After meeting with Cubs management and sightseeing in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Japanese reliever Kyuji Fujikawa had his mind set.
“From that day on, in my head it was Cubs, Cubs, Cubs,” Fujikawa said Friday in an introductory press conference in the team’s clubhouse at Wrigley Field.
Fujikawa, 32, signed a 2-year, $9.5 million deal with a vesting option for 2015 based on games finished in 2014. Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said Fujikawa’s “durability” was a major factor in the Cubs’ interest, despite his age. The Cubs have said they’re reluctant to bid on free agents in their 30s.
“We’re not always going to stay on the right side of 30 in free agency,” Hoyer said. “It’s not realistic.”
President Theo Epstein’s policy is to not give out no-trade clauses, so there is no assurance Fujikawa will be here the next 2 years. But the Cubs expect to use him as their closer in 2014, at which point they should be able to think about contending.
“Our primary goal is to have him here as part of the solution,” Epstein said. “We’re a big believer in his talent, as well as his character, so we think he’ll be a positive influence on our younger pitchers and will be a real stabilizer for our bullpen.
“We’re not signing him at all with the intent to trade him. Obviously, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully the team performs well and he’s pitching very important games for us.”
Fujikawa said Friday a trade is “up to the team” and he doesn’t care if he is traded, though obviously he’d prefer to stay. He said Epstein and Hoyer “aggressively” pursued him, which was one of the factors in his decision.
“They welcomed me warm-heartedly, and that really got my heart,” he said. “That was one of my [reasons] for wanting to come to the Cubs. I know the team is very young. I’m a veteran. I’ll also try to lead the young players as well and try to compete to win for the Cubs. I know what they’ve done last year. Hopefully we can do better this year.
“I’d like to be part of the rebuilding process for the Cubs’ future.”
Fujikawa led the Japanese League in saves in 2007 and 2011, and had a career earned run average of 1.77 in 562 appearances. Hoyer liked the fact that Fujikawa has great control and relies on his fastball.
“He’s not a guy that tricks you,” he said. “He actually comes right after guys. He has a very good split-fingered fastball, and his curveball he throws for strikes, but really he comes right after guys, and that’s very important. Guys that rely on trickery can often be guys that the league figures out quickly.”
Fujikawa had lunch with the Cubs’ brass 2 weeks ago and toured Wrigley Field. Though speculation at the time said he was headed to the Angels, Wrigley reminded Fujikawa of his home stadium with the Hanshin Tigers.
“It also had ivy in the old days,” Fujikawa said. “Koshien Stadium is known to be the start of baseball in Japan, so that’s one of the deciding factors for me to sign with the Chicago Cubs.”
Fujikawa’s American agent, Arn Tellam, called Hoyer a few days later to tell him Fujikawa wanted to be a Cub. All that was left was to solidify the contract numbers.
Hoyer said Fujikawa won’t pitch for Japan next spring in the World Baseball Classic so he can acclimate to his new team and coaching staff. He’ll have his own interpreter and trainer, as Kosuke Fukudome had during his stay in Chicago.
Fujikawa chose to wear No. 11, which one belonged to popular shortstop Don Kessinger, after wearing No. 22 with Hanshin in Japan.
“To have a better career than No. 22, I went younger with two ‘ones,’” he explained.
The Cubs talked to Carlos Marmol’s agent, Paul Kinzer, at the winter meetings, after some concerns that Marmol was being displaced as closer. Epstein said he reiterated to Kinzer that “Marmol is closing,” and said Friday the notion of Fujikawa closing was not brought up during talks with the player and his agents.
“He said: ‘My job is not closer, it’s setup guy – to help the team win and do what the manager asks of me,’ ” Epstein said. “And that’s the only time it came up in the whole discussion.”
There’s no doubt, however, the Cubs will listen to any offers for Marmol, who was already dealt to the Angels before the Cubs pulled the deal off the table at the last minute.
At the very least, Fujikawa should be able to push Marmol into being a more consistent pitcher. Marmol never had to worry much about losing his job, especially after watching rookie Rafael Dolis struggle in his brief stint replacing Marmol last May.