Fukudome, however, had overwhelmed in his American debut: he went three-for-three, with a walk, a double, and a game-tying three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
One game into his four-year, $48 million contract, Fukudome seemed poised to become a star. The 323 games since have not gone nearly so well.
Fukudome has a career batting line of .258/.367/.400, making him a dead-on average hitter in the National League over the past two seasons.
He had one terrific defensive year, as a right fielder in 2008, and one miserable defensive year, as a center fielder in 2009. He has 18 stolen bases in 32 attempts and 92 extra-base hits in exactly 1,000 career at-bats.
As he heads toward 2010, a season in which he will turn 33 in April, Fukudome stands little chance of becoming the star general manager Jim Hendry envisioned when he signed the diminutive outfielder.
That kind of superb contribution, however, may not be what Chicago ultimately needs of him, anyway. The Cubs, despite a disappointing 2009, have an array of talented players in the fold again this upcoming season, and Fukudome will not need to deliver All-Star caliber offense in order for the team to contend.
What Chicago does need from him, however, is improvement in two critical facets of his game. Fukudome has not figured out how to hit left-handed pitching since coming over to the Cubs, and it shows: he has a miserable line of just .242/.343/.324 against southpaw hurlers, and has managed just one home run in those situations in 218 plate appearances.
The source of this problem is Fukudome's ability to hit certain pitches better than others. He has proven himself highly adept at hitting change-ups and split-fingered fastballs, which helps explain his success against right-handed pitchers.
His persistent struggles against sliders and curveballs , however, make him particularly vulnerable to the loss of the platoon advantage.
The other problem Fukudome must overcome is his inefficient base-running. After stealing 12 bases and being caught just four times in 2008, Fukudome was caught an alarming 10 times in 16 attempts last year.
Given that he projects to be the team's Opening Day lead-off hitter, he will need to do better on the base paths this year.
Although those issues will be the focus of Fukudome's winter workouts, they are likely to improve only modestly. As the old saying goes, you can't teach speed, and Fukudome has only slightly above-average speed.
Although new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo has Texas Rangers as it relates to platoon splits" target="_blank">proven himself able to narrow platoon splits for his charges, Fukudome's ineptitude against left-handed pitching will not dissolve overnight.
Yet, Cubs fans should keep hope for Fukudome's 2010 season very much alive. There are at least two very compelling reasons to believe that Fukudome will improve substantially, or at least noticeably, in the coming season.
The first is the aforementioned role adjustments Fukudome will take into 2010. First of all, the trade of outfielder Milton Bradley and subsequent signing of free agent Marlon Byrd make Fukudome's return to right field a certainty.
That immediately makes him some 20 runs more valuable to the Cubs, so large was the difference between his defense in right in 2008 and his foray into center in 2009.
The second role change, both more subtle and harder to quantify, is his insertion into the top spot in the Chicago order. In 229 plate appearances over the last two seasons, Fukudome has batted .271/.395/.426 in the lead-off spot. Those numbers are roughly 14 percent better than his career rates; he is only better as a fifth hitter.
Meanwhile, a second factor may be working in Fukudome's favor in 2010. This one is much easier to project, if only because it is in itself a projection: Fukudome is in line to get some help from good old-fashioned regression.
For his career, Fukudome has a batting average on balls in play (BAbip) of .311, a shade above league average. Generally speaking, BAbip is a statistic heavily influenced by luck. If one is willing to look deeper into the numbers, however, there is much to be learned by picking apart BAbip numbers.
Expected BAbip (xBAbip for the hipsters) looks at the raw number for BAbip, then takes into account a wide array of variables.
Speed, ground-ball/fly-ball tendencies, isolated power, line drive percentage and a host of other considerations go into a lengthy formula, and help us determine the extent to which a player's BAbip was helped or hurt by plain old luck.
In 2009, for the second consecutive season, Fukudome's xBAbip was significantly higher than his raw BAbip. In fact, Fukudome's .314 BAbip fell 26 points short of what xBAbip predicted he would generate.
Fukudome hit a well above-average 24 percent of his batted balls for line drives in 2009; he also hits the ball on the ground much more often than average Major League hitters.
Those facts suggest he should earn even better results when putting the ball in play than he does; if those numbers come around in 2010, Fukudome will break out as a very solid lead-off hitter.
All things now considered, here are my projections for Fukudome's offensive production next season:
- 145 games
- 640 plate appearances
- .264/.377/.424 AVG/OBP/SLG
- 10 home runs
Those are not superstar statistics. That is not what Cubs fans should expect of Fukudome.
If he can deliver that kind of on-base ability at the top of the Cubs order, however, and can continue to play stellar defense in right field, he will be a positive force pushing Chicago back toward contention in 2010.
Watch for other profiles of the 2010 Cubs, which I will be doing throughout the remainder of the offseason. Here are some of the ones already done, and some on the way soon!