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02/11/09 7:06 PM EST

Fukudome shapes up in offseason

Cubs staff member encouraged by outfielder's progress

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cubs won't see Kosuke Fukudome until sometime in March because the outfielder is committed to playing for Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic. But the early scouting report is that he will arrive better prepared for the Major Leagues.

Nao Masamoto, the video coordinator for the Cubs, visited Fukudome twice this offseason, once in early December and again in January, to check on his workout program. Masamoto's prediction for the Japanese outfielder in 2009?

"I don't think he'll be as good [for the whole season] as what he did last April," Masamoto said Wednesday of Fukudome, "but, overall, he'll do fine and better than what he did last year for sure. There's no doubt in my mind."

Last year, Fukudome had a dream-like Opening Day. On March 31 at Wrigley Field, he went 3-for-3 against the Milwaukee Brewers, including a ninth-inning, game-tying three-run homer off Eric Gagne. The right fielder batted .327 in the first month, but Fukudome's average dipped each month, and he finished the season at .257 with 10 homers and 58 RBIs.

Before Fukudome returned to Japan, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry met with him and told him the team would be looking for another outfielder for 2009 and that the nine-year Japan League veteran would be competing for playing time.

Masamoto said he didn't sense Fukudome, 31, was frustrated by what happened in his first season in the U.S.

"He said he kind of knew it was going to happen before he came to the States," Masamoto said. "He knows what needs to be done and he knows what we have as far as the [batting] cage and the gym, and he knows what the other players do."

During the season, Fukudome would try to get his work in with his teammates, but ended up in hitting groups of five or six, which meant taking his swings, then having to wait 15 minutes before his next round. Now, Masamoto said Fukudome knows the Cubs coaches can set aside more one-on-one time if needed.

"He just needs to come up and say, 'Hey, I need to hit more,'" Masamoto said.

Part of the problem could have been that Fukudome was trying to fit in with his new team and didn't know what he could ask for.

"Being a first-year guy, he didn't say, 'Hey, I need this,'" Masamoto said. "He probably wanted to see what was going on first."

In his second season in the U.S., Fukudome will have a better feel for Wrigley Field, for the road ballparks, for the travel, for day games. Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Fukudome may have worn down at the end of last season. In 2007, he was limited to 81 games with the Chunichi Dragons before undergoing elbow surgery.

"That might be one of the reasons [he struggled]," Masamoto said. "It's all combined. He had the injuries, it's a new place, it's Chicago, he doesn't have as many friends as he had in Japan. It's all combined. He knows the situation this year. I'm not worried about him."

During Masamoto's visits, there was no talk about the Cubs' addition of Milton Bradley, who was expected to get most of the playing time in right with Fukudome sliding over to center to share time with Reed Johnson. Masamoto's mission was to make sure Fukudome was following the Cubs' workout regimen, which focused on adding more core exercises. Masamoto said he saw a definite improvement in the month between visits.

"He was doing great -- it was awesome," Masamoto said. "He was better [in January] than what I saw in December. It seems like the message got through to him."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.