Saturday, February 4, 2017

WBC 2017 Preview: Breaking down Japan

With the recent addition of the only MLB player on the roster so far in Aoki, Japan has nine spots remaining. There's still a possibility that pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma could join the team, as well as outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who played for Japan in the 2006 and '09 tournaments. Tanaka was a member of the '09 and '13 teams, and Iwakuma pitched for Japan in the '09 Classic.
Given their track record in the Majors and success in past tournaments, adding Tanaka (2.89 ERA, 17 strikeouts and no walks in 9 1/3 Classic innings), Iwakuma (1.35 ERA, 0.90 WHIP in 20 Classic innings) or both would be a big boost for Japan's pitching staff.
How they fared in the past
Japan defeated Cuba in the inaugural Classic final in 2006, and beat South Korea to win a second straight Classic title three years later. In '13, Japan was ousted by Puerto Rico in the semifinal round, 3-1.
What they should do well
Japan has thrived in past tournaments with excellent pitching, but it's the slugging that could take center stage for the club this time around. Beyond Ohtani, the team boasts six other hitters that belted 23 or more homers in NPB last season -- Tsutsugo (44), Yamada (38), Suzuki (29), Matsuda (27), Nakata (25) and Sakamoto (23).
Japan should shine defensively, too -- manager Hiroki Kokubo said he thinks his team's defense will be its greatest strength in the tournament.
Where they could struggle
Japan has had strong pitching in past tournaments, and has a solid staff headed by Ohtani and Sugano this year. But pending additions to the roster, only one of their hurlers has pitched in the Classic before (Makita), and Japan's pitchers were shelled for 29 runs over four exhibition games against Mexico and the Netherlands in November.
How far they could go
With Japan's pedigree, as well as the talent in its starting rotation and powerful lineup, a third Classic championship in four tournaments is definitely possible. There's also added motivation for Japan after coming up short in 2013.

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