Cubs' rebuild takes another step back with Fujikawa injury

Cubs' rebuild takes another step back with Fujikawa injury

May 29, 2013, 11:00 am
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The Cubs signed Kyuji Fujikawa to be the closer on their next contending team, a foundational piece at Wrigley Field. He played along for the Japanese media and posed during the photo shoot after his first press conference here last December.

After that initial burst of excitement –- one official described Fujikawa as “the Mariano Rivera of Japan” –- there is now the reality that his first season in the big leagues is already over.

Fujikawa will have Tommy John surgery after an MRI revealed a rupture of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Through an interpreter, the 32-year-old reliever said this is the first major injury of his career, 12 innings into a two-year, $9.5 million contract that contains a club/vesting option for 2015.

General manager Jed Hoyer said Wednesday that the Cubs didn’t receive damaged goods, pointing to MRIs taken before Fujikawa signed and in spring training. Fujikawa had told Japanese reporters that he felt something “pop” while throwing a pitch to Joey Votto on Sunday at Great American Ball Park.

“It’s unfortunate, but it is the nature of pitching,” Hoyer said. “We’re hopeful he’ll rehab hard and come back strong next year.”

As much as Hoyer hoped something got “lost in translation,” this was bad news for a bullpen that finally seemed to be solidifying, and now has big questions marks for 2014 with Kevin Gregg and Carlos Marmol being short-term assets.

Fujikawa coasted through a scoreless eighth inning on Sunday, using 15 pitches to get three groundball outs, and came out for the ninth during a 5-4 comeback win over the Cincinnati Reds.

“I don’t think that’s the reason,” he said. “Getting injured is a reality. There’s no reason to dig into (why this happened).”

Afterward, the Cubs initially framed it as an injury similar to the forearm strain that forced him onto the disabled list in mid-April through mid-May.

“I was definitely disappointed,” Fujikawa said. “But it’s kind of my style to always have that worst-case scenario in mind. I went all out and I don’t have any regrets.”

The Cubs have cited the 95 percent success rate and predictable rehab from Tommy John surgery in trading for Arodys Vizcaino and signing Scott Baker.

Vizcaino -– once one of the top prospects in the Atlanta Braves organization –- became the centerpiece of the Paul Maholm trade last summer. But the 22-year-old right-hander will be shut down for at least six more weeks after recently having arthroscopic surgery on his elbow, meaning he might not pitch for two straight seasons. 

Baker signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract last November after missing the entire 2012 season. He’s long tossing in Arizona and not expected back before August at the earliest.

“Some of those things cluster at times, and we haven’t had the greatest luck,” Hoyer said. “We do get into a routine of assuming that every Tommy John is 12 months and the guy comes back and he’s feeling great. And that does happen and that’s what you hope for, but at the same time some guys do have setbacks along the way. Every guy heals differently.

“We’re all hopeful that these guys will recover well and pitch well for us.”

Since coming off the disabled list May 10, Fujikawa had allowed only one run across 7.2 innings, with 10 strikeouts against one walk. He finishes this season at 1-1 with a 5.25 ERA and two saves in three chances.

“When healthy,” he said, “I gained confidence that I was able to pitch against these guys at the big-league level.”

There’s a ticking-time-bomb element any time you sign a pitcher, and Fujikawa had notched more than 200 saves and appeared in 562 games across 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers.

Look for the Cubs to load up on power arms again in next week’s draft. Hoyer pointed to the St. Louis Cardinals, who keep rolling along as a first-place team even with injuries to Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook and Jason Motte.

“They’re just bringing guys up from the minor leagues and they’re doing well,” Hoyer said. “No one’s going to feel sorry for us. We just have to find the depth and keep drafting pitching and developing pitching. And (then) eventually get to the point where you have the depth (to) do what the Cardinals have done so far.”