma bounced back from an off 2006 to finish with a 3.40 ERA, .269 OAV, and 1.31 WHIP in 90 IP. Veteran righty Hiroki Yamamura also had a decent season at 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA, .255 OAV and 1.21 WHIP in 66 1/3 IP.

Fans had to be hoping the Eagles would take another step forward in 2008 but it was more like Rakuten was in neutral as the Eagles finished 65-76-3 for fifth in the league, 11.5 games out. The team's .272 BA and .340 OBP led the league but, again, a .385 slugging percentage had them tied for next to last. The pitching marks of a 3.89 ERA and 1.36 WHIP didn't hurt the Eagles too bad but also didn't help them overcome their drawbacks, either. There were only 4 Golden Eagle all-stars in 2008, led by Short, Yamasaki and Iwakuma, who brought Rakuten the franchise's first batting and ERA champions. Short hit .332 with an .842 OPS, 62 RS, 31 2B, 12 HR and 71 RBI, but the offensive MVP might have been Fernandez, who in his 3rd year as an Eagle hit .301 with an .843 OPS, team-leading 81 RS, 40 2B, 18 HR, and 99 RBI. Yamasaki continued his late career surge by hitting .276 with 26 HR and 80 RBI. Kusano didn't live up to his 2007 performance by slipping to a .271 BA and .666 OPS. OF Toshiya Nakashima stepped up somewhat by hitting .315 with a .397 OBP and .863 OPS in 81 games. IF Fernando Seguignol came over from Nippon Ham as a free agent in July and hit .324 with a 1.070 OPS for the Eagles in 39 games, including 13 HR and 40 RBI, and Takasu followed up his 2007 by hitting .282. Tsuchiya hit .270 with 29 doubles and 6 triples and Naoko Watanabe had another decent campaign with a .251 BA and 34 SBs, although his weak bat led to only a .283 SLG. Iwakuma was lights out in a triumphant return to the forefront of the Eagles' pitching staff. He finished the season by shattering the team record in wins with a 21-4 record, posted a 1.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .220 OAV, and K'd 159 batters in 201 2/3 IP to put him in contention for the Sawamura. Tanaka followed up his rookie season by going 9-7 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, .262 OAV and 159 Ks in 172 2/3 IP. Asai wasn't quite as good as in '07 by going 9-11 with a 4.38 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, .285 OAV and 122 Ks in 148 IP, and Nagai went 6-7 with a 4.68 ERA, .267 OAV and 1.43 WHIP with 111 Ks in 117 1/3 IP. Nomura went with a bullpen by committee as Koyama notched only 4 saves and went 3-5 with a 3.72 ERA, .234 OAV, 1.23 WHIP and 71 Ks in 67 2/3 IP. Lefty Kanehisa Arime was solid with 2 saves, a 2.05 ERA, .220 OAV and 1.14 WHIP in 44 IP, and righty Tsuyoshi Kawagishi was also lockdown out of the pen in going 4-3 with 3 saves, a 1.94 ERA, .244 OAV, and 1.24 WHIP in 55 2/3 IP. It's hard to believe with all that together the team didn't fare better than fifth in the league race, but the weak points were equal to the task. Rakuten's mission from here forward is to try to fit the pieces together for more success, as apparently some of the right pieces are on hand.

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