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Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012

BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Retooling Hawks need newcomers to contribute


You might think Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager Koji Akiyama is worried about the coming season and successfully defending his 2011 Japan Series championship. After all, he's lost three of his best pitchers and his All-Star shortstop from 2011.

However, Akiyama appears relaxed and confident in TV interviews from the Softbank spring training site in Miyazaki, and with good reason.

Thanks to team owner Masayoshi Son, president and CEO of the Softbank telecommunications and Internet corporate empire, the ball club has replaced the departed stars with a load of talent that should at least keep the Hawks in pennant contention this season with a great shot at repeating last November's JS victory.

Ace left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada used his international free agency option to sign with the American League Baltimore Orioles, while southpaw Toshiya Sugiuchi and right-hander D.J. Houlton have jumped to the Central League and the Yomiuri Giants. Infielder and leadoff man Munenori Kawasaki also left to pursue major league glory with the Seattle Mariners.

By adding all the money the Hawks will be saving — in not having to pay the salaries of that quartet of high-profile players — to the open pocketbook policy of owner Son, the Fukuoka club was able to bring in a quality free agent of its own and signed a couple of exciting foreign players to take up the slack. That should keep the fans in Kyushu coming to Hawks games at Yahoo Dome.

Lefty pitcher Kazuyuki Hoashi has come over as a free agent from the Seibu Lions, and Softbank has signed former major league All-Star and World Series game-winning pitcher Brad Penny to replenish the starting rotation. To pump up the offense, slugger Wily Mo Pena has been added to the roster.

According to reports, Penny comes in with a one-year, $3 million (¥230 million) contract, while Pena's 2012 salary is listed at ¥140 million or about $1.8 million. Both have more than 10 years of MLB experience, but the big question is whether or not they will be able to make the adjustment to Japanese baseball.

Penny is 33 years old, from Oklahoma, and he won 16 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006 and again in 2007. He was on the National League All-Star team both those years and was also a winner in a World Series game with the Florida Marlins in 2003 after racking up 14 victories in that regular season.

Pena is 30 and a native of the Dominican Republic. His best major league home run season was in 2004 when he belted 26 out of the parks for the Cincinnati Reds. Said to possess awesome power, Pena has been hitting some tape measure shots in practice at the Hawks camp and, if he can hit them as often as he hits them far, he will challenge Seibu fence buster Takeya Nakamura for the Pacific League long ball title this season.

John Esposito, a Florida-based player agent who helped send Pena to Fukuoka, has high expectations.

"I heard Sadaharu Oh himself said Wily Mo is one of the most powerful hitters he's ever seen," said Esposito. Sounds like a Tony Blanco-Tyrone Woods type, referring to the current Chunichi Dragons first baseman and his predecessor, both known for hitting balls into the next prefecture.

Son bought the Hawks in 2004 from struggling retailer Daiei and wasted no time in making it known he would spend whatever money it would take to maintain a high standard after Daiei won the Japan Series in 2003 and took the PL pennant again in 2004.

One of his first instructions to the team's front office staff after taking over as owner was to sign the best available bona fide, in-his-prime major leaguer, regardless of how much money it would take. That turned out to be third baseman Tony Batista who was given a reported two-year, $15 million deal beginning in 2005, the Hawks inaugural year under the Softbank banner.

Batista had a halfway decent season with 27 homers, 90 RBIs and a .263 batting average as the Hawks finished in second place, but the club expected more bang for its bucks. Then-manager Oh said he would not be using Batista in 2006, so the team released him and ate the second year of that expensive contract.

Over the last six seasons, Softbank has finished third in 2006 and '07, last in 2008, third in 2009 and first in 2010 and '11. Battling health problems at the time, Oh retired as manager after that dismal last-place standing four years ago, but Son appointed the all-time world home run king to the position as team chairman of what has become a first-class organization.

Son is as enthusiastic a team owner as you will find. He can often be seen at Yahoo Dome, wearing a Hawks jacket and cheering for the club from his box above the grandstand. He was also on the field last fall after his boys defeated the Dragons in Game 7 of the 2012 Japan Series and was tossed in the air by the Softbank players in a "doage" celebration usually reserved only for managers, game heroes and retiring veterans.

As the regular season approaches, there still may be a problem finding a replacement for Kawasaki, but good teams always come up with someone to fill a hole in the batting order and on defense.

What do you bet some young Softbank player will step up and establish himself as a quality shortstop before we hit the All-Star break in July?

That could be rookie Masayoshi Tsukada who coincidentally has the same first name as the owner. Tsukada is a 23-year-old out of Ibaraki Prefecture and Hakuo University in Tochigi, and he was the Hawks' No. 3 draft choice last autumn.

In any event, you can expect Son, Oh and Akiyama will have it covered.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com



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