The Chicago Cubs signed OF Kosuke Fukudome, most recently of the Chunichi Dragons to a four-year deal last night, blasting the White Sox and Padres out of the water with a 4 year pact said to be worth $50 million. While those vaguely familiar with Fukudome’s credentials can safely say he was more of a glittering prize in this free agent market than Milton Bradley, the Sun-Times’ Jay Mariotti has his doubts.
When you haven’t won a World Series in 100 years, you might as well go global to start the next century. But let’s also slow down on the insane hype, OK? When Lou Piniella describes The Domer as a cross between Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, I cringe. When Jim Hendry says the four-year deal is well worth it, I wonder if Aaron Rowand — likely San Francisco-bound — would have been a better idea for a bit more scratch. Fukudome had a breakthrough 2006 season in the Japanese Central League, hitting .351 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs to go with a rocket arm and good speed. Sure, in the perfect Wrigley dream, I suppose he could emerge as a poor man’s Carlos Beltran, a left-handed hitter with some pop and an impressive on-base percentage.
But he’s also a 30-year-old coming off elbow surgery in a shortened season. And he’s an import who will experience a delicate cultural transition period in Cubdom, where he’ll have to adjust to the intense demands of fans and media, not to mention the vines and wall quirks in right field, the weirdness of Ronnie (Woo Woo) Wickers, the trash thrown from the stands when the team stinks and tantrums he surely hasn’t seen before, courtesy of the manager. Even Piniella, who pushed hard for Fukudome, says the adjustment could take a season.
The 101st Year, that is.
For every Ichiro who comes to the majors and excels, there are other Asian products who don’t match the hype. Matsui has been fairly productive, but hardly as Ruthian as projected. Dice-K was considered a disappointment of sorts until he picked up his pitching pace in October. As the negative extreme, you recall Hee-Seop Choi, who flopped with the Cubs, Marlins and Dodgers and now plays for the Kia Tigers in the South Korean KBO League. Anyone who saw the World Baseball Classic knows Fukudome will have impact. But as the regular right fielder, he will be expected to produce good numbers immediately. Is that realistic? What if he’s just a high-priced Matt Murton? Why not sign a surer commodity such as Rowand, who knows the lay of the Chicago land, has played in the National League the last two seasons and would be a fixture in center for years? This means the Cubs have little choice but to hand center field to Felix Pie, the supposed five-tool phenom who has been talked about for eons, and let him either thrive or fail.
‘Tis a shame that Mariotti can’t produce a list of AL pitchers who were having better seasons that Matsuzaka prior to October, because it’s not nearly as long as you might expect. I wonder though, have there ever been any, shall we say, non-Asian products that turned out to be pricey free agent flops?