Fukudome, who turns 35 in April, had his roughest season as a major leaguer last year, posting a -0.2 WAR over 603 plate appearances with the Chicago Cubs and then, following a late-July trade, the Cleveland Indians — although, it should be noted that about one negative win of that comes from defense alone, which is much more subject to variation even over a year-long sample.
The White Sox are likely to deploy an Opening Day outfield of Alejandro De Aza in left field, Alex Rios in center, and Dayan Viciedo in right, meaning Fukudome will serve as fourth outfielder for the team.
Which, here’s a question: what are the criteria for a fourth-outfielder role? And also: how well does Fukudome fulfill those criteria?
Roughly speaking, this is what constitutes the ideal fourth outfielder:
There’s no reason to spend a lot on a bench player. Obviously.
Fukudome’s deal is only for $1 million, and the White Sox retain his rights, in the case that he, for some reason, has a breakout season. That’s palatable.
Average (Or Better) Outfield Defense
A fourth outfielder should be able to cover all three outfield positions. In a perfect scenario, he could serve as a late-inning defensive replacement for a merely average defensive center fielder, with said center fielder moving over to an outfield corner (as DeWayne Wise notably did for Scott Podsednik in Mark Buehrle’s perfect game, for example).
Unfortunately, Fukudome has always been stretched as a center fielder, and might only be an average in a corner now.
Offense / Handedness
The ideal fourth outfielder, offensively speaking, is probably a batter who crushes left-handed pitching (allowing him to play the weak side of a platoon role) but hits very poorly against right-handers (thus keeping his costs down). Alternatively, a fourth outfielder could feature no platoon split at all (by switch-hitting, for example), allowing him to subsitute for batters of either hand.
In this case, Fukudome is a left-handed batter who has actually been platooned for for much of his career. He is actually a career 100 wRC+ hitter, however. So there’s something there, at least.
This is somewhat anecdotal, of course, but it generally has to be the case that a player will deal well with spending long-ish periods on the bench.
By signing this particular contract, Fukudome is almost certainly aware of his likely role. He doesn’t have a reputation as a malcontent — or, not outside of the Chicago area, he doesn’t. He fulfills this criterion.
Of course, there are team-specific elements to consider, as well. Are the other outfielders injury prone? Do they need days off periodically?
In this case, Fukudome is a good fit: both De Aza and Viciedo will be starters for the first time in their career (from Opending Day, at least). It’s difficult to say how they’ll react to their new roles. Fukudome, if nothing else, is a known quantity: were he to replace Viciedo, say, he could at least provide something better than replacement-level production in a corner.
Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.