By now, you’ve probably at least heard of Kosuke Fukudome (pronounced Koh-su-kay Fuku-doh-may), the lefty-hitting Japanese outfielder who will by all accounts be making his way stateside this offseason. No one can yet knowingly guess where he will end up exactly, but it’s probably safe to say that he’s bound to be playing for a club with a big payroll. While potential suitors won’t have to go through the posting system to land him (he’s a free agent), he’s still expected to come with the price tag of at least $10 million for four years.
But will he be worth the investment? Let’s take a look see.
To help frame the conversation, here’s a chart that lists the Japanese positional players who have made their way stateside, and their career numbers while playing in Japan. I refrained from presenting stats like HR and RBI because they don’t really translate well to yearly averages:
Fukudome turns 31 in late April of 2008, so he’s certainly no “prospect”. It’s difficult to compare him with any other Japanese player with MLB experience because no one seems to fit his profile. His bat control is not nearly at Ichiro’s level and won’t match Hideki Matsui for power. Although he can surprise you with a stolen base now and again, that’s never been his game either. So what makes him special? Pretty much everything else.
Defensively, Fukudome has earned a reputation as among the country’s best, with the range of a centerfielder to go along with a strong arm. My guess here is that he will be a corner outfielder in the States due to his age. Fukudome is also among the best at getting on base, posting OBPs above .400 in five of the last six seasons, which bodes very well for him because this seems to be a skill that transfers rather well. He has cleared the 30HR-mark twice in his nine-year career, which probably means that he’ll top out around 20 in MLB. As I mentioned earlier, his bat control leaves something to be desired, but his patience and his ability to make some very solid contact consistently make him an offensive threat. In fact, Fukudome is in Ichiro’s league when it comes to making solid contact (although Ichiro’s bat control is far superior). It’s a safe bet that he’ll strike out around 110 times in a full season, but he may have the skills to bat .280 or better. If he can adjust to the new strike zone, he should also have a very strong OBP in the .370 range to go along with “gap power” (think a slugging pct around .460). When you factor in a strong defense, an OPS of .830 is certainly not bad at all. I think that a good comparison would be the very underrated Ryan Church.
But you’d have to wonder – is an .830 OPS with good defense and limited speed worth $40 million? In a market where Eric Byrnes can earn $30m/3, it’s quite possible. There are several teams looking for outfield help, and the allure of extra income from Japanese fans make it very likely that he’ll get this money and possibly much more.
(NOTE: Can we please end the habit of listing Shinjo among Japan’s top players who failed in America? He never was a “top player”. Look at his OBP. Embarrassing.)