• Baseball

Imports still in travel-restriction limbo

A total of 37 foreign baseball players under contract have yet to get the go-ahead to enter Japan before Friday’s Opening Day of the professional baseball season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Because of restrictions on entry into the country, most pro baseball teams are expected to start the season without their foreign players, around whom teams tend to build.

Even if they are able to start trickling into the country, they will have to voluntarily isolate for 14 days, likely pushing their date to join top-team rosters until sometime in May. This is an issue with which each team is most likely dealing.

The Yomiuri Giants have not been able to bring in four of their imports, including newcomers Justin Smoak and Eric Thames. C.C. Mercedes, who is set to start his fifth year in Japan, is also on the list of Giants whose entry has been delayed.

Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara had hoped the two new players would be candidates to bat fifth. He has decided to set aside plans to put Takayuki Kajitani and Hayato Sakamoto in the top two spots in the lineup for now, leaving Sakamoto, Kazuma Okamoto, and Yoshihiro Maru in the heart of the order.

However, given that Sakamoto was briefly sidelined with a back strain at the end of the exhibition season, having a lot of choices can be a good thing, observers said.

Hara has tried to motivate his current roster by publicly stating, “I don’t know when it will be for these incoming foreign players, but I have hopes for them.”

The Yokohama DeNA BayStars will be without two-time Central League home run champion Neftali Soto and Tyler Austin, who clubbed 20 long balls last season. Ten DeNA imports, including reliever Edwin Escobar and a number of players on developmental contracts, are among those who have not been able to enter the country.

Rookie Shugo Maki was expected to help cover for them, but with a team batting average of .210 in the preseason, the offense has been an issue for DeNA.

After Keita Sano and Toshiro Miyazaki, however, the rest of the lineup is lacking.

DeNA skipper Daisuke Miura has high hopes for Maki, fourth-year player Kazuki Kamizato and fifth-year player Seiya Hosokawa, saying, “I want them to make the most of this opportunity.”

Many teams are struggling with a lack of pitchers. The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, who saw pitcher Kohei Arihara go to the United States to join the Texas Rangers, need to strengthen their rotation.

Drew VerHagen, who was tied for the most wins on the team last season with eight, and newcomer Robbie Erlin have not been able to travel to Japan. In February, the team acquired right-hander Takahide Ikeda from the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles in a one-for-one trade.

In the absence of newcomers Kyle Bird and Dovydas Neverauskas, the Hiroshima Carp will include three new pitchers on their first-team roster for the season opener: first draft pick Ryoji Kuribayashi, second selection Daisuke Moriura and third pick Haruki Omichi.

After entering the country, the import players will be allowed to practice during the quarantine period, provided each team takes thorough quarantine measures.