Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Fukudome?

Most times in life, problems don't fix themselves. Occasionally you will get lucky and something works itself out, but usually the problem just gets worse and harder to fix.

Unfortunately, the problem of Kosuke Fukudome's inability to adjust back against a league that figured him out last May doesn't seem to be fixing itself. This is where Lou Piniella and Jim Hendry earn their money.

The best solution to this would be for Fukudome to start playing at a level that even comes close to the guy they thought they were getting last year. When the Cubs signed him, the positive comparisons abounded:

"Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush has likened him to Steve Finley for his fluid style, and an anonymous National League talent evaluator calls him a 'poor man's Carlos Beltran.'

From everything that Chicago manager Lou Piniella hears, Fukudome is sort of an Ichiro Suzuki-Hideki Matsui hybrid. Like Ichiro, Fukudome is fleet afoot and has a strong throwing arm. Like Matsui, he's a power threat. Although his individual tools in each area aren't quite as pronounced as his two Japanese peers, he provides a more well-rounded blend than either."

Now, forget about Carlos Beltran and Ichiro, we would be thrilled to death if he pulled off numbers that could be likened to Mike Cameron. That's not the level of expectation you want from a guy who is due $38 million over the next three years.

The heat is getting turned up to give Reed Johnson more playing time over Fukudome, and some even having a preference for car-jumping Joey Gathright.

The Cubs won last night, so the fact that Fukudome had four basically useless at-bats can be glossed over, but I'll bet all the money I have in my pockets that the heat would be ten times worse today if the Cubs had lost that game.

So how long can Lou go with Fukudome in center field, and how long can he put him in such a crucial spot in the batting order when he is not producing, nor showing any signs of improvement?

From Hendry's vantage point, it is actually easier if Fukudome continues to suck, because then he at least knows he has a hole in his roster that needs immediate attention. Hendry is the guy that managed to get useful pieces in exchange for Todd Hundley, so some move is not out of the realm of possibility if he deems it necessary.

But what does Hendry do if Fukudome starts hitting again for a couple of weeks? Then what? Do we believe that everything is fixed and that he will continue as a viable hitter for the rest of the season? Or does Hendry take the opportunity to sell high on him with the belief that another god-awful slump can't be far away?

Let's face it, Lou has put Fukudome in the best possible spot in the lineup. His inclination to take pitches gives Soriano some running opportunities when he is on base, so he will see a higher number of fastballs. Even when Soriano isn't on base, teams aren't going to want to walk Fukudome in front of Lee, Bradley, and Ramirez, so again, he will see a high percentage of fastballs.

If Fukudome can't get it together in that environment, he simply isn't going to succeed at all at the major league level anymore. He has been given the batting order equivalent of the old Must See TV slot between "Seinfeld" and "ER." If "Caroline in the City" can get ratings, surely Fukudome can get an occasional hit.

So, would this hypothetical turn-around be a function of Fukudome's talent level, or a function of the role he is asked to play on this team? Is Fukudome more like "Friends," that got a jump-start in a sweet time slot, but was more than capable of carrying its viewers on its own merits? Or is he "Caroline in the City?" Worse yet, what if he is "The Single Guy?"

Jim, Lou - I just want to tell you both good luck, and we're all counting on you.


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