And so the Japanese infusion continues.
Every year one or two key players come over from Japan, and every year fantasy owners are then forced to scramble for information, scouting reports and statistics on said players, frantically trying to determine their impact. Japanese imports can be the great unknown to our game; will they turn out to be as valuable as an Ichiro Suzuki? Will they be busts, like a Kazuo Matsui or Kei Igawa? Or will they merely be useful, productive players like Hideki Matsui or Daisuke Matsuzaka, well worth owning in the States but hardly the kind of mega-studs they might have been back in Japan?
Such is the question we now face with Kosuke Fukudome now that he's a Cub, signing a four-year deal for a reported $48 million, according to the team's official Web site.
The introductory info: A 30-year-old outfielder (set to turn 31 on April 26), Fukudome was a .305 hitter with a .940 OPS in his nine-year career in Japan, winning the Central League's MVP award by batting .351 with 31 homers and 104 RBIs in 2006. He was widely regarded as the Japan's best hitter at the time of his departure, and scouts often compare his bat to that of Hideki Matsui's. Incidentally, so you can get it right and look smart at the draft table, his name is pronounced koh-skay foo-koo-DOH-may.
So what will Fukudome turn out to be in the States? Don't take his new manager, Lou Piniella's, description to heart, calling him a cross between Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Those would be some lofty expectations, for Fukudome to be both a 25-homer caliber hitter and a .300-hitting, 35-steal candidate. Fukudome actually stole 71 bases total in his career in Japan, never topping 13 in a single season, so the Matsui comparisons are actually a lot more apt than those to Suzuki.
The things that differentiate Fukudome from those two, though: He draws more walks than either Matsui or Suzuki, averaging one per 7.89 plate appearances for his career, probably profiling better as a No. 2 hitter. Suzuki is better fit to lead off, Matsui to hit in the heart of the order. Fukudome was also more brittle in his days in Japan; he appeared in fewer than 100 games (of generally around 140) three times in the past eight years. In 2007 alone he was held to a career-worst 81 games due to bone chips in his right elbow. In other words, this is one of the bigger health risks to cross the seas.
Still, all indications are that Fukudome should be 100 percent for 2008, and even if his batting average slips to something more in the .280s, if he can keep his on-base percentage at least in the .360-.370 range, he's going to make a noticeable fantasy impact. Being conservative, he could probably swat 20 home runs, steal 10-12 bases and get on base enough to score 90-100 times if he bats in the top third of the lineup. In a way, I'd think of him as somewhat in between what J.D. Drew and Brian Giles have been the past four seasons, which might sound like a criticism but really isn't if you check the numbers.
I don't know that I'd call Fukudome a top-100 player for fantasy overall, but he shouldn't slip too far outside the cut, either. He'd probably rank somewhere around 30th among outfielders, which rates a middle-round pick in mixed formats, or an ideal No. 2/3 outfielder in NL-only formats.
Astros acquire Tejada
Boy, it sure seems like the Orioles were eager to get out from under the final two years of Miguel Tejada's six-year, $72-million contract, doesn't it?
On Tuesday, they traded the four-time All-Star and 2002 American League MVP to the Astros in exchange for five players: Outfielder Luke Scott, left-handed starter Troy Patton, right-handed relievers Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate and minor league third baseman Michael Costanzo. All indications are that the Astros absorb Tejada's full contract.
Tejada has taken a lot of heat, both on the field due to the occasional steroid rumor, and in the fantasy world due to his decline in the power department the past three seasons. But in spite of his hitting 18 homers in 2007, his worst total since his rookie year in 1998, Tejada managed a .300-plus batting average in three of his four seasons in Baltimore, and 200 hits twice. This is still one of the better pure hitters in the game, even if he's no longer the 30-homer candidate he was during his prime. In fact, in spite of his missing 29 games with a broken wrist, Tejada finished 13th among shortstops on the Player Rater.
The shift to the more pitching-oriented National League, filled with pitching-friendly ballparks, should hurt Tejada's numbers somewhat, but Houston is one of the few destinations that won't significantly hurt him as a fantasy option. He's actually a .264 hitter with a .781 OPS in 181 career interleague games, noticeably beneath his .287/.821 overall rates, but at least Minute Maid Park has that short porch in left field helping his cause.
Consider Tejada, now 31, more of a .290-.300 hitter with 15-20 homer power in his new digs, with his value closely tied to where he bats in the lineup. The Astros boast sluggers Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Tejada, each of whom makes a strong case for the No. 3 hole. Incredibly, though, with Michael Bourn and Kazuo Matsui probably occupying the top two spots, the No. 3 hitter might actually be better in runs scored than RBIs, while the No. 5 hitter would be the better bet for RBIs than runs. I'd look for Tejada to slot in after those two, and as a possible 90-100 RBI man, he'd remain a top-50 pick overall in mixed formats, and a top-5 NL-only shortstop, though right around those cutoffs.
Checking out the Orioles' haul, Patton is the prize of the deal, the Astros' No. 3 prospect as ranked by Baseball America in November. He's a left-handed command specialist likely to wind up a No. 3/4 starter in the long term; think of him as better than Garrett Olson, but not close to Erik Bedard. Patton will probably break camp in the Orioles' rotation in 2008, though in that division and with his arsenal, his best hope is as a matchups type for fantasy. Be prepared for an adjustment process, as is typical with these types.
Scott could be an AL-only sleeper, so long as the Orioles are smarter in using him than the Astros were. He's a career .534 slugger against right-handers, more than enough that he should play regularly in left field against that side. Much of that depends on whether the team signs a center fielder, forcing Jay Payton to left field, so keep an eye on the news. Given 500 at-bats, Scott might be able to swat 25 homers and bat .275 in Baltimore, and that's not a bad player to have rounding out your outfield. The problem is Houston didn't seem at all willing to give Scott that kind of role.
Albers and Sarfate should provide bullpen depth for the Orioles, though it's possible Albers will get a look for a rotation spot in the spring. He doesn't have a particularly great arsenal, though, at least not for a starter, and his 3-13 record and 6.05 ERA in 20 career starts demonstrates that. Don't expect much from either pitcher in terms of fantasy appeal. Constanzo, meanwhile, was one of the prospects acquired from the Phillies in the Brad Lidge deal; he's coming off a disappointing Arizona Fall League performance and is a bit too strikeout-prone. He shouldn't be a factor in 2008, if he is at all down the road.
Padres sign Iguchi
At career's end he'll probably rate as one of the more disappointing Japanese imports, but Tadahito Iguchi has shown occasional glimpses of fantasy value over his three years in the States. Unfortunately, that much of those came while he called hitter-friendly ballparks U.S. Cellular Field (Chicago) and Citizens Bank Park (Philadelphia) his home means his landing in San Diego might mean a second straight down year is in store for him.
Late Monday Iguchi inked a one-year deal with the Padres worth about $4 million, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, replacing the terribly underperforming Marcus Giles at second base. Unfortunately, San Diego is hardly the place for Iguchi to turn around his career. The Padres play in baseball's most cavernous home ballpark (Petco Park), and lack the kind of lineup firepower to make him a significant contributor in runs or RBIs.
For instance, should Iguchi bat second, as he did in his White Sox days, or even leadoff, Padres three-four-five hitters slugged a combined .444 in 2007, well beneath the MLB average of .470. If he bats lower in the lineup, well, those same three-four-five men registered on-base percentages at least 14 points below the MLB mean. And since Iguchi is a .276 career hitter who generally swats between 10-15 homers a year, he's more of a final-round mixed middle infielder, or a late-round NL-only middle infielder, and mostly that because he has averaged 13 steals in his three big-league seasons.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.