Shisa Spring Report

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Updated: October 4, 2016

Shiba Taguchi, Ryukyu Sports News

Tuba City, ArizonaMarch 27, 2024: There should be more excitement surrounding the Shisa as they prepare for 2024, but four consecutive seasons of losing baseball appear to have left the fan base apathetic. This year is likely going to be Okinawa’s best chance yet at posting their first winning season since joining the PEBA, and for once the experts seem to believe that the Shisa have the horses to get it done. It’s now a familiar refrain in Naha, but the team has again brought in several new players to bolster the squad: five players through free agency, one player via the Rule 5 draft, and two players come from the contraction draft. The Shisa may, for the first time in their PEBA history, actually run out a legitimate big league starting rotation, which is cause for guarded optimism. There does appear to be a renewed emphasis on run prevention overall, with several glove men taking the field and a well regarded defensive catcher added to the team. The bullpen, where few changes to a mediocre group were made, and the back half of the lineup, which will struggle to be productive, both remain concerns, however.

Players In

F Clarence Carpenter (contraction draft) 7.2 WAR

RP Moromao Kimura (free agency) 0.7 WAR (LRS)

RP Nolan Kuhn (Rule 5 draft)

CF Cheol-chung O (free agency) 3.7 WAR

3B Tsukasa Okada (free agency) 1.5 WAR

LF Jerry Rutledge (promoted)

SP Cristo Santiago (contraction draft) 4.3 WAR

SP Yoshihisa Sato (free agency) 3.8 WAR (LRS)

SS Takeru Sekiguchi (promoted)

C Ray Tuff (free agency) 0.8 WAR

Total 22 WAR

Players Out

RP Alejandro Barrios (became a free agent) -0.5 WAR

SP/RP Chris Graves (team option declined) 0.7 WAR

RP Ming-hoa Gu (released) 0.0 WAR

DH Ricardo Longoria (trade to Crystal Lake) 1.0 WAR

CF Mario Martinez (became a free agent) 1.9 WAR

RP Masato Matsuda (demoted) -0.3 WAR

3B Scott Morris (released) 3.4 WAR

RP Kenzo Nemoto (demoted) -0.6 WAR

RF José Torres (released) -0.3 WAR

3B Bobby Watson (became a free agent) 3.4 WAR

LF Russell Wright (became a free agent) -0.2 WAR

Total 8.5 WAR

The Pressing Question: Is Clarence Carpenter for Real?

The Shisa front office proclaimed itself delighted with the acquisition of Carpenter in the first round of the contraction draft. It’s difficult to find fault with the pick. In his age 22 season, when most players are trying to get into AA ball, Carpenter put up a WAR of 7.2 at the big league level, on his way to an all-star appearance and winning the IL Wunderkind. Some question whether this level of performance is sustainable, however. The hallmarks of Carpenter’s game appear to be speed, tremendous outfield defense, and a good, but not spectacular, bat. Shisa scouts say that he’s still developing what promises to be an outstanding hit tool, though he doesn’t appear to have much power upside. For a hitter with average to slightly above average power, the 21 home runs he hit in 2023 may be at or very near the upper limit of his power production. His defensive ability begs the question, why wasn’t he put in center field in minors? We’ll likely never have an answer to that, but there’s some reason to think that the Shisa would be wise to give Carpenter a little on the job training at the position.

Will there be a sophomore slump for Carpenter in 2024? Some scouts are concerned that the game has come a little too easily to Carpenter. He’s known to have a laid back personality and to be a cool customer in the batter’s box, and while these traits have served him well to this point and made him popular in the clubhouse, he hasn’t shown that competitive steel one is used to seeing from the sport’s bigger stars. One advantage he might have is the fact that, while he’s spent a year in the PEBA, he’ll be brand new in the SL, where most pitchers haven’t faced him before, and where scouts haven’t yet devoted much time to breaking down his at-bats. Team officials are hopeful that improved patience and an improved eye could raise Carpenter’s OBP above the .343 mark he posted last year, up to a level they’d be comfortable with in the lead-off spot. If that doesn’t happen, Carpenter may start to drift down the lineup.

The Position Battle: Left Field

With Cheol-chung O taking over in center field, and Carpenter installed in right, the battle for playing time will be in left field this season. Salvador Rodríguez will be coming back from a broken ankle that shortened his 2023 campaign. He’s now nursing a strained back that will keep him out of the opening day lineup. Of the three players who could go here, Rodríguez is the weakest defensively, and will likely spend significant time at DH this year. Mike Clarke returns in what should be his first full season with the team. Okinawa is hoping for significant improvement over his .260/.297/.388 line of 2023. Best case for him is that he catches on at the plate and hits at the top of the lineup. While an above average fielder, Clarke may be supplanted by new boy Jerry Rutledge (more on him below) if he manages to surprise and catch on early in the season.

The Big Prospect: Jerry Rutledge

The Shisa’s 2022 first round pick, Rutledge will begin the season on the major league roster, where he joins the team’s 2021 first round pick, Mike Clarke. Expectations for Rutledge should be modest, given that he had a .670 OPS in AAA last season. Even so, both he and the team agree that he’s ready for major league play, but it’s hard to see what they are basing this belief on. One would think that the outfielder’s spring line of .143/.214/.238 would get him sent back down to the minors in a hurry. Instead the team decided a promotion was in order. The front office even chose to burn their ships and traded Ricardo Longoria away to Crystal Lake for good measure. For better or worse, Shisa executives are committed to Rutledge this year.

The good news is that Rutledge need not be a world beater for the Shisa to have some success this season. If Clarke grows into his role as a top of the lineup hitter and Rodríguez can get healthy and hit for power like he’s showed signs of in the past, then Rutledge will be allowed to grow into his role with some playing time off the bench, which might make his transition to the big leagues an easier one for all involved.

The Nagging Problem: A Bullpen with no Back End

Throughout his tenure in Okinawa, GM Morris Ragland has been fairly consistent in his approach to developing the bullpen. He’s more or less ignored it from the start, using it mostly as a dumping ground for failed starter projects. Things reached the point this spring where the Shisa front office made the (bold?) decision to use only two designations for its relievers. The team has long relievers, and middle relievers. It has not named a closer, or a set-up man, or a seventh inning guy, or a fireman. GM Ragland has punted and given skipper Kijuro Yoshida ‘complete freedom’ to use the arms he has in the bullpen as he wishes. We can forgive Yoshida for not exactly jumping for joy at this ‘gift’.

The Shisa bullpen is made up the usual suspects this season. You have two former starters, Isei Yamaguchi and Jorge Jiménez, just hoping to make themselves useful, and there’s the southpaw pitcher who couldn’t even make another team’s 40-man in Nolan Kuhn. Outside of that, you have a handful of decent, if not spectacular, pitchers who are capable of holding down a spot in the middle of the bullpen. There is just no star power in relief and management seems disinclined to pay for a big money closer, either in free agency or in trade. If this group makes a habit of leaking runs in the late innings, and it appears perfectly capable of that, then it’s hard to imagine this team seriously contending for a wild card berth in 2024.