MESA, Ariz. – Kyuji Fujikawa and Carlos Marmol have lockers at opposite ends of the clubhouse. But the Cubs see them working side-by-side in the eighth and ninth innings, at least for the next few months.
The Cubs changed the formula during Thursday’s 5-3 win over Oakland at HoHoKam Stadium. It went Marmol then Fujikawa in the fifth and sixth innings (two scoreless) of a meaningless Cactus League game.
But when the crowds are bigger than 4,037, look for Fujikawa getting acclimated as the setup guy and Marmol making your heart race trying to close out the game.
Marmol said that he hasn’t heard anything new from his lawyer. Meaning he doesn’t expect to have to leave camp and return home to the Dominican Republic to resolve this matter. The Cubs have backed the closer completely in this alleged sexual assault, framing it as an attempt to blackmail a high-profile target.
“It’s all baseball,” Marmol said. “When you go out there, you don’t want to think about anything else except baseball. I feel great. My body feels great. My mind’s clean. I’m ready to go.”
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Marmol called Fujikawa a “great pitcher” and a “cool guy” and that’s the vibe the Cubs get from someone with a shock of blondish-orange hair.
Fujikawa has wound up talking to manager Dale Sveum about bass fishing and the pond that’s part of the design for the new Mesa facility. Team president Theo Epstein remembered the smile on Fujikawa’s face when he visited Wrigley Field just before Thanksgiving.
Fujikawa saved 220 games across 12 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers, one of Japan’s most historic/popular teams – and one that made it clear he wouldn’t be part of the posting system. The 32-year-old right-hander helped Japan win the World Baseball Classic twice and pitched in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“He wasn’t a priority guy for us at that time because we figured the price would maybe get a little out of control,” Epstein said. “We had a closer and we weren’t out looking to spend a ton of money in the bullpen.”
The Cubs made a strong bid for Yu Darvish in December 2011, but financially it would have been difficult to pull off what the Rangers did to sign the Japanese star: Pay the $51.7 million posting fee and then put together a six-year, $60 million deal.
The Cubs also went after Hyun-Jin Ryu this offseason, submitting a bid believed to be somewhere between $15 million and $20 million. The Dodgers won the right to negotiate with the Korean left-hander with a $25.7 million bid.
“It’s available talent,” Epstein said. “You can figure out who we’re going after a lot of times by looking at what age they are, how talented they are, whether they require a draft pick or not.
“You have to pick your spots where you find talent these days. We’re in on just about everybody.”
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There was a belief around the industry that Fujikawa would wind up with the Dodgers or Angels as they continued their battle for Los Angeles.
Bankrolled by television money, the Dodgers would sign Zack Greinke to a six-year, $147 million contract, while the Angels would counter by signing Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal.
Greinke and Hamilton didn’t sign until the middle of December, leaving the top pitcher and hitter on the board throughout the winter meetings at the Opryland Hotel. Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had Fujikawa’s two-year, $9.5 million deal wrapped up before they boarded a United Airlines flight from O’Hare International to Nashville, Tenn.
One meeting in Los Angeles had gotten off to a slow start when Fujikawa was locked out of Dodger Stadium. That may have helped create an opening for the Cubs.
“We had a really nice back-and-forth about his career, about Chicago, about the lifestyle,” Epstein said. “He had a good sense of humor. He was real outgoing, relaxed. He looked like he was eager to join the organization, eager to pitch over here and enjoy the country and the change. He seemed really self-aware, curious, open. He had a real nice outlook on the whole situation.”
Hoyer helped with the recruiting pitch and the Cubs executives kept a reference point in mind. The Red Sox had traveled to Japan as the reigning World Series champs and played the Hanshin Tigers in an exhibition game before opening the 2008 regular season against the A’s in Tokyo.
“We just kind of talked about what our scouts thought of him, what we see on video, why we thought it would translate,” Epstein said. “We talked about different things going on in the organization, our vision for the future, how he could fit into it.”
It’s easy to see why Fujikawa profiles like their future closer: 914 strikeouts, 207 walks and a 0.96 WHIP for his career in Japan.
“When I visited Chicago, I felt really welcomed. Walking into the stadium, I felt the tradition,” Fujikawa said through an interpreter. “I always had the desire to come over here – as far as seven years ago – but I needed to get that free agency. This was real good timing for me.”
The deal includes a vesting/club option for 2015 that makes Fujikawa a potential longer-term rebuilding piece at Clark and Addison.
Marmol – who will make $9.8 million in the final year of his contract – is the short-term asset the Cubs almost shipped to the Angels last November. He approved the trade before the Cubs backed out of the deal over concerns about Dan Haren’s hip.
Whatever happens next with Fujikawa and Marmol, the endgame possibilities for the Cubs got a lot more interesting.