There are two things we know for certain about Kosuke Fukudome: (1) Barring injury, he will be on the Opening Day roster; (2) This will be his last season as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
With a slew of young outfielders (Tyler Colvin, Brett Jackson, Matt Szczur, James Adduci, etc.) developing quickly and the Cubs clearly looking to dump payroll heading into the Pujocalypse, Fukudome's services will no longer be needed. That's a slam dunk. Hole-in-one. NASCAR.
But let me ask you this, Cubs fans, what if Fukudome puts up solid numbers in 2011? What if he has the kind of season a 4-year, $48 million player is supposed to have? What if he discovers lead-off El Dorado? What then, huh?
In sports vernacular, you often hear about players upping their game in "contract years." The Cubs certainly hope this axiom holds true for their biggest off-season free agent signing, Carlos Pena. But Kosuke Fukudome, who is perhaps the most statistically predictable player on the roster, has given us little reason to believe the last year of his contract will be different than his previous three seasons.
In 2010, Fukudome's numbers at the plate (.263/.371/.439) were very similar to his 2009 slash line (.259/.375/.421). But as one might expect from a player who had 141 fewer at-bats, Fukudome saw decreases in his hits, doubles, RBIs, and walks. Of course he also saw a dip in his strikeouts (67 vs. 112), which is fairly significant and perhaps the only encouraging sign of progress.
And while not striking out too much is great, is that really enough to suggest Fukudome will play better this season? No, no it is not. So instead of finding faux hope in the numbers, I'm going off-script. I'm going to do something I hate by relying on an unquantifiable factor to make a point. That unquantifiable factor is manager Mike Quade.
For whatever reason, Lou Piniella never seemed to hit it off with Fukudome. Lou's unfamiliarity with his Japanese outfielder eventually turned into doubt, as Fukudome annually delved into the suck bag come June. Doubt turned into distrust. And distrust turned into Tyler Colvin.
Maybe no one on this team (aside from Carlos Zambrano) will benefit more from a managerial change than Fukudome. One of the primary reasons I was a Quade supporter during the hiring process was because of his experience as a teacher at the minor league level. Now I understand that Fukudome is a 34-year-old man, not some 20-year-old minor leaguer, but coming from a country where the culture and game are different in their own ways, Fukudome could probably benefit from some hands-on teaching...something Lou never seemed interested in or capable of doing.
Quade has already shown confidence in Fukudome, essentially naming him the Opening Day lead-off hitter. Based on my limited knowledge of Quade's managerial style, I have to believe Fukudome has some skills (patience at the plate, above-average glove, decent base-running ability) the new manager would like to use on his swing-happy, defensively deficient, slow-footed club.
Am I expecting Fukudome to bat .290 and draw 90+ walks while playing consistently strong over the course of a 162-game season? Sweet fancy Moses, no.
But what if he does? What if he becomes the true lead-off hitter this franchise has struggled to find? Will Cubs fans find themselves clamoring for Fukudome to be offered a new (albeit cheaper) contract despite the organization's obvious intentions to part ways?