Friday, February 26, 2016

2016 Seibu Lions coaching outlook: Is this the end for Norio Tanabe?

Is Tanabe a bridge or on the hot seat?
The 2016 season for NPB season will begin at the end of March, but the big picture suddenly draws question marks for what happens to the Saitama Seibu Lions manager after the year is over.

In the offseason, the Lions added three coaches to their staff. Hideki Hashigami is the new strategy and tactics coach, where he previously worked with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles from 2005-2009 and in 2015 as well as the Yomiuri Giants from 2012-2014. He also worked with the national team in 2013 for the World Baseball Classic.

Masanori Taguchi is the new battery coach while Tomoaki Sato will be in charge of outfield defense and base running. Sato will presumably be the first base coach while Hiroshi Narahara will remain at third base.

Hisanori Yokota, the team's pitching coach in 2015, will be the manager for the farm team at the ni-gun level. However, the biggest change is Tetsuya Shiozaki being promoted from farm manager to pitching coach and "Head coach" (which is an equivalent to bench coach in MLB terms).

This is only speculation, but putting the pieces together gives us the feeling that 2016 could be the end for Norio Tanabe as the head manager. According to Jim Allen of Kyodo News, Shiozaki was supposed to be the successor to Hisanobu Watanabe (Nabe-Q) after 2013 where the latter stepped down. Nabe-Q currently works in the front office as a senior adviser. 

Lions general manager Haruhiko Suzuki might have disagreed with having Shiozaki as the skipper and made the selection to put Haruki Ihara to be the manager for 2014. Ihara failed miserably and resigned in the middle of 2014, where Tanabe took over as the interim manager. Nabe-Q had no say in the hiring of Ihara.

Tanabe led the Lions to a 69-69-5 record which was short of the postseason and fourth place in the Pacific League. Despite the shortcoming in the second half, they signed a one year deal through the 2016 season. The biggest key in all of this is that Tanabe is in a contract year, meaning he's only guaranteed to manage the team this season.

In historical trend, Ihara was once a stop gap manager for the Lions from 2002-2003. He led the team to a 2002 Pacific League pennant which resulted in a sweeping loss to the Giants. In 2003, the Lions came in second place wit a 77-61-2 record, 5.5 games behind the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks which was short of the postseason. (The Climax Series didn't begin until 2004).

Those two years were grooming seasons for longtime catcher Tsutomu Ito, who became the manager in 2004 and it was the plan all along. Ito would lead the Lions to their first Japan Series championship since 1992 which included a crucial elimination Game 5 win in Fukuoka. Today, Ito is the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Nabe-Q could have more power to get "his guy" in Shiozaki as manager in 2017, no matter how the 2016 Lions finish under Tanabe. Suzuki could give in and for the long run, Shiozaki appears to be the man after this year. He should know plenty of the farm players from his experience as ni-gun while this year watching as the second in command for the Lions dugout.

Tanabe's back is against the wall. He most likely knows he needs to win now or else he is replaced with Shiozaki waiting in the wings. Tanabe cannot be "fired" because his contract expires after the season, but he would be let go at no extra cost. While this theory in Shiozaki being the one next in line is just speculation, there's too much evidence which draws us to this conclusion after his promotion to head coach.

What we do know is, the managerial position is uncertain for 2017 and that Tanabe will be in charge on Opening Day. This could very well be an all-or-nothing season for Tanabe to make a lasting impression as a manager in his career.


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