Sunday, March 31, 2024

Card Of The Week March 31

Former Fighters pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa signed a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays back in January  He didn't pitch particularly well during spring training - giving up 14 earned runs in 9 2/3 inning for a 13.03 ERA - and did not make the big league roster.  The Rays then traded him to the Red Sox for cash considerations last week.  

I thought this would be a good opportunity to show off the "Stadium Background" parallel card of Uwasawa (#54) from the 2023 Topps 206 set that I recently won on Ebay, reducing the number of teams I need this parallel for to five (Marines, Dragons, Hawks, Swallows and Baystars):

Saturday, March 30, 2024

NPB Expansion Is Real (But Not What You're Thinking)

I've been following Japanese baseball for about 24 years now and one of the topics I've see bantered around every so often is "when is NPB going to expand?"  This is probably the second most discussed topic, behind "when are we going to get a real World Series between the MLB and NPB champions?" (and I would echo Jim Allen's answer to that - it'll happen as soon as MLB figures out how to make a buck out of it).

Funny thing though - NPB actually has already expanded for this season but you may not have noticed.  That's because the expansion happened at the farm team level, not at the top level.

Let me take a minute to explain the NPB farm system.  Unlike MLB teams which each have four farm teams, NPB teams only have one farm team.  Each farm team plays in one of two leagues - the Eastern League and the Western League.  The Eastern League includes the farm teams for the Marines, Fighters, Lions, Eagles, Swallows, Baystars and Giants while the Western League includes the farm teams for the Dragons, Hawks, Tigers, Carp and Buffaloes.  Each farm team plays relatively close to their parent club with the exception of the Fighters who play in Kamagaya, Chiba.  (The Fighters had heavily invested in their facility in Kamagaya in the late 90's while they were still playing in Tokyo so they kept the team there.  Plus the Eastern League's travel expenses would have skyrocketed with having to have the teams travel to Sapporo - most of the teams are in Kanto and are a relatively short train or bus ride apart).

Now if you're paying attention to the make up of the two leagues, you can see there's a problem - each league has an odd number of teams.  The Eastern League has seven and the Western League has five.  The problem, of course, with a league with an odd number of teams is that all the teams can't play at the same time - one team has to be idle.

The two leagues used to each have six teams until 2004.  The Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes were merged into the  Orix BlueWave and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were added to replace them.  Kintetsu's farm team had been in the Western League but it made more geographical sense for Rakuten's farm team to be in the Eastern League so the leagues have had an odd number of teams ever since.

Until this season, that is.  NPB has "expanded" the two farm team leagues by adding what are essentially independent teams to each league.  The Eastern League has added the Niigata Albirex, a team that has been playing in the independent Baseball Challenge (BC) league since 2007 while the Western League has added a brand new team - the Hayate Ventures - which will play in Shizuoka.

It's kind of a weird situation where neither team really gets any benefit from playing in the "affliated" minors as opposed to the indy ones.  They're not allowed to participate in the NPB draft so they're really not going to able to develop any talent that they could sell off to NPB teams.  They're basically in the same situation that all the other indy minor league teams are in - they can sign former NPB players and sell those players to NPB organizations but any draft eligible players they sign will still have to go through the draft to join an NPB team.  Really the only benefit they're getting is being in a league with more visibility and better players.  Of course, the "better players' part of that equation means both teams will probably be the doormats of their respective leagues (and two weeks into the season that started on March 15th, that is indeed the case - Niigata is 2-7-1 and Hayate is 1-10-1, good enough for dead last in both leagues).

As far as I know, there's no intent that these team should someday become full-fledged NPB teams.  In fact, if I remember correctly when the teams were announced, it was expressly said that they would not ever be top-level teams.  I do think it's interesting that the locations of the two teams - Niigata and Shizuoka - are frequently mentioned as places that NPB could add top level expansion teams.  It's probably just a coincidence though.

Personally I think NPB should have basically run these two teams as co-op teams like affiliated minors in the US used to have before they got a little more streamlined back in the 1990's.  The roster for each team could have been made up of guys on the 70 man rosters for the other teams in their league that their parent team wanted a chance to get some more playing time.  I've always assumed that with 35-40 players on the farm team roster that it can be difficult for some players to get playing time although I could be wrong about that.

Like I mentioned, one of the pools of players available to these two teams is former NPB players and a glance at their rosters show that they've been dipping into that pool quite a bit.  I thought I'd do a post showing cards of the ex-NPB players on each roster as well as each team's manager.  First up is Niigata, which is managed by former Swallow, Fighter and Tiger Hideki Hashigami:

1994 BBM Late Series #594

Keisuke Kobayashi, Buffaloes 2017-20, Tigers 2020-23:

2023 BBM Tigers #T27

Tomoya Mikami, Baystars (2014-22), Giants (2023):

2021 BBM Baystars #DB18

Shota Nakayama, Swallows (2019-22):

2022 BBM Swallows #S59

Keita Sonobe, Buffaloes ikusei (2022-23):

2022 BBM Rookie Edition #066

Shun Takayama, Tigers (2016-23):

2022 BBM Tigers #T61

Shunta Tanaka, Giants (2018-20), Baystars (2021-23):

2021 BBM 1st Version #258

Kazuki Yabuta, Carp (2015-23):

2021 Epoch Carp Rookies & Stars #09

Daikan Yoh, Fighters (2006-16), Giants (2017-21):

2021 Epoch NPB #241

Kazumasa Yoshida, Buffaloes (2014-21):

2021 BBM Buffaloes #B05

It's kind of an interesting roster.  There's three former first round picks (Takayama, Yoh and Yoshida).  Yoh has played on the Taiwan National Team for the 2006 and 2013 World Baseball Classics and the 2015 Premier 12 and has spent the past two seasons playing indy ball in the US.  Yabuta played on the Samurai Japan team that won the 2017 Asian Professional Baseball Championship.  This is Yoshida's third season with Niigata.

Hayate is managed by former Kintetsu Buffaloes pitcher Motoyuki Akahori:

2001 BBM #257

Here's Hayate's former NPB players:

Yoshiaki Fujioka, Hawks (2006-13), Fighters (2014-16), Baystars (2016-20):

2020 BBM Baystars #DB32

Shuhei Fukuda, Hawks (2007-19), Marines (2020-23):

2023 BBM Marines #M60

Sota Ikeya, Baystars 2021-23:
2023 BBM Baystars #DB29

Shoma Itani, Hawks ikusei (2021-23):

2021 BBM Rookie Edition #011

Toshihiko Kuramoto, Baystars (2015-22):

2019 Baystars Team Set #5

Ryosuke Nishikawa, Marines (2021-23):

2021 Epoch Pacific League Rookies #10

Yusei Nishihama, Buffaloes ikusei (2023):

2023 BBM Rookie Edition #006

Koki Orishita, Giants ikusei (2018-20):

2018 BBM Rookie Edition #097

Kenjiro Tanaka, Baystars (2008-23):

2023 Epoch NPB #265

Yuito Tanigawa, Marines ikusei (2021-23):

2021 BBM Rookie Edition #019

Hayate's roster includes two first round picks (Fukuda and Tanaka) as well as two first picks from the ikusei portion of the draft (Nishihama and Tanigawa).

I discovered that I had another card of a player on Hayate's roster - one who had never played in NPB.  Pitcher Rintaro Hirama has spent most of the past four seasons with the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League (other than some time in 2022 that he spent in the Mexican League).  Since I have most of the 2020 Kochi team set, I have a card of Hirama:

2020 Kochi Team Set #04

Speaking of team sets, it's not yet known if there will be any baseball cards for either team.  As fas as I have been able to tell, Niigata has never had any baseball cards (other than an oddball card for manager Naoyuki "Gyaos" Naito that was a giveaway at a BBM event a few years back).  Since they're new, there's no way to predict whether Hayate will publish a team set - although I'm surprised that their website doesn't have a store yet.  I'm hoping to see Hayate play when I'm in Japan in May - I've wanted to see a game in Shizuoka since I stopped by the stadium in 2019 - so maybe I'll find out for myself.  

Friday, March 29, 2024

Oldest BBM Set With An Active NPB Player - 2024 Edition

My OTHER Opening Day tradition each year is posting about the oldest BBM set that has a card of an active NPB player.  For the second year in a row, that set is the 2001 one due to the inclusion of Hiroyuki Nakajima, who is now with the Dragons.  Keep in mind, of course, that "active" is a relative term.

2001 BBM #426

There is one player still active from the 2000 BBM set but he's not playing in NPB.  42 year old Munenori Kawasaki is on the roster of the Tochigi Golden Braves of the independent Baseball Challenge League.  With the retirement of Itsuki Shoda last year, Kawasaki is the last active player who was drafted in the 20th century (Hawks 1999 4th round).

2000 BBM #291

Play Ball (2024)

 I'm continuing my Opening Day tradition of doing a post showing a baseball card from the last year that each of the 12 NPB teams won the Nippon Series which was inspired by (or stolen from) the series of posts that Night Owl Cards has been doing for a while now for MLB teams:

The last time the TIGERS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2023 BBM Tigers #T57

The last time the BUFFALOES won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2022 Epoch NPB #241

The last time the SWALLOWS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2021 Calbee #211

The last time the HAWKS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2020 BBM 1st Version #037

The last time the FIGHTERS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2016 BBM Fighters #F43

The last time the EAGLES won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2013 Calbee #AS-23

The last time the GIANTS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2012 BBM 2nd Version #601

The last time the MARINES won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2010 Calbee #081

The last time the LIONS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2008 BBM Lions 30th Anniversary #74

The last time the DRAGONS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

2007 Dragons #37

The last time the BAYSTARS won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

1998 BBM #293

The last time the CARP won the Nippon Series, cards looked like this:

1984 Calbee #36

All 12 current NPB teams have won the Series at least once so there are no "Photo Not Found" teams.

When I started doing these posts six years ago, I only had six Tigers cards from 1985.  I used the last of those six last year so it was really convenient for me that the Tigers won so I didn't have to repeat any cards.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Upcoming Milestones

It's Opening Day for the NPB season tomorrow (at least from here in the states) and the first pitch will be in in about nine hours.  I thought I'd continue what I guess is going to be an another annual Opening Day tradition for me - a post about the player's who are approaching the milestones needed for admission into the Meikyukai or Golden Player's Club.  The requirements are for a player to have been born in the Showa Era or later (not that there's been an active player who wasn't born in the Showa Era or later since probably the 1960's) and to have accumulated 2000 hits, 200 wins or 250 saves.  Statistics from MLB count but only if the NPB stats came first - which is why Alfonso Soriano is eligble but Adam Jones doesn't.

There are five members of the Meikyukai active in NPB right now - Norichika Aoki, Hayato Sakamoto, Takumi Kuriyama, Yohei Ohshima and Yoshihisa Hirano.  Ohshima and Hirano both became members last year.

I'm going to start by listing the hitters who have less than 2000 hits but more than 1500:

1. Hiroyuki Nakajima, 1928 hits

2023 Topps NPB #69

2. Hideto Asamura, 1845 hits

2023 Calbee #076

3. Takeya Nakamura, 1771 hits

2023 Epoch One #756
4. Yoshiharu Maru, 1696 hits

2023 BBM 1st Version #262

5. Shogo Akiyama, 1636 hits (1565 NPB, 71 MLB)

2023 BBM 2nd Version #569

6. Ryosuke Kikuchi, 1591 hits

2023 BBM Carp #C49

7. Yuki Yanagita, 1542 hits

2023 Epoch NPB Luxury Collection #72

8. Sho Nakata, 1523 hits

2023 Topps 206 #93

The only guy on this list who realistically could reach 2000 hits this season is Asamura although I expect that Maru, Akiyama, Kikuchi and Yanagita will eventually make it.

Here's all the pitchers with more than 150 but less than 200 career victories.  Obviously this includes two MLB players:

1. Masahiro Tanaka, 197 wins (119 NPB, 78 MLB)

2023 BBM Infinity #13

2. Yu Darvish, 196 wins (93 NPB, 103 MLB)

2011 Calbee #096

3. Masanori Ishikawa, 185 wins

2023 BBM Swallows #S09

4. Tsuyoshi Wada, 163 wins (158 NPB, 5 MLB)

2023 BBM Hawks #H10

5. Kenta Maeda, 162 wins (97 NPB, 65 MLB)

2015 Bandai Owners League 01 #027

6. Hideaki Wakui, 159 wins

2023 BBM Dragons #D10

7. Takayuki Kishi, 158 wins

2023 Epoch NPB #111

I expect that both Tanaka and Darvish will get win #200 this year but the only one of the other five that I think will someday reach the milestone is Maeda.

Finally, here's all the pitchers with more than 200 hundred saves and less than 250:

1. Yuki Matsui, 236 saves

2023 BBM Icons - Samurai #10

2. Yasuaki Yamasaki, 227 saves

2023 BBM Baystars #DB10

3. Naoya Masuda, 218 saves

2023 BBM Marines #M29

It's not out of the question that all three of these guys reaches the milestone this year.

Off the top of my head, I'm not sure what's the record for "most guys joining the Meikyukai" in a single season but there's a pretty good chance that six guys will do it this year.