All of the hype surrounding Yu Darvish's posting and (presumably) signing with the Texas Rangers reminded me of similar hype four years ago about a Japanese outfielder who had the reputation of being the best hitter in Nippon Pro Baseball.
Kosuke Fukudome had played nine years in NPB in Japan; in 2006 he hit .351/.438/.653 with 31 HR and 104 RBI, winning the Central League's MVP award. As a nine-year veteran he didn't have to be posted; he was a free agent and the bidding for him was spirited, even though he had missed half the 2007 season with an elbow injury that required surgery.
After several teams made him significant offers (the Padres and White Sox had reportedly offered deals worth more than $50 million), Fukudome signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Cubs, even though other teams had offered him more money. He told reporters at his introductory news conference that he chose the Cubs because he would be the first Japanese player in their history and they promised him he could play his NPB position, right field.
He made his MLB debut on March 31, 2008, a freezing cold, rainy day at Wrigley Field, and became an instant fan favorite when he went 3-for-3 and slammed a game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. Even though the Cubs eventually lost that game, fans began chanting "Fu-ku-do-me" when he came to the plate and street souvenir vendors did a brisk business in headbands with Japanese characters on them.
But Fukudome's game got exposed over time. He hit at superstar level (career .345/.454/.526) in April, but after May 1 just .245/.342/.376. The power he had in Japan pretty much vanished; he was mediocre against lefthanders (career .251/.328/.364) and wound up being benched against the Dodgers lefties in their 2008 NLDS and later platooned; he wasn't a good base stealer and his defense, very good in his first year, declined. Cubs fans watched him almost screw himself into the ground striking out with what they dubbed his "helicopter swing." In hindsight, the elbow injury might have robbed him of the power he had in Japan.
About all he did well was draw walks; he posted a .369 OBP in his Cubs career. Among all Cubs in the last 50 years with as many PA (1,967) as Fukudome, only Mark Grace (.386) and Derrek Lee (.378) posted better on-base percentages.
That's very good, but it certainly wasn't worth $48 million. The Cubs shipped him to the Indians at the trading deadline last summer for two miscellaneous minor leaguers (one of whom was let go at the end of the year), and, oddly, he stopped drawing walks; his OBP with Cleveland was just .300 in 258 plate appearances.
So what should teams make of him? If Fukudome plays decent defense and can draw some walks, he could be a useful fourth or fifth outfielder.
One team that could use a player like this is the A's; Oakland currently has just four true outfielders on its 40-man roster and Fukudome's past plate patience might appeal to GM Billy Beane.
Prediction: Fukudome signs a one-year deal with the Athletics for $1.5 million, a far cry from the $14 million he took in from the Cubs in the final year of his previous deal. If this doesn't happen, look for him to head back to NPB, where at age 35 he could probably still be a star player.