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Can the Buffaloes Win Without Yamamoto? A Preview of the NPB Pacific League

 Conor Liguori  |    Mar 27th, 2024 3:07pm EDT

Yoshinobu Yamamoto of the Orix Buffaloes applauds fans after the Japan Series Game One at Jingu Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Opening Day for Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball is March 29, and all six teams from the Pacific League will play.   

The six teams in the Pacific League are the Chiba Lotte Marines, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, Saitama Seibu Lions, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Each organization will play 144 games during the regular season.  

The defending Pacific League champions are the Orix Buffaloes, who lost to the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers four games to three in the 2023 Japan Series.  

Can Orix return to the Japan Series without three-time Pacific League MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto?  

Can the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters avoid finishing last for the third season in a row?  

Will Chiba Lotte Marines starting pitcher Roki Sasaki be the best player in the Pacific League this year?  

These questions and many more will be answered as the 2024 Pacific League season plays out. Here are brief previews of what to expect from each of the six Pacific League organizations in 2024.  

Chiba Lotte Marines (2023 Record: 70-68-5, Lost to Orix Buffaloes in Final Stage)  

Notable Additions: RHP Jimmy Cordero, 1B Neftali Soto, RHP James Dykstra, RHP Junior Fernandez  

Notable Losses: 3B Mike Brosseau, RHP Luis Perdomo  

Excellent news for Chiba Lotte is that they have the best starting pitcher in the Pacific League in Roki Sasaki, and Gregory Polanco, who led the team with 26 home runs in 2023, is healthy. If the Marines are to make it to the postseason, they are now tasked with defeating the Orix Buffaloes without three-time NPB MVP Yoshinobu Yamamoto. Although they made it to the Final Stage in 2023, the Marines must improve upon a -19 run differential from last season.  

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (2023 Record: 71-69-3, Lost to Chiba Lotte Marines in First Stage)  

Notable Additions: INF Hotaka Yamakawa, INF Ryuta Hirose, Sign LHP Livan Moinelo to Four-Year Contract Extension  

Notable Losses: UTIL Willians Astudillo, SS Freddy Galvis  

Outfielder Kensuke Kondoh led the Hawks on offense with 26 home runs and 87 RBI in 2023. On Sunday, the team signed one of its best pitchers, Cuban left-handed pitcher Livan Moinelo, to a four-year contract extension. In 2024, Moinelo will transition from the bullpen to a starting role. The organization has been seeking its first Japan Series title since 2020. Still, it would have to defeat tough opponents like the Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes in the Pacific League Final Stage.  

Orix Buffaloes (2023 Record: 86-53-4, Lost to Hanshin Tigers in Japan Series)  

Notable Additions: RHP Luis Castillo, RHP Anderson Espinoza, OF Cody Thomas, OF Ryoma Nishikawa  

Notable Losses: RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP Jacob Waguespack  

The Buffaloes will have to adjust to life without starting pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who signed a 12-year, $325 million contract with MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers. If the pitching staff can come remotely close to the 2.73 team ERA from 2023, the Buffaloes will have a chance to represent the Pacific League in the Japan Series. Adding outfielder Ryoma Nishikawa, who brings more energy and balance to the lineup, cannot be undervalued.  

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (2023 Record: 70-71-2, Missed Postseason)  

Notable Additions: RHP Cody Ponce, LHP Nik Turley  

Notable Losses: RHP Tomohiro Anraku, LHP Yuki Matsui  

In addition to a poor 2023 season, the Golden Eagles were troubled by a bullying scandal involving former pitcher Tomohiro Anraku, who reportedly pulled unappreciated pranks on his teammates. They have also lost their closer, Yuki Matsui, to the San Diego Padres. The rotation has question marks as well, including what former Pittsburgh Pirate Cody Ponce can bring to the table and how much Masahiro Tanaka has left in the tank.  

Saitama Seibu Lions (2023 Record: 65-77-1, Missed Postseason)  

Notable Additions: OF Franchy Cordero, 1B Jesus Aguilar, RHP Albert Abreu, LHP Jefry Yan  

Notable Losses: 1B David MacKinnon, OF Mark Payton 

The Lions made several signings of players with experience in Major League Baseball, but there are question marks associated with them. Cordero and Aguilar hit for power but also strike out a lot. The starting rotation could be substantial, primarily led by three-time NPB All-Star Kaima Taira. If the offense cannot improve upon a .233 batting average from 2023, Lions fans may be in for another season without watching their team in the postseason.  

Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (2023 Record: 60-82-1, Missed Postseason)  

Notable Additions: RHP Drew VerHagen, OF Andrew Stevenson, OF Franmil Reyes, LHP Sachiya Yamasaki  

Notable Losses: 2B Arismendy Alcantara, RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa  

Hokkaido lost one of their top starting pitchers, Naoyuki Uwasawa, to MLB, but signed eight-year MLB veteran Drew VerHagen to replace him. VerHagen pitched for the Fighters from 2020-21 and posted a 3.51 ERA in 38 games. The offense receives a nice boost from the addition of Franmil Reyes, who hit 108 career MLB home runs. The Fighters could be an improved team this season, but more is needed to squeak them into the postseason.  

How to Watch: Fans of Nippon Professional Baseball’s Pacific League can watch games with Pacific League TV with a paid subscription or through the Pacific League YouTube channel, which broadcasts about one game monthly with English commentary.