Commentary

Fukudome likened to Ichiro-Matsui hybrid

Originally Published: February 18, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

MESA, Ariz. -- Chicago is anxious to extend its hands and hearts to Kosuke Fukudome. If he fulfills the hype, there will be an abundance of standing ovations, Wrigley Field curtain calls and laudatory Jay Mariotti columns coming his way over the next several months.

But as Fukudome nears the end of his first week in a Major League Baseball clubhouse, even the most erudite, well-educated Cubs could use a primer on how to relate to their new teammate.

Left fielder Matt Murton, a former Georgia Tech management major, readily concedes that he doesn't know a word of Japanese.

"I took Spanish in school," Murton said, "but that doesn't even help me with the Latin American guys in here. I got A's and B's all the way through [school], and I still don't know what I'm talking about."

My strength is, when I make a mistake I forget about it very quickly and prepare for the next play or the next pitch.

--Kosuke Fukudome

Center fielder Sam Fuld, who has an economics degree from Stanford, counts "Mr. Baseball" with Tom Selleck and "Lost in Translation" with Bill Murray among his Japanese cultural references. Fuld also traveled to Japan with Team USA in 2001. But when the Cubs began courting Fukudome in earnest this winter, he was thrown for a loop.

"During my trip to Japan, we saw a game in Fukuoka at the Fukuoka Dome," Fuld said. "When I first heard [Fukudome's] name, I thought it was a typo."

Until baseball fans in the U.S. learn more about Kosuke Fukudome (correct pronunciation: KOH-skay Foo-koo-DOUGH-may), comparisons will have to suffice. Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush has likened him to Steve Finley for his fluid style, and an anonymous National League talent evaluator calls him a "poor man's Carlos Beltran."

From everything that Chicago manager Lou Piniella hears, Fukudome is sort of an Ichiro Suzuki-Hideki Matsui hybrid. Like Ichiro, Fukudome is fleet afoot and has a strong throwing arm. Like Matsui, he's a power threat. Although his individual tools in each area aren't quite as pronounced as his two Japanese peers, he provides a more well-rounded blend than either.

"He's very sure of himself in a good way, and he has such versatility as a player," said Cubs GM Jim Hendry, "He ended up being the right guy at the right time for us."

The Cubs did plenty of homework before signing Fukudome to a four-year, $48 million deal in December. Ace scout Gary Hughes watched him at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and returned with glowing reports, and Bush and scout Paul Weaver were similarly impressed in subsequent viewings.

Fukudome hit two home runs for Japan at the World Baseball Classic in 2006, and had the look of a player who's comfortable on a big stage.

"He likes the action," Hendry said. That's good, because Fukudome will be scrutinized more thoroughly than Kelvin Sampson's phone bill once he arrives in Chicago.

Fukudome fills several needs for the Cubs, who ranked eighth in the National League in runs scored last year while generating almost no power from the left side. Cliff Floyd and Jacque Jones, the team's top lefty power threats, combined to hit 14 homers in 735 at-bats.

[+] EnlargeKosuke Fukudome and Esmailin Caridad
AP Photo/Morry GashKosuke Fukudome, left, shares a laugh with Esmailin Caridad, who spent the 2007 season with the Hiroshima Carp.
After trading Jones to Detroit and declining Floyd's 2008 option, the Cubs were intent on finding an athletic, lefty-hitting right fielder with plate discipline and extra-base pop. Hendry was prepared to assemble a package of young players to pursue a trade for Oakland's Nick Swisher if necessary. But when the Cubs beat out Texas, the White Sox, San Francisco and San Diego for Fukudome, Hendry had his man.

Fukudome's willingness to work deep counts makes him a welcome addition to a Chicago lineup that embodies the word "aggressive." Last year the Cubs were tied for 25th among the 30 big league teams in walks. They also displayed a hack-first and ask-questions-later mentality as a rule. According to Stats Inc., the Cubs swung at 46.9 percent of the pitches they saw last season. That made them the 22nd most selective team in the majors.

Fukudome posted an on-base percentage of .430 or better in each of his last three seasons with the Chunichi Dragons, and Piniella loves the thought of hitting him second between Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee. More likely, Fukudome will bat in the No. 5 hole, where he'll break up Chicago's logjam of right-handed bats.

Mechanically speaking, the Cubs like what they see. Piniella watched Fukudome in the batting cage for the first time Friday and was struck by his new right fielder's "prototypically American" approach. Fukudome employs your basic squared-up stance, in contrast to Ichiro, whose legs are halfway to first base while his hands magically linger in the hitting zone.

Fukudome's personality also seems ideal for the mania he will generate as the Cubs' first Japanese player. While Ichiro can be cryptic and distant with the press corps and Matsui is gregarious as a rule, Fukudome falls somewhere in the middle. He's soft-spoken and understated, but smiles easily and likes to mingle -- even after workouts, when he signs baseballs and tosses them to fans over a chain-link fence at Fitch Park.

Fukudome receives help in interviews from interpreter Ryuji Araki, a former minor league trainer in the Cincinnati Reds' chain, and has no difficulty articulating his thoughts.

Last 5 seasons in Japan

Year BA HR
2007 .294 13*
2006 .351 31
2005 .328 28
2004 .277 23
2003 .312 34
*Appeared in only 81 games due to elbow injury

What's his principal strength as a player?

"My strength is, when I make a mistake I forget about it very quickly and prepare for the next play or the next pitch," Fukudome said.

When you're playing for a team with so much historical baggage -- half a world away from your family, no less -- tunnel vision and a short memory can come in handy. Fukudome's wife, Kazue, gave birth to a son, Hayato, two months ago, and mother and baby aren't expected to join him in Chicago until sometime around the All-Star break.

"I feel lonely and sad I can't see them, but I don't think it will be that hard," Fukudome said.

If Piniella is correct, big league pitchers will test Fukudome's bat speed with hard stuff out of the chute. Then they'll pound one side of the plate or the other to try and find a weakness. With each test that Fukudome passes, opponents will invent new ways to try and beat him.

Judging from his portfolio in Japan, Fukudome doesn't have a lot of shortcomings. He's a former Central League Most Valuable Player, a two-time batting champion and a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with a career .397 OBP.

It's still possible that between now and the season opener against Milwaukee at Wrigley, Hendry will acquire Brian Roberts from Baltimore or Marlon Byrd from Texas to round out his roster. Regardless, Fukudome is the story in Cubs camp. He's bigger than the three-cornered closer derby, the crowded starting rotation, Ryan Dempster's headline-grabbing predictions and catcher Geovany Soto's run at Rookie of the Year.

Can a Japanese import with no knowledge of Ernie Banks, Steve Bartman or the "Curse of the Billy Goat" be the good-luck charm to help the Cubs end a century of futility and despair? It would sure make for a great story -- with or without the subtitles.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer