Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight

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Cubs waiting to put Fujikawa in the ninth-inning spotlight

Kyuji Fujikawa finished lunch with Cubs officials and began touring Wrigley Field. The sense of history reminded him of Koshien Stadium, which also made ivy part of its design and became known as a kind of birthplace for baseball in his country.

This was just before Thanksgiving, and after 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, Fujikawa believed he was ready for a new challenge and wanted to test himself against the best hitters in the world.

As a teenager, Fujikawa watched Hideo Nomo become a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He saw Daisuke Matsuzaka whos the same age (32) flame out with the Boston Red Sox. That motivated him to prove he could pitch in the United States.

Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer made an aggressive pitch, and they found Fujikawa to be an interesting guy, someone whos curious and asks good questions.

They could sell a cosmopolitan city. Remember that even if it didnt work out here for Kosuke Fukudome, the ex-Cub still appreciated Chicagos strong Japanese community, so much that he once bought a condo on Lake Shore Drive.

All those factors brought Fujikawa back to Wrigley Field on Friday, holding up a pinstriped No. 11 jersey with Hoyer as flashbulbs popped inside the clubhouse.

From that day on in my head, it was: Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Fujikawa said.

Don Nomura, Fujikawas agent in Japan, served as the interpreter in front of at least 10 television cameras. Arn Tellem, his American representative, stood off to the side next to Epstein. Fujikawa speaks enough broken English to be able to communicate with his teammates, but he didnt want to make a mistake during his press conference.

Fujikawa said all the right things, that he will follow orders from the manager, that it doesnt matter when he pitches. Hes been described as a good guy, someone who will get along and wont have a huge entourage (other than the translator and trainer the Cubs plan to hire). He just wants to get outs.

The Cubs already have a closer in Carlos Marmol, and they met with his agent, Paul Kinzer, this week at the Opryland Hotel during the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Epstein, Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum have repeatedly said: Marmol is our closer.

Obviously, that could change at some point during the final year of Marmols contract. But right now the plan is for Marmol to earn his 9.8 million in the ninth inning.

The Cubs would like Fujikawa to get acclimated to a new team and a new country by working as a setup guy and not pitching in the World Baseball Classic, like he did in 2006 and 2009, helping Japan win the title each time.

Even if Fujikawa isnt the closer on Opening Day 2013, the opportunity figures to be there over the life of his two-year, 9.5 million contract, which contains a vestingclub option for 2015. For what its worth, per club policy, he didnt get a no-trade clause.

The primary goal (is) to have him here as part of the solution, Epstein said. Were a big believer in his talent, as well as his character, so we think hell be a positive influence on our younger pitchers and hell be a real stabilizer for our bullpen. Were not signing him at all with the intent to trade him. Obviously, well see what happens. Hopefully, the team performs well and hes pitching very important games for us.

It cost Epstein, Hoyer and the rest of Bostons front office more than 100 million to import Matsuzaka, who helped the Red Sox win the 2007 World Series but otherwise turned out to be a bust.

This clearly is a low-risk investment. Hoyer mentioned Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima, who gave up a home run to the first batter he faced on Opening Day 2007, didnt allow another run until May 22 and went to the All-Star Game that summer.

Fujikawa notched 220 saves in the Central League, with 914 strikeouts against only 207 walks. If his career 0.96 WHIP translates, it should make for some smoother late innings, and it wasnt hard to draw the contrast with Marmol.

Hes been known in Japan as a guy that can really pitch with his fastball, Hoyer said. Hes not a guy that tricks you. He comes right after guys and thats really important. Guys that rely too much on trickery can often be guys the league figures out quickly.

Our hope (is) that hell be able to pitch to a game plan and be able to establish himself and have a nice run.

A black suit, white dress shirt and a royal blue tie plus a new Cubs hat and jersey covered Fujikawas 6-foot, 190-pound frame as he posed for photos outside the dugout. He didnt seem to mind playing along with the cameras.

Wrigley Field felt cold, gray and empty. Even with all that experience, the Cubs arent looking to throw Fujikawa into the heat of the ninth inning right away.

I know that the team is very young, he said. I will try to lead the young players and compete to win for the Cubs. I know what they did last season, but hopefully we can do better next year. I would like to be part of the building process for the Cubs future.

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Kyle Hendricks is back, but Cubs will likely have to wait for their next shot at Yu Darvish

Within the first several weeks of the Theo Epstein administration, the Cubs finished second in the Yu Darvish sweepstakes, though nowhere close to the $51.7 million the Texas Rangers bid for the exclusive rights to negotiate a six-year, $60 million deal with the Japanese superstar.

The Cubs will probably have to wait a few more months for their next shot at Darvish, who is “unlikely to move” before the July 31 trade deadline, a source monitoring the situation said Monday. Darvish means enough to the franchise’s bottom line as a box-office draw and magnet for corporate sponsors that the Rangers would be reluctant to trade a player with global appeal and potentially jeopardize that relationship heading into free agency this winter.

Beyond the possible impact on re-signing Darvish, that would also mean foreclosing on a season where Texas is only 2.5 games out of an American League wild-card spot, making this final week critical to the buy-or-sell decision.

The Cubs would obviously prefer to stay out of the rental market after shipping two top prospects to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana deal. Quintana’s reasonable contract – almost $31 million between next season and 2020 once two team options are picked up – creates financial flexibility for a free-agent megadeal (Darvish?) or the next big-time international player.

But the cost of doing business with the White Sox probably means the Cubs wouldn’t have the super-elite prospect to anchor a trade for Darvish, anyway. That would be another obstacle in any possible deal for Sonny Gray, with an AL source saying the New York Yankees are going hard after the Oakland A’s right-hander (and have a deeper farm system and a greater sense of urgency after missing on Quintana).

All that means Kyle Hendricks could function as the trade-deadline addition for the rotation, with the Cubs instead trying to shorten games and deepen their bullpen by July 31.

After spending more than six weeks on the disabled list, the Cubs activated Hendricks for the start of this week’s crosstown series, watching him pitch into the fifth inning of Monday’s 3-1 loss to a White Sox team that had lost nine straight games.

[Willson Contreras may be ‘the f------ Energizer Bunny,’ but Cubs still need to get another catcher before trade deadline]

Hendricks is a rhythm/feel pitcher who blossomed from an overlooked prospect in the Texas system into a piece in the buzzer-beater Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 deadline into last year’s major-league ERA leader.

Hendricks clearly isn’t locked in yet. He gave up eight hits, but minimized the damage against the White Sox, allowing only one run while putting up five strikeouts against zero walks.

“He wasn’t as normal,” manager Joe Maddon said. “The velocity was still down a little bit. There was not a whole lot of difference between his pitches. He was not what you would call ‘on.’ He would be the first one to tell you that. He looked fine delivery-wise, but the ball just wasn’t coming out as normal.”

Hendricks described his fastball command as “terrible,” called his secondary pitches “OK” and ultimately came to this conclusion: “Health-wise, everything felt great, so we’ll take that. Just got to get back (to my routine).”

The biggest takeaway is Hendricks didn’t feel any lingering effects from the right hand tendinitis that was initially classified as a minor injury in early June. Meaning the Cubs (51-47) are just about at full strength and have another week left to upgrade the defending World Series champs.

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?

The crosstown rivalry doesn't end on the diamond.

Both Cubs and White Sox fans are highly competitive when it comes to trivia, too. 

We found that out when we bounced around Wrigley Field to quiz North and South Siders in a special edition of "Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?" 

Watch the video above as we pitted fans against eachother for the chance to win a killer shirt.