CHICAGO – Japanese pitcher Kyuji Fujikawa’s aspirations of playing in the majors seemed only a pipe dream as a 15-year-old student.
But as he witnessed the success of countryman Hideo Nomo and the subsequent influx of other Japanese players in Major League Baseball, including Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki and Hiroki Kuroda, Fujikawa decided it was time to prove that he too belonged.
“Matsuzaka, who is the same age as I am, struggled a little bit, but his challenge really gave me the motivation to come over here, as well as Ichiro’s challenge to the major leagues, that motivated me to come over,” Fujikawa said through a translator.
Fujikawa decided the Cubs were the best fit and signed a two-year contract worth $9.5 million with a vesting/club option for 2015. The right hander went 42-25 with 220 saves and a 1.77 ERA in 562 appearances with the Hanshin Tigers.
“From Day 1 when I visited here, I really loved the city,” Fujikawa said. “From that day on, it was Cubs, Cubs, Cubs.”
The allure of Wrigley Field, which is reminiscent of the Hanshin Tigers’ stadium where Fujikawa played for 12 years, was a deciding factor in signing with the Cubs. Because Fujikawa relies heavily on his fastball and attacks the strike zone, general manager Jed Hoyer and the Cubs believe the 32-year-old can successfully transition from Japan to the majors with limited hiccups.
“He’s been known in Japan as a guy who can really pitch with his fastball which is really important,” Hoyer said. “He’s not a guy that tricks you. He comes right after guys. He has a really good split-finger fastball. He has a curveball that he throws for strikes, but really he just comes right after guys and I think that’s really important. Guys that rely too much on trickery can often be guys in the league figure out quickly.”
Getting a crack at MLB hitters was one of Fujikawa’s main motivations to leave Japan. While he possesses a repertoire built for success out of the bullpen, Fujikawa, who will wear No. 11, admitted adapting to a new culture and living alone, away from his family, will present its challenges. In order to ease the transition, Fujikawa will report to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training in February and will not play in the World Baseball Classic for Japan. The Cubs are in the process of hiring an interpreter and a trainer for Fujikawa.
As the Cubs stumbled to their first 100-loss season since 1966, their trade deadline fire sale suggested they aren’t afraid to trade away top talent with team-friendly deals in return for prospects. At this point, the Cubs aren’t expecting to do the same in 2013, and Fujikawa didn’t sound worried about the possibility of being dealt, noting “I would like to be part of the building process for the future.”
“We’re not signing him at all with the intent to trade him,” President of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “Obviously we’ll see what happens. Hopefully the team performs well and he’s pitching very important games for us.”
Epstein spoke with Marmol’s agent, Paul Kinzer, this week regarding the bullpen situation with Fujikawa now in the fold. Epstein and Hoyer each reiterated that Marmol is the Cubs’ closer after a strong second half performance when he posted a 1.52 ERA with 12 saves.
“We were short last year in the bullpen,” Epstein said. “Rather than add a high quantity of buy-low guys and hope some quality emerged, we felt like we were in a position where we could add one or two quality bullpen pieces because we have some interesting arms to fill out the rest of the pen.”
Epstein disagreed with previous reports that indicated closing games, or at the very least a chance to do so, was very important to Fujikawa. Instead, Fujikawa made clear his main priority was to help a team win, regardless of when he entered the game.
“Actually it wasn’t,” Epstein said. “In our discussions with him, it was the chance to have a meaningful role and do his job.”