For the purposes of full disclosure, last year at this time I was super excited that the Cubs signed Fukudome. I was impressed with his OBP and defensive skills. This looked like the signing of a fine all around player. As we all know, April and May did nothing but confirm those initial thoughts. Then came the rest of the season – Ugh. Pitchers made adjustments to him (a steady stream of outside breaking balls) and he had no adjustments for that.
With my typical Cub fan optimism, I thought that with an off-season trying to figure out and correct what went wrong coupled with the tendency for Japanese players to improve in year 2, Fukudome could rebound into a decent everyday outfielder. Then came the WBC and two things stood out to me: 1) The benching of Fukudome in 2 of he last 3 games (though one of those games was meaningless), and 2) The reasons for Fukudome’s benching: 20 AB’s, 4 hits (all singles), 7 walks and 7 strikeouts. And for those that have seen his AB’s, it doesn’t look like he’s made any adjustments from last season.
With that behind us, my optimism for Fukudome’s future with the Cubs has diminished. He won’t become the cross between Ichiro and H. Matsui. Heck, at this point, I doubt that he’ll even have the career of So Taguchi. Though I hate to write this, I don’t think that Fukudome will be with the big club for much of the 2009 season. I fully expect him to be reassigned to AAA before the All-Star break. $12M per year still has a lot of pull and I do think that he will get yet another shot, but that may not be until the 2010 season.
For what it’s worth, I think that Piniella is playing this thing out correctly. He is giving Fukudome one last good effort to prove that he belongs on a major league roster. I like that he is giving him the #2 hole, where he is expected to get a lot of fastballs hitting in front of the heart of the Cub lineup. I think good pitchers won’t give into that temptation though. They will still make him beat them with breaking balls on the outside corners.
As of now, this looks like a $48M mistake. I hope I’m wrong, but I just don’t see any evidence that he’s improved or adjusted from the player he was at the end of the 2008 season.