Fukudome knows he has work ahead
Right fielder never felt comfortable at plate, despite hot first half
CHICAGO -- Kosuke Fukudome cleaned out his locker at Wrigley Field on Tuesday. Some of the boxes were marked with a black "X." They will be shipped to Japan. Others will go to Mesa, Ariz., in preparation for Spring Training.
The question, though, is will Fukudome be ready for next season?
The Japanese outfielder will head home the first week in November. He has some work to do. Cubs manager Lou Piniella made it clear he wasn't happy with Fukudome's performance when he benched him in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"I had a very brief talk with Lou after the game in L.A.," Fukudome said Tuesday. "I think the point is that I need to perform better next year, period. It doesn't matter if Lou or [general manager] Jim Hendry have confidence in me or high expectations of me. It's irrelevant. I need to perform better."
In his first season in the Major Leagues, Fukudome batted .257 with 10 home runs and 58 RBIs. He won over Cubs fans in the season opener, hitting a game-tying three-run homer in the ninth inning against Milwaukee, and batted .327 in the first month.
But his average declined steadily each month, and he hit .178 in September. In the first half, Fukudome batted .279. He hit .217 in the second.
"My record as an individual wasn't good at all, and I'm sorry that I disappointed some of the fans who had really high regards for me," Fukudome said through interpreter Ryuji Araki in a farewell media session at Wrigley Field.
Fukudome, who played nine seasons in Japan before signing a four-year, $48 million deal with the Cubs, said he was able to maintain most of his pregame routine. So, what went wrong?
"I think it's mostly related to my techniques of hitting," he said. "Even though the numbers were good in the first half, I never felt like I was swinging the bat real well. I never felt like I had things down. It didn't surprise me that my results were so unspectacular in the second half."
Piniella had suggested Fukudome shorten his stride, but the outfielder said that wasn't the reason for his struggles. He just didn't feel right at the plate.
"It was a strange season," Hendry said. "The guy was a tremendous player for us the first couple months, played in the All-Star Game. As [was] well documented in the media, he was given a lot of credit for changing our perspective of on-base percentage and helping the other guys in the lineup be more patient.
"Unfortunately, he had a really poor last few months," Hendry said. "Obviously, he's got to get better, but the ability was there. He played at an All-Star level for 2 1/2 months and we thought made a lot of the guys in the lineup better around him. Unfortunately, it went south late."
Is Fukudome confident he can be successful in the Major Leagues?
"I feel just as confident as when I first came here," he said.
The Cubs have considered adding a Japanese hitting coach. Hendry, who planned on meeting with Fukudome later Tuesday, said he'd look into that.
"It's hard to say," Fukudome said about a Japanese hitting coach. "What's difficult is that a hitting coach who may know me for a long time may be able to help, but this coach may not know Major League Baseball or the tiny differences in baseball. Also, who I feel comfortable with is important. It's difficult to say if it will work or not."
Did he feel comfortable with Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry?
"I felt pretty comfortable with Gerald," Fukudome said. "His instructions were very simple and direct and to the point. I didn't have any trouble understanding him at all."
At the start of the season, Fukudome was exactly the type of player the Cubs wanted and then he went into a funk. He was off balance, not patient, seemed to lose his batting eye -- all the things that went right at the beginning of the year.
"I definitely need to work on the technique of my swing that I never could figure out during the season -- that's my main priority," Fukudome said of his offseason plans. "Sometimes during the season, I had trouble getting enough swings, and when I go back to Japan, I can take as many swings as I want.'
The Cubs do need another left-handed bat as backup if Fukudome does struggle again. In their 10 games against the Dodgers, including the three postseason games, Los Angeles never once used a left-handed pitcher to counter the Cubs.
"We'll go into the offseason, and by the time we get into Spring Training, we hope he'll be the All-Star caliber player he was the first couple months," Hendry said, "but we'll be prepared if he doesn't become that player."
Asked if he wasn't guaranteed a job in Spring Training, Fukudome said, "I could care less."
What does that mean?
"There will be competition as to who starts in right field, and I have to win the competition," he said.
As for spending time in the Minor Leagues, Fukudome said that wasn't his decision but he would do his best to avoid that situation.
Cubs fans often chanted his name during his at-bats, but there were more boos than cheers at the end of the year.
"I think it's good that fans are very honest and straight with us," he said.
So, no regrets about coming to America?
"No," he said. "Not at all."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.