Roto Arcade: Factoring Fukudome

Roto Arcade: Factoring Fukudome
By Andy Behrens
December 28, 2007

Andy Behrens
Yahoo Sports

Of all the things we learned at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, the most startling fact was this: the actor who played Taka Tanaka in "Major League" is a pretty big deal in Japan.

His name is Takaaki Ishibashi. On the afternoon of the WBC title game, a significant crowd gathered outside the official tournament hotel to watch him conduct interviews with various members of Team Japan. When these interviews concluded, people swarmed Ishibashi. Fans snapped his picture, they asked for his autograph on jerseys, and they handed him cell phones.

Most of Team Japan just stood near their bus, smoking.

A few hours later, Japan beat Cuba 10-6 to win the WBC championship. Ichiro Suzuki was predictably awesome, and it was clear that Daisuke Matsuzaka had terrific stuff. An outfielder named Kosuke Fukudome also delivered a pinch-hit two-run single in the ninth inning, just two days after slugging a dramatic pinch-hit home run against Korea in the WBC semifinals.

Today, of course, Fukudome is a Cub. This is exciting news in the fantasy community.

But in our excitement, we actually tend to draft international players in rounds where they can't possibly be solid value picks, not unless they exceed the most optimistic projections. And projecting international players can be tricky. Just as most of us can't claim to have known that Taka Tanaka was any sort of global celebrity, we can't claim any special expertise where Japanese professional baseball is concerned.

I've witnessed exactly three Fukudome at-bats, two of which went very well. As a Cubs ticket holder, I'm thrilled.

As a fantasy expert, though, I'm a little uncertain. It's not as if thousands of players from Japan have made the leap to the big leagues. There have been just over 30 such players, and they've all arrived with different expectations.

So instead of trying to tell you exactly what to expect from Fukodome, we're bringing in consultants: Jackson Broder and Aaron Shinsano. Jackson is a Taiwan-based writer and international scout for the Minnesota Twins. Aaron is a writer based in Ulsan, Korea. Together, they founded East Windup Chronicle, a fantastic English-language resource for information on baseball in the Pacific Rim region. They cover Nippon Pro Baseball, the CPBL (Taiwan's professional league), the KBO (Korea's professional league), and amateur baseball.

They're devious fantasy owners, too. We asked them for their assessment of players making the jump to MLB in 2008, as well as a few interesting players who could arrive in future seasons.

The following thoughts are from Jackson and Aaron …

Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chicago Cubs
Fresh off signing a four-year, $48 million deal in a bidding war between at least 12 Major League and NPB teams, the five-tool Fukudome has drawn favorable comparisons to Ichiro and should be a serviceable every day contributor to fantasy teams. The 2006 Central League MVP will likely be a reliable source of runs, on-base percentage and average, and reach double digits in steals. With help from Wrigley, 15 to 18 home runs isn't out of the question for the former Chunichi superstar. He posted a .351/.438/.653 line with 31 HR and 104 RBI in his MVP season.

Fukudome certainly comes with some caveats, both for the Cubs and for fantasy owners. His 2007 season was cut short by surgery to remove bone fragments from his right elbow. There are also questions as to whether Fukudome's power numbers will translate to the Majors, as Japanese hitters almost invariably experience a sharp decline in power in their initial seasons in MLB. For example, Akinori Iwamura averaged 35 home runs in 2004-06 in NPB, but managed only seven for the Devil Rays; newly signed Astros second baseman Kazuo Matsui hit 36 for Seibu before his leap to the Majors.

Overall, fantasy owners can expect production from Fukudome similar to the second half of Bobby Abreu's 2007 campaign (11 HR, 13 SB, .305/.390/.528). Target him in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts, and if he hits for any power he'll be a steal on draft day. Bump his value significantly if your league counts on-base percentage.

Hiroki Kuroda, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kuroda, a control pitcher by nature, recently signed a three-year, $35.3 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers and should be in line for 12 to 15 wins in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. Kuroda mixes a mid-90s fastball, slider, forkball, and screwball-like "shuuto" pitch. While he won't be an exceptional source of strikeouts, his outstanding control – he averaged 1.6 BB/9 over the last three seasons in Japan – and his ability to keep the ball in the yard-only 0.7 HR/9 in Little League-esque Hiroshima Municipal Stadium – will make him an effective big league starter.

Fantasy wise, he should be targeted in later rounds in mixed leagues. Bank on double-digit wins and an ERA in the high threes, with 5 to 6 K/9 and few walks. Anything else is gravy.

Other Possible 2008 Contributors

Unless your league counts holds, Kazuo Fukumori (Rangers), Masahide Kobayashi (Indians) or Yasuhiko Yabuta (Royals) aren't likely to be drafted in your league. But keep them on your watch list. Unless you think C.J. Wilson, Joe Borowski and Joakim Soria are set to become elite fantasy closers, any of the three could jump into the mix for saves, a la Takashi Saito. Both Fukumori and Kobayashi have closing experience. Kobayashi saved 227 games during his career in the NPB.

Keeper League Future Bonanza

If you play in an extremely dorkarific keeper league that enables you to draft NPB players and retain them for 2009 and beyond, make sure you've got your eyes set on the following players:

Yu Darvish
With No. 1 makeup and superstar potential, the Sawamura Award winning Darvish – that's basically Japan's Cy Young Award – went 15-5 with a 1.82 ERA and held opponents to a .174 batting average. The Nippon Ham Fighters star is currently being courted by MLB teams despite being years from free agency.

Yoshihisa Naruse
Naruse went 16-1 with a 1.82 ERA for the Chiba Lotte Marines. Despite not having overwhelming stuff, he has a Tom Glavine-esque deceptive delivery that makes him hard for opposing hitters to pick up.

Kazumi Saitoh
Saitoh was considered the top pitcher in Japan the year Dice-K made his pilgrimage to the Red Sox, and boasted superior numbers in 2006 (18-5, 1.75 with over 9 K/9). However, a chronic shoulder problem forced him out of action for most of 2007.

Koji Uehara
Yomiuri's Uehara, perhaps Japan's most recognizable pitcher, was converted into a closing role in 2007, apparently as punishment for his desire to move to MLB at the end of the season. However, Uehara spent time on the DL and thus failed to qualify for free-agency. He will undoubtedly be the source of a bidding frenzy in 2009, and with good reason. He pounds the strike zone and has pinpoint control of multiple pitches, reaching the mid-90's with his fastball and mixing in a splitter, fork, curve and slider.

Kyuji Fujikawa
His name literally translates to "baseball child," and he saved 46 games in 2007 while striking out 115 in 83 innings. He has held opponents to .170 and .176 OBPs in the past two seasons. Unfortunately for fantasy owners looking to get their grubby paws on him, he's been denied posting by the Hanshin Tigers.

Norichika Aoki
Aoki is a left-handed contact-hitting outfielder with a swing that's quick to the ball, improving power numbers, and the speed to beat out infield hits. The 24-year-old holds the Central League record for hits in a season (202), and became only the second hitter in NPB history to reach 200 (you can probably guess the other player). In 2006, Aoki led the league in hits and steals. He's expressed a desire to play in the majors during various interviews.

In the 2005-07 seasons, he produced these numbers:

	AB	R	H	HR	RBI	SB	AVG	OBP	SLG
2005	588	100	202	3	28	29	.343	.390	.420
2006	599	112	192	13	62	41	.321	.400	.440
2007	557	114	193	20	58	17	.346	.434	.508

Aoki's 2007 performance was even more enticing due to the uptick in power and slugging. He put up an impressive line of .346/.434/.508, scoring 114 runs on 193 hits. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Aoki still has several years of service left to the Swallows before he's likely to be posted. There's concern that he won't hit for the average necessary to make him an effective MLB player; he could end up more a .270/.280 utility-type in the States.

Andy Behrens has written for ESPN.com, the Chicago Sports Review, NBA.com, the Chicago Reader and various other publications. In all likelihood, Andy owns more Artis Gilmore memorabilia than you. Follow him on Twitter. Send Andy a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Dec 28, 2007 5:42 pm, EST

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