I have a rather strong distaste for Kosuke Fukudome. I'm going to have it get over it before approaching this mild, small signing of a reserve outfielder in any kind of rational way, but I can't start until this all gets out.
The distaste grew entirely last year, and previously I was very much on board with the notion that his large contract, and being graded on the standard of his countrymen Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui (everyone just forgets Kaz) obscured the fact that Fukudome was fairly gifted at getting on base.
In 2011, I saw Fukudome in person three times. The first was at Wrigley Field against the Pirates, where he started in right field. His defense was rumored to be in decline, but besides a Lyle Overbay* double down the right field line that would have been a double against pretty much any right fielder, nothing of note occurred. He squatted in the field in between pitches. This seemed quaint. A peaceful moment of stolen contemplation. It was a stark contrast to Melky Cabrera's elaborate mid-at bat stretching routine in the field.
The second time was in the third game of the Cubs-Sox series in U.S. Cellular. In this contest, perhaps the most important play of the game hinged around Fukudome's defense.
There's a link to the video in case the embed doesn't take. A.J. Pierzynski hits a liner to the gap, and the not particularly fleet-footed Fukudome moves initially in an almost straight horizontal path from his set position, before either realizing that he's not going to make it, or the ball is hit much harder than he initially envisioned, or both. Either way, it's a pretty crappy route and Pierzynski runs all the way to 3rd, despite Fukudome's strong and accurate throw. The next batter brings A.J. home on a bunt, and the Sox win by a single run. It was one play, but an important one, and the error was pretty clear and left a lasting impression.
Later in the game, in the 8th inning with the tying run on 3rd, Fukudome was blown away by Matt Thornton to end the scoring threat. It was a common fate for a left-hander, curiously left in by manager Mike Quade to face a pitcher specifically sent out to annihilate him. For some reason, Al Yellon's Quade-skewering post-game rant emphasizing how hopeless Fukudome was in such a matchup stuck with me. Statistically, it's mostly noise. Fukudome obviously doesn't pick up the ball as well from lefties and has a logical amount of walk decline, and his whiff rate on fastballs more than doubles against southpaws, but that's all pretty understandable considering.
He sure did look helpless up there, though.
The next time I saw Fukudome was as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Grady Sizemore was injured, Gavin Floyd was starting, so manager Manny Acta stuck him in center field for the night. The White Sox would hit 5 triples in the game. Kosuke was involved.
Shin-Soo Choo makes a far bigger ass of himself in this compilation than Fukudome, but we're still under the impression that Choo's 2011 was just the last hour of Altered States stretched out over six months**.
The 1st, 2nd, and 5th triples are Fukudome's responsibility. No. 2 is the obvious jewel. Fukudome tracks the Alexei Ramirez fly well-enough on a slightly curved path toward the wall, but simultaneously looks a little lost, and sticks his glove out in token effort without any real concept of snatching it out of the air. No. 1 and 5 just read as a not particularly swift-footed outfielder not tracking down balls in the gap particularly well, and generally unsuited for playing an up the middle position.
While the absurdity of the bigger gaffes were memorable, those are the types of extreme examples that can be written off as aberrations. The general impression of Fukudome's range being badly stretched even in the U.S. Cellular center field, seemed a lot more real.
Thus, it's disheartening to hear Fukudome's versatility for all outfield positions trumpeted upon his signing. A sound veteran who's available for less (in this case, essentially $1 million) is a good pickup, but his limitations need to be understood lest he become the next Rob Mackowiak. If Kenny's really at the center of the conference room saying "he gets on base" and writing Fukudome's name on the marker board, there damn sure better be a few scouts grumbling contentiously about "range of ottoman" and what not.
So, Kosuke Fukudome is an underwhelming player with a litany of inadequacies that could be trumpeted till Spring Training starts--and man, I want to--but that's also why he's signing a contract a week before pitchers and catchers report for a functionally trivial amount of money. That makes it a bit harder to complain.
And while he's bad, it probably doesn't matter that much. The reason he's here with the big club--and Jordan Danks won't be--is to serve as a reasonable contingency plan if the flimsy premise of a competitive White Sox season falls apart.
As J.J. pointed out, Danks can field, and run, and everything a 5th outfielder should be asked to do. But the White Sox will be asking more than that. Their outfield boasts exactly zero players who have recently demonstrated the ability to string together a complete, competent and healthy season, and would thus be better served putting players on the roster who can start in case the first-string falls on their face...because they very well might.
Since the team has three players on the roster who can play center field better than Fukudome (even Rios), he doesn't ever really need to be out there beyond what Robin Ventura's appetite for punishment dictates, and being able to get on base at a decent rate--assuming his Cleveland struggles were just a bad stretch, and not the end of days--is enough to justify playing time, and certainly a back-end roster spot.
The kind of lowered standards that make Fukudome's contributions acceptable also beg the question of what's the point in bringing him on in 2012, a year when we can see what the kids have with no consequences. Except, in the White Sox case, there really are no kids. Danks is the only outfielder worth considering for promotion, and his nearly certain evisceration at the plate doesn't seem like a good idea for anyone.
There's a concern about sapping plate appearances away from the somewhat more interesting Brent Lillibridge, but the combination of the high chance of The Bridge falling to Earth, and the possibility of holes for him to fill all across the roster (1B, 2B, UTIL IF, OF, etc) makes the prospect of 350 plate appearances for Fukudome while a still-mashing Lillibridge rots on the pine remote.
And like that, I've talked myself into it, more or less. Kosuke Fukudome is a below-average, soon-to-be 35 year-old corner outfielder with little power, and probably too far on the decline to match that spiffy career .361 OBP. I fully expect him to make a cruddy defensive play that a game unfavorably turns on.
Yet on this team, he's earned a spot.
*I initially typed 'Lyle Overplay' on accident. Now it seems like a good nickname for him
**That's not a DUI joke, I just mean that Choo's 2011 was a hellish den of nightmares. Don't let your roommate ever convince you that watching Altered States after a night of drinking is a "cool" or "neat" thing to do.
Tags: A.J. Pierzynski, Alejandro De Aza, Alex Rios, baseball, Brent Lillibridge, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Dayan Viciedo, Gavin Floyd, grady sizemore, hideki matsui, ichiro suzuki, Jordan Danks, kaz matsui, kosuke fukudome, lyle overbay, Matt Thornton, mike quade, Pittsburgh Pirates, Robin Ventura, White Sox