The 2017 World Baseball Classic will begin in March. With the rosters around the rest of the field finalized, Samurai Japan has its own storyline as they attempt to win their third title in four attempts.
Here's a breakdown of the main roster for the 2017 team:
SP Shota Takeda (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks)
SP/RP Hirotoshi Masui (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)
SP Takahiro Norimoto (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles)
SP Tomoyuki Sugano (Yomiuri Giants)
SP Shintaro Fujinami (Hanshin Tigers)
SP Ayumu Ishikawa (Chiba Lotte Marines)
SP Kodai Senga (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks)
RP Ryo Akiyoshi (Tokyo Yakult Swallows)
RP Kazuhisa Makita (Saitama Seibu Lions)
RP Toshiya Okada (Chunichi Dragons)
RP Yuki Matsui (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles)
RP Yoshihisa Hirano (Orix Buffaloes)
The big part that is missing is Shohei Otani as he is recovering from an ankle injury. Shota Takeda became the replacement and is expected to be a starter. Norimoto, Sugano and Ishikawa are also expected to start games for Samurai Japan.
Who is going to close? Hirano and Matsui have the most experience from 2016, but the latter had a down season. It's also likely that Fujinami and Senga, both traditionally starters, will be relievers after the starter reaches the pitch count limit.
There's quite a few middle relievers with Okada, Makita, Miyanishi and even Akiyoshi who is better suited as a setup man. Okada can be a lefty specialist while the other three cna take the late innings if necessary. It's likely that Hirano closes while Matsui the setup role. Masui can also be a reliever for a few innings like Fujinami and Senga.
There may not be the elite player that Otani is for this group, but Sugano and Norimoto should be the top 1-2 punch among the starters and there is plenty of depth.
Motohiro Shima (Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles)
Shota Ono (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)
Seiji Kobayashi (Yomiuri Giants)
Ono had arguably the best defensive season among Pacific League catchers and has a quick arm to throw runners out. Shima is the most well-rounded catcher and can hit the best among the trio. Kobayashi is the youngest, but came off a solid season with the highest UZR among NPB catchers who qualified.
It's possible that all three catchers will see time depending on who is pitching, but Shima is the best option if the team needs offense.
1B Sho Nakata (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters)
2B Ryosuke Kikuchi (Hiroshima Carp)
SS Hayato Sakamoto (Yomiuri Giants)
2B Tetsuto Yamada (Tokyo Yakult Swallows)
3B Nobuhiro Matsuda (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks)
SS Kosuke Tanaka (Hiroshima Carp)
The infield is stacked with talent that someone who is normally great will be on the bench. Manager Hiroki Kokubo is rumored to like Kikuchi's defense in the field with Tetsuto Yamada as a DH to get both of them in the lineup. It's clear cut that Nakata, Matsuda and Sakamoto will be playing 1B, 3B and SS, respectively.
Kosuke Tanaka provides solid depth if necessary, but the question is how much playing time will Kikuchi get?
Seiichi Uchikawa (Fukuoka Softbank Hawks)
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (Yokohama DeNA Baystars)
Shogo Akiyama (Saitama Seibu Lions)
Seiya Suzuki (Hiroshima Carp)
Norichika Aoki (Houston Astros)
Ryosuke Hirata (Chunichi Dragons)
The big rumor is that Kokubo is higher on playing Aoki as a starting OF. This would be a large mistake given that he is likely on the wrong side of his career. He should be a pinch hitter or someone off the bench at best. If Aoki starts, someone else has to sit.
It would be a travesty if Tsutsugo doesn't get everyday playing time and is only available on the bench to pinch hit, assuming that Yamada could DH. Akiyama is expected to be a reserve while Suzuki and Hirata are candidates to start. Uchikawa becomes a top pinch hit option off the bench and can also play 1B.
Pitcher's Pool (8)
Kenta Ishida (Yokohama DeNA Baystars)
Tatsushi Masuda (Saitama Seibu Lions)
Yasuaki Yamasaki (Yokohama DeNA Baystars)
Yuta Iwasada (Hanshin Tigers)
Masahiko Morifuku (Yomiuri Giants)
Yusuke Nomura (Hiroshima Carp)
Daichi Osera (Hiroshima Carp)
Hirokazu Sawamura (Yomiuri Giants)
As with every roster, this is all done by ear if any of them receive a call up due to injury or performance. I'd personally have Masuda or Sawamura as the best reliever options while Nomura should be the best starter among the bunch. If Kokubo wants a lefty specialist, Morifuku can be that guy. This list is mostly here in the event of an injury as Kokubo only chose one designated pitcher, putting a vote of confidence in the players he originally selected.
Note: Hirano is the designated pitcher and is the only eligible player to be replaced for non-injury reasons.
Samurai Japan will not need to leave the country, let alone Kanto as the first and second rounds are scheduled to be in Tokyo Dome. By facing Cuba, China and Australia in the opening round, they are all but a lock to move to the second round.
South Korea and the Netherlands should be a threat in Round 2, but Samurai Japan should at least make the the Finals in Los Angeles. According to the betting odds, Samurai Japan is considered the third best team behind the Dominican Republic and USA. The talent is still elite, but just not the level it could've been had Otani been with the team.
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