Japan's Fukudome looms as a free-agent wild card
Posted: Wednesday November 7, 2007 2:16PM; Updated: Wednesday November 7, 2007 2:16PM
Kosuke Fukudome may be, depending on who you talk to, the best player in Japan. He is, almost certainly, the best player in Japan who is pondering a move to America. Almost without a doubt, he's the best one that is actually free to make that leap.
Fukudome is a strong-armed and able outfielder with some impressive offensive numbers, the kind of numbers that are making a lot of teams on this side of the Pacific get all jumpy with their check-writing fingers. But the best part about Fukudome, as far as American teams are concerned?
The check that eventually will be written is going to be big. But it won't be Daisuke Matsuzaka big. That, alone, makes Fukudome, 30, the hottest Japanese player anywhere this winter.
"A lot of scouts that come through say that he's the best Japanese player playing in Japan," says Wayne Graczyk, a Tokyo-based writer who has covered baseball in Japan for more than 30 years. "I tend to agree with that. He's pretty much an all-around player."
Fukudome is, by some accounts, sort of a cross between the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and the Yankees' Hideki Matsui. He doesn't have the power of Matsui, who was called Godzilla when he played in Japan. And he's not quite the equal of Ichiro as a batsman. Ichiro has had seven straight 200-hit seasons since coming to the U.S.
That said, Fukudome has had great success in his career, twice hitting better than .340 for a season (he hit .351 in 2006) and twice leading the Central League in hitting. He has a career on-base percentage of near .400 and a career slugging percentage of better than .500.
A solid, patient, left-handed hitter with some power who plays a good outfield: Think that might fit some American big-league team? Word around Japan is that the Cubs have scouted Fukudome heavily and are showing a lot of interest. News reports in both the U.S. and Japan have also linked him to the Padres, Giants and Mariners, among others.
"He's a very good athlete. He was a shortstop in high school. He gets tremendous reads and runs great routes in the outfield, with a tremendous arm," says new Royals manager Trey Hillman, who just left his job as manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the Dragons' opponents in the Japan Series in each of the past two years. "And when he hits it, I'm telling you, the ball stays hit."
Fukudome has become a very patient hitter, too, as his on-base percentage suggests. He had a career-high 93 walks in 2005 -- and that in just 142 games -- and 76 walks in 130 games in '06, when he hit .351 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs and was named the Central League's Most Valuable Player.
Those numbers might not be easily comparable to American ball, considering the parks in Japan are considered smaller and the pitching not quite as good. Still, Fukudome clearly knows what he's doing.
"He has developed very good discipline at the plate for telling strikes, which may be a more important skill in Japan, where pitchers [tend] to nibble at the corners more," Michael Westbay, who runs the site Japanesebaseball.com, says in an e-mail. "I don't know how that will translate to MLB."
Says Hillman: "I think he'll fit in just fine. I don't see him having a problem being able to catch up to the velocity in the United States."
The biggest question surrounding Fukudome is his health. He played in only 81 games in 2007 before undergoing season-ending surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. He's expected to be ready by spring, though. The Dragons, in fact, already have offered him a couple of contracts (one for one year, one for four). Fukudome has said he'll mull over the offers. He has until Nov. 12 or shortly thereafter to declare his intentions to exercise his rights under free agency.