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NPB Central League Preview: Will the Colonel Bless the Hanshin Tigers With a Repeat?

 Conor Liguori  |    Mar 28th, 2024 7:06pm EDT

The Hanshin Tigers celebrate their first Japan Series championship since 1985, lofting manager Akinobu Okada after defeating the Orix Buffaloes 7-1 in game seven. (The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images)

Opening Day of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan is March 29, and all six Central League teams will play.

The six teams in the Central League are the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Chunichi Dragons, and the Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

The most recent Central League champions are the Hanshin Tigers, who defeated the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the 2023 Final Stage, and the Pacific League champion Orix Buffaloes in the 2023 Japan Series.

Can the Hanshin Tigers repeat as Japan Series champions for the first time in franchise history?

Can superstar Munetaka Murakami lead the Swallows back to the postseason after the team failed to qualify in 2023?

Are the Chunichi Dragons as bad as they have been? Or is the rest of the Central League just a step above them?

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

Yomiuri Giants (2023 Record: 71-70-2, Missed Postseason)

Notable Additions: RHP Kyle Keller, RHP Keisuke Izumi, RHP Rei Takahashi

Notable Losses: OF Lewis Brinson, OF Adam Walker

The Giants added plenty of pitching depth during the winter, signing Kyle Keller, reliever Keisuke Izumi, and submariner Rei Takahashi. They added Rougned Odor in free agency, but released the MLB veteran after he went hitless in 12 spring training games with Yomiuri and declined to go to the minor leagues. Given the additions to the bullpen and Kazuma Okamoto (41 home runs in 2023) being one of the most feared hitters in NPB, the Giants have the potential to be a threat in the Central League.

Hanshin Tigers (2023 Record: 85-53-5, Won Japan Series Over Orix Buffaloes)

Notable Additions: RHP Javy Guerra

Notable Losses: RHP Colten Brewer, RHP Kyle Keller

Hanshin made only one significant addition during the offseason, signing relief pitcher Javy Guerra for 2024. As evidenced by their Japan Series championship in 2023, the Tigers have one of the better starting lineups in NPB. The rotation features last year’s Central League Rookie of the Year and MVP Shoki Murakami. If healthy, the Tigers have a good chance of returning to the Japan Series under manager Akinobu Okada.

Hiroshima Toyo Carp (2023 Record: 74-65-4, Lost to Hanshin Tigers in Final Stage)

Notable Additions: LHP Taylor Hearn, 3B Matt Reynolds

Notable Losses: OF Ryoma Nishikawa, 3B Matt Davidson

Hiroshima played above expectations in 2023, making it to the Central League Final Stage. However, they did lose one of – if not their best – hitters in Ryoma Nishikawa to their cross-town rival, the Orix Buffaloes,┬áin free agency. While that certainly hurts the team, their starting rotation remains solid, headlined by Aren Kuri, who went 8-8 with a 2.53 ERA last season.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows (2023 Record: 57-83-3, Missed Postseason)

Notable Additions: RHP Jose Espada, RHP Miguel Yajure, OF Shu Masuda, re-sign LHP Kazuto Taguchi, OF Haruki Nishikawa

Notable Losses: LHP Dillon Peters

After winning the Japan Series in 2021 and losing to the Orix Buffaloes in the championship round in 2022, the Swallows took a significant step backward in 2023. The organization lives and dies by third baseman Munetaka Murakami, who will most likely be posted after the 2025 NPB season and hit 208 home runs in his first six years as a pro. The Central League may be too talented for the Swallows to return to the postseason in 2024, but stranger things have happened.

Chunichi Dragons (2023 Record: 56-82-5, Missed Postseason)

Notable Additions: 1B Sho Nakata, SS Hiroyuki Nakajima, OF Alex Dickerson

Notable Losses: OF Aristides Aquino

Could this be the year the Dragons finally return to the postseason? The organization has not qualified since 2012, and their last Central League pennant was in 2007. Alex Dickerson is an excellent addition to the lineup, but the level of pitching he saw in the Atlantic League with the Long Island Ducks is not comparable to NPB hurlers. Sho Nakata, a 10-time NPB All-Star, has been a great player in NPB and international tournaments for Japan but will turn 35 on April 22.

Yokohama DeNA BayStars (2023 Record: 74-66-3, Lost to Hiroshima Toyo Carp in First Stage)

Notable Additions: RHP Andre Jackson, LHP Anthony Kay, RHP Yuito Mori

Notable Losses: LHP Shota Imanaga, RHP Trevor Bauer, OF Neftali Soto

It seems that former MLB Cy Young Trevor Bauer will not return to Yokohama, and Shota Imanaga signed a four-year, $53 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. That leaves the BayStars with a lot of questions surrounding the starting rotation in 2024. The club will rely on first-round draft pick Ryuki Watarai, who is just 22 years old, and two-time NPB All-Star second baseman Shugo Maki to lead them on offense and to victory.

How to Watch: No streaming services in the United States currently televise all six Central League teams, but Toratele broadcasts all Hanshin Tigers home games (and select road games).

The Japanese video-sharing service NicoNico broadcasts Yokohama DeNA BayStars home games for free, but a VPN is required to access the broadcast.