In two weeks, the Chicago Cubs have gone from having an excess of veteran outfielders to a shortage. When the regular season ended, the Cubs forty-man roster included Alfonso Soriano, Jacque Jones, Cliff Floyd, Craig Monroe, and Daryle Ward, all over the age of 30. In the last week, however, they declined Floyd's option for 2008, dealt Jones (a former Twin) to the Tigers, and Monroe (a former Tiger) to the Twins. Obviously Soriano isn't going anywhere and Chicago picked up an option on Ward, who performed quite admirably as a pinch-hitter/utilityman in 2007. But Ward is not a everyday player, so we must assume that either the Cubs are ready to entrust outfield duties to Sam Fuld and Felix Pie, or they are gearing up to make some sort of free agent splash. What the Cubs need is a productive left-handed bat (Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez provide an abundance of right-handed power). The only premier left-handed hitting outfielder on the market this offseason is Kosuke Fukudome. Steve Stone has been predicting the Cubs interest in Fukudome for several weeks. It appears they are setting themselves up to make a run on him.
This makes sense for several reasons besides its potential effects on Lou Pinella's lineup. Forbes ranks the Cubs as the fifth most valuable franchise in baseball. Of those top five, they are the only team which hasn't tried their luck with the Japanese market. The Yankees (Hideki Matsui), Mets (Kazuo Matsui), Red Sox (Daisuke Matsuzake), and Dodgers (Takashi Saito, Hideo Nomo) have all made major Japanese acquisitions. And, for all but the Mets, the payoffs have been positive, both on the field and in the marketing department. If they can attract Fukudome, it will open up new revenue streams, which can't hurt the impending sale of the team by the Tribune Company. Following Boston's lead (not a bad idea), they may attempt to import a pair of Japanese stars. Hiroki Kuroda could fit into the back-end of the Cubs rotation (where Jason Marquis and Sean Marshall remain question marks) and provide a friendly face to aid Fukudome's transition process. Another option might be signing one of the two Japanese free agents who are already acclimated to the American game, Kazuo Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi. Unfortunately, both are middle-infielders, and might shy away from splitting time with Mark DeRosa, Ryan Theriot, and Omar Infante.
Although he is likely to be very expensive, I expect the Cubs to make a concerted run on Fukudome. If for no other reason than that the other left-handed outfielders on the market leave much to be desired. Milton Bradley could be a real deal. He's a switch-hitter who hit above .300 from both sides of the plate in '07, with a high OBP, low strikeout rate, and good range in the outfield, but his history of injuries and surliness might be a little too reminiscent of Cliff Floyd for Jim Hendry's taste. Nonetheless, a full season of Bradley is likely as good or better than any other outfielder on the market, including Fukudome, Torii Hunter, and Andruw Jones. The catch is that Bradley has only played one full season in his career, in 2004.
Beyond Bradley, the options are truly limited: Geoff Jenkins, Brad Wilkerson, and Kenny Lofton. I explained in the second part of my Center Field Shuffle post why I thought Lofton was a good fit, but only as part of a center field conglomeration with Fuld and Pie. Wilkerson and Jenkins don't match well, because although they provide left-handed power and decent defense (especially Jenkins), they both strike out at alarming rates. The one argument for Wilkerson is that although he was utterly terrible in Texas, the last time he was a member of an NL franchise, the Nationals/Expos, he had four straight seasons with an OBP above .350 (three above .370).
If Fukudome falls through, Hendry will likely explore some trade options to acquire a left-handed bat. The problem here is that Chicago doesn't have a lot of tradeable commodities. They have a glut of middle infielders (DeRosa, Theriot, Infante, Mike Fontenot, Ronny Cedeno, and top-prospect Eric Patterson), of which only DeRosa and Patterson probably have significant value. They have some depth in the bullpen with Ryan Dempster, Carlos Marmol, and Bobby Howry all closer-ready, and Scott Eyre, Kevin Hart, and Micheal Wuertz valuable arms, but I would rather frame that as strength than excess.
What they also have is Matt Murton. Matt Murton is a high-average and OBP guy, who could develop decent power given the chance to play everyday (think Micheal Cuddyer). He plays a mean left field, but really struggled in right last season, and has absolutely no place in center. He is also a right-handed bat, of which the Cubs have plenty. At 26-years-old, the former first-round pick still has plenty of upside and several years of arbitration. He could make a lot of sense for a team on the mend, looking to get younger (Oakland or Baltimore) or building from within (Washington or Kansas City). Murton probably won't bring a solid veteran left-handed bat by himself, but he could fit into a three-way trade or bring pieces which make the Cubs more willing to deal what they have. Even if they succeed in bring Fukudome to the north side, I don't expect to see Murton in Chicago next year. They have Fuld, Pie, and Angel Pagan to fulfill the fourth and fifth outfielder roles. All are better defenders, as young as Murton, and possess nearly as much offensive upside.