The Saitama Seibu Lions suffered a 1-5 week which included being swept by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters from June 27-29. After the week, they fell to 10.5 games behind the Fighters and third place in the Pacific League.
Even worse, in a series against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, they fell to fifth place for a day before reclaiming fourth place in July 3rd’s 4-3 victory. Including the sayonara loss in Hiroshima on June 14th, the Lions have had their worst run dating back to last year’s 13-game losing streak of going 3-12 from June 14 – July 3.
There are several factors as to why this happened and how they are where they are. We can no longer talk about playoffs, in the words of Jim Mora Sr. Before we discuss the goals, here is why the Lions are stuck to being a bottom pack team:
Rotation has not been stable and remains raw
The Lions were hoping that Andy Van Hekken would contribute as a middle rotation starter. In the end, he’s been a sixth starter only up for emergency and while he’s improved since April, he is nowhere near worth what the team has been paying him. Ken Togame went from mediocre at the end of 2015 to a trainwreck and is now stuck in the bullpen.
Chun-Lin Kuo has remained in ni-gun since April and injuries to Takayuki Kishi and Yusei Kikuchi haven’t helped. Shinsaburo Tawata remains “green” as a rookie while Kona Takahashi is still young and growing.
Last season had a strong first half from a rotation that was missing Kishi, but this year we’ve seen nothing but below average pitching as a whole minus what Kikuchi did when healthy.
Bullpen collapses without Kazuhisa Makita
Makita in long relief was able to cover up the bad starts from Togame and other pitchers, even winning some games by taking multiple innings. The Lions staff made an excellent call to switch him to the bullpen as the swingman, but a leg injury has kept him out since that series in Hiroshima and he hasn’t been playing since.
The longer he’s out, the more the middle relief becomes a mess and while there are individuals like Tatsushi Masuda and Shota Takekuma, the middle innings become difficult for Norio Tanabe to manage. Another problem for a separate story is C.C. Lee becoming a ni-gun pitcher, after being expected to help fix the bullpen.
Bats remain inconsistent
The Lions offense has been half empty and half full. A feast or famine group that can look good one day, but terrible on another. They’ve done a better job at working the starting pitching and a resurgence from Takumi Kuriyama has helped, but they don’t score enough runs when guys are on base consistently.
There have been games where the pitcher hasn’t been bad, but a lack of run support until it’s too late has been the theme of the offense. Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura being out didn’t help, but there were plenty of opportunities of the Lions being on base without him. The offense has the makings of a .500 team.
With all the gloom and terrible play recently, there are things to watch and still look forward to. They’re not a boring group, but just frustrating due to the results not going in their favor.
Here are some things to look at for the second half as it began last week:
This season becomes about the development of Takahashi and Tawata hoping they are the future pieces of the Lions rotation for years to come. From Takahashi, we’ve seen flashes of why he was a first round pick after being a Koshien hero for Maebashi in 2013. On the otherhand, Tawata has become difficult to watch, but no player can be called a bust in their first year no matter what. We need to see progress from both guys which would be the short term goal.
Isamu Sato or another draft pick could get starts later in the season and we can only hope they find their way to earn ichi-gun time. Sato had multiple starts before he was deactivated.
Felipe Paulino as a long term answer?
Paulino was signed midseason after the Lions have had an open spot on their 70-man roster. It has the makings of a desperate signing in response to the struggles of Van Hekken, Kuo and Lee. However, his time in the rotation becomes an audition for next year.
In the States, Paulino was last seen in AAA and most likely would be on pace to spend his playing career bouncing up and down between the major and minor leagues. This is an opportunity for him to showcase himself to the Lions and possible earn a job for 2017. From a Lions standpoint, it’s a flyer signing, but it never hurts to evaluate a player ahead of time by bringing him in now.
Can Yusei Kikuchi establish himself as an ace?
A lot of people view Kikuchi as a disappointment after being touted as a once in a generation talent out of high school with MLB potential. Some might say he’s a bust because he isn’t an ace. However, after having a promising 2015 and Shinji Mori coming in as pitching coach, Kikuchi has brought in six quality starts with more efficiency.
When he returns from his injury, Kikuchi is expected to be the guy for the short term as Kishi will eventually age and pass the torch. Can he have a second half to build on for the long run?
There is no denying that the Lions are rebuilding on the fly with their rotation pieces already in action. If they can get their lumps out now with reps and games played, we can hope the experience becomes more valuable for the long term.
With the manager situation unstable and Tanabe viewed as a lame duck (caretaker in soccer terms), the reins will most likely be passed to Tetsuya Shiozaki or someone else.
This team may not be there and is far from competent, but there are worse situations in NPB than the Lions. There’s a plan with youth combined with a core for the present and future. Unfortunately these things just don’t turn around overnight.
Originally posted on Graveyard Baseball
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