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Patrick Newman

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The Cubs' Japanese Roster, or, Is There Any Hope For Kosuke Fukudome?

by Patrick Newman (Feb 6, 2009)

Admit it Cubs fans - you liked Kosuke Fukudome at first. He came roaring out of the gates, and the Northside faithful united in celebration of their new import star with hachimakis and t-shirts featuring the Asahi flag and "Fukudome" written in katakana. The hype was so great that Sports Illustrated even deemed him worthy of cover appearance, thus assuring both he and the Cubs would suffer from the associated jinx (which one prescient Cubs fan tried unsuccessfully to prevent).

Then, Fuku went into a slump in the early summer, the novelty wore off and the honeymoon period was over. As the summer progressed, so did Fukudome's struggles, drawing the ire of the Cubs fans and getting scapegoated after the Cubs' latest postseason choke job. Fukudome wasn't the only one responsible for the Cubs tanking in the playoffs, but to be fair, he did vastly underperform the expectations that came with his contract. 

Why was he so bad in the second half? You could probably point to a number of reasons - better scouting on him for the rest of the league, inadequate translation services, difficulty adjusting to the more demanding travel and game schedule, late affects of his 2007 elbow surgery, or some of each. I would put travel forward as a concern; Fuku had an .825 ops at Wrigley despite the late-season booing, versus a .655 ops on the road. Lou Pinella may want to rest him a bit on roadtrips in the upcoming season.

For his part, Fukudome has spent quite a bit of his offseason training with his Chunichi Dragons coaches in Japan. Nikkan Sports quoted him as saying, "I have some things that don't fit with the way of doing things over there [America]". He's currently training with his 2002 batting coach, Kyosuke Sasaki and took 300 swings in the batting cage the other day. Clearly there are adjustments for him to make, and Fukudome must be hoping that Sasaki can help him regain some of his 2002 form, when he robbed Matsui of the Central League Triple Crown by winning the batting title.

I get WGN here in the Bay Area, and I got to see the Cubs a couple of times while he was slumping last season. I noticed two things about Fukudome that appeared to be problematic: 1) gotta shorten up that swing 2) pitchers were backing him off the plate by throwing hard inside; he needs to stand his ground. The one encouraging thing was that in the few games I watched, he wasn't chasing bad pitches. 

It's been speculated that the additions of So Taguchi and Ken Kadokura on minor league were partially motivated by the struggles of Fukudome. Honestly, it's hard not to draw that conclusion, but I think it's unlikely that either one will have a material impact on Fukudome's performance. Taguchi seems like the more likely of the two to help - he's been in America for seven seasons and has gone from being a guy that couldn't make a big league roster to being a useful role outfielder. The problem is that he's behind Reed Johnson and Joey Gathright on the depth chart, and both of those guys are younger and were more productive in 2008 than Taguchi. I like the Kadokura acquisition as a low-risk baseball move. I think we'll see him in the majors for the Cubs at some point this year but he'll be adjusting to MLB life himself.

So it's a do or die year for Fukudome. I could see him hitting .298 with 45 doubles, but I could also see him having another sub-par year.

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