Shisa Spring Report

Updated: February 14, 2016

Shiba Taguchi, Ryukyu Sports News

Tuba City, ArizonaMarch 27, 2023: The Shisa prepare for 2023, again hoping for an improved record and their first winning season since joining the PEBA, and once again the experts don’t foresee much success for Okinawa in the coming year. As in 2022, Shisa executives have brought in several players, eleven in all, both via free agency and trade, to help the team in what seems an annual process of renewal in Naha. Okinawa’s off-season, best described as ‘unique’ in the PEBA community, saw them amass a considerable amount of money for what they describe as a ‘capital improvement fund’. This in addition to making improvements to Shisa Stadium that, curiously, the club paid for in cash.

The Pressing Question: Will Yet Another Wave of New Faces Make a Difference?

The Shisa were once again busy over the winter, adding eleven players to the active roster in an effort to improve on the team’s near-breakout performance last year when they finished 78-84 and remained in the playoff hunt going into the season’s final week, besting preseason predictions by fourteen wins. The baseball press, again, has regarded an influx of talent into Okinawa lightly, with most pre-season polls predicting that the Shisa will actually take a significant step back in the won-lost column, finishing 71-91, however, if Okinawa is able again to significantly outperform these expectations, a winning season is not entirely out of the question. Of the nine position players who started regularly for the Shisa in 2021 (61-101), only catcher Ray Pattullo remains with the club. A testament, perhaps, to just how unready for PEBA play the majority of former LRS teams were.

The Shisa added two potential starters to a slightly less egregiously bad 2022 rotation. The team needs to fill out the rotation built around the competent Isei Yamaguchi (3.51 ERA in 29 starts last year) and the improving Tsuginori Honma (4.07 ERA in 32 starts last season after a couple years spent in the wilderness). Chris Graves (5.53 ERA in 32 starts) flamed out last season and is looking to recover something of his former adequacy. It’s hard to imagine the team picking up either of the two remaining option years on his contract without significant improvement from him. Livewire Hendricks (5.42 ERA in 36 appearances) somehow remains a personal favorite of manager Kijuro Yoshida, who has given Hendricks a handful of spring starts wherein the right-hander has looked utterly lost. Alex Stinnett continues to recover from a torn labrum. The team let him go shortly before the conclusion of the 2022 season. The new pitchers the team will lean on, in the absence of any better alternatives, are Jorge Jiménez (4.28 ERA in 15 starts for Palm Springs last year) and left-hander Bill Lewis (6.07 ERA in 16 starts for Fargo last season). Both players are coming back from injuries that shorted their 2022 campaigns (shoulder for Jiménez and ulnar nerve for Lewis) and neither is a sure thing, though both have had some past success. Expect the competition in the rotation to be for the #5 spot, with Graves edging out Hendricks, at least to start the year. The outlook for the rotation is one of incremental improvement, building on the modest turnaround for this unit last season, but still far from being one of the better rotations in the league.

Okinawa also added three relief pitchers; two lefties, Ming-hoa Gu (4.22 ERA in just 10 2/3 innings pitched for the Evas last season) and José Días (3.77 ERA in 62 innings pitched for Kentucky last year), and righty Ismael Hernández (3.26 ERA for Hartford last season). As a rule, the team shies away from naming a reliever as ‘closer’, choosing to go instead with whomever has the hot hand, but it looks like Hernández’s job to lose.

The Shisa continue to shuffle their middle infield, while the corners appear set. Third baseman Scott Morris returns following a brilliant 5.2 WAR season. With an OBP of .389, the 2022 SL Platinum Stick winner may find himself leading off most games in 2023. At first base, Red Hook looks to continue where he left off in the last quarter of the 2022 season (.982 OPS in 41 games). Twenty-three year old Shuji Kawamoto, who has had a solid spring, looks to be the starting second baseman. At short, it looks like the Shisa are going to go with off-season acquisition Trapper Holmes, a player who has had some very good seasons in the past, but has struggled in the last two years. Other new faces that will be in the mix include utility man Michael Manley and third baseman Bobby Watson, who may be a platoon option at DH against left-handed starters.

In the outfield, the Shisa acquired three new players: RF/DH Ricardo Longoria, RF José Torres, and LF Russell Wright. Okinawa acquired the veteran, Longoria, in part for his leadership skills. He is limited defensively, but his ability to hit right-handed pitching make him a natural choice for the designated hitter’s role. At twenty-seven, Torres should be entering the prime of his career, but is an unproven asset. Wright is a capable defender and can play all outfield positions. Offensively he has been consistent, if not outstanding, over the past few years.

The Position Battle: Right Field

With Mario Martínez ensconced in center field after his 5.1 WAR season, and the front office still enamored of Salvador Rodríguez and his raw power in left field, right field remains the only open question, with Longoria, Torres, and Wright all in the mix. With Longoria, as noted above, well-suited to the DH role, expect right field to be a competition between Torres and Wright this season. Wright has the better track record, however, Torres may have the higher ceiling if he can get on track.

The Big Prospect: Mike Clarke

The Shisa’s 2021 first round pick, Mike Clarke will begin the season in double-A Kumamoto. A potential five-tool player, Clarke, a native of Durham, New Hampshire and graduate of Villanova University, remains the darling of the Shisa front office, having been vetted by three different scouting directors since he was drafted, all coming away impressed with the young man. This year he heads into his age twenty-four season, one which may find him on the Shisa roster by season’s end if he can take ‘the next step’ in his development, according on anonymous source within the organization. This might be optimistic, however, seeing that since their joining the PEBA, the Shisa have been in no hurry to promote their prospects to the big league level and Clarke is yet to master double-A pitching.

The Nagging Problem: Unreturned Calls

The Shisa have made no secret of their frustrations in free-agency this past off-season. While executives have steadfastly declined to name names, they say that many high-profile free agent prospects this year simply refused to talk to the front office about playing baseball in Okinawa. The club has blamed inaccurate portrayals of the the team’s overall strategy that have turned players off. Unlike in previous years, according to the team, prospects would not even allow the team to explain what their team focus was, rather, relying on ‘misinformed third parties’ for knowledge of the doings of the front office. Not only has the club brought this matter to the attention of league officials, but they have taken the unusual step of appealing to the player’s union, arguing that freezing out clubs during negotiations will inevitably result in lower player salaries.