According to mlbtraderumors.com via MASNSports' Ben Goessling, the Washington Nationals have had discussions about obtaining a starting rightfielder. Among those on the list they've discussed? Kosuke Fukudome.
Fukudome has been a disappointment. The Cubs won a bidding war for his services and his arrival brought big expectations. A common comparison we heard at the time of the signing was that he was a combination of Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. In retrospect it was an unfair expecation; one which Fukudome hasn't come anywhere close to meeting. As such, he has become a target of frustrated Wrigley fans because of his huge contract, his corkscrew swing, and his stoic, outwardly passionless demeanor. That anyone would be interested in trading for him fulfills the wishes of many but I'm not so sure it's a great idea, at least in the short term.
For all his faults, Fukudome brings two valuable assets to the Cubs: He gets on base and he plays outstanding outfield defense in right field. There is no doubt that Fukudome is not the hitter we thought he was going to be. He hits .250-.260 pretty consistently. After two years, we can safely say he'll be around those numbers again this year. However, his OBP was a robust .375 last season and projects to get on base at a similar clip this year. If you are hitting at the top of the order as Fukudome will this year, that is your job. It isn't to hit homeruns or drive in runners, your task is to get on base in front of your 3,4,5 hitters whether it's by a walk, hit or whatever. Fukudome does that consistently better than anyone else we could put at the top of our order. From the #2 spot, he has the potential to help create runs.
So what about defense? As a rightfielder, Fukudome is well above average. Last year his UZR/150 was 37.9. For those unfamiliar with UZR/150, UZR stand for Ultimate Zone Rating and, while imperfect, it's regarded as the best defensive metric in the game today. UZR/150 measures the runs a defender saves by virtue of his range, arm, and error total over 150 games. A rating of 37.9 means that Fukudome was worth that many runs on defense projected over a 150 game season. Now, there is a caveat here; UZR can fluctuate a lot from year to year and depends on large sample sizes for accuracy. Considering Fukudome played mostly in CF last year, it's likely that number may be overstated to some degree. It would be better to rate him over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In that case, his UZR is 18.2 -- that figure is still well above average. In fact, it would be among the best in the league were he to play up to his usual standards and put up that rating in 2010. (For comparison's sake, Ichiro Suzuki, widely regarded as an outstanding defensive right fielder, has a career UZR/150 rating of 11.0). When you've got an average centerfielder in Marlon Byrd and a virtual statue in LF, the importance of Fukudome's defense in right cannot be overstated.
So while Fukudome has been a big disappointment and is way, way overpaid...and yes, that swing can be about as hideous as any in baseball at times, he still has value that I don't think can be easily replaced. While a deal would bring the Cubs some payroll relief, it's too late to do much with that space this year. If you're a fan that thinks the Cubs should be looking longer term, shedding that salary may well be worth it. In the short term, however, the Cubs would be taking a risk replacing Fukudome with Colvin and/or Nady. It is quite possible, even likely, that the Cubs would actually be weakened in 2010 by dealing Fukudome. So to fans who want a better chance of winning this year and have been wishing for someone to take Fukudome off our hands... be careful what you wish for. You may just get it.