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Kosuke Fukudome fits what White Sox need

Updated: March 28, 2012 8:11AM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox cap that Ken Williams wanted to put on Kosuke Fukudome four years ago took a good-natured tipping from behind while the Sox’ only free-agent signing of the off-season conducted his first interview as a South Sider.

Matt Thornton couldn’t resist as he passed by. Fukudome, flashing a wide grin before even looking to identify the prankster, demonstrated good “new guy” etiquette by playing along.

Fukudome knows the drill after joining a new team for the second time since the Cubs traded him to the Cleveland Indians last July.

Williams, who signed Fukudome to a can’t-lose one-year deal with an option for 2013, welcomed Fukudome at the batting cage with a hug.

“You look good in that hat,’’ Williams said Sunday. “We wanted you in that hat a long time ago.”

The Sox were in hot pursuit of the Japanese outfielder before the 2008 season, when they offered the left-handed hitting outfielder $50 million. Fukudome was vague Sunday on why he chose the Cubs for $2 million less.

“I’m happy that I’m able to come back to Chicago. I’m just moving across town,’’ said Fukudome, who hadn’t sold his Chicago home after the trade. “The White Sox gave me the chance to play. That’s all I was asking for. I’m really looking forward to prove what I can do.’’

When the Sox went after Fukudome the last time, it was with bigger things in mind. For the Cubs, he never hit the ceiling that was expected for that kind of money, and now the Sox’ expectations fall more in line with his $1 million contract with a $3.5 million club option for 2013.

“I just want to contribute to the team as soon as possible,’’ Fukudome said. “I’m going to do all I can.’’

Fukudome, 34, will make $500,000 this season; the option includes a $500,000 buyout if he doesn’t return. With the Cubs and Indians combined, he hit .262 with a .342 on-base percentage, eight home runs and 35 RBI in 530 at-bats.

“He’s a good outfielder, a left-handed bat who does a lot of good things,’’ Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “I don’t know exactly how that fits in right now. You get different situations where somebody needs a day or [there’s] a tough righty, you put him in there. Fundamentally, a really good player.”

Dayan Viciedo is set as the starter in right field, and Alejandro De Aza has been touted by Williams as the team’s top leadoff candidate. De Aza also stood out in center field over Alex Rios, who might be moved to left. The leaves Fukudome, who is solid in right and center, as an occasional starter, bench player and pinch hitter. By all accounts, his signing was a great fit at a great price.

It doesn’t hurt that Fukudome experienced the American League. For the Indians, he hit .249 with five homers and 22 RBI. One of his hits was a line drive off the head of Sox pitcher Philip Humber.

“I’m thankful that Kenny signed him so I don’t have to face him any more,’’ said Humber, who said Fukudome had expressed concern about his condition.

Fukudome should improve the Sox’ outfield defense, which was a hazard last season. He also has a history of starting fast, which could mean a needed spark for a team that has had its share of slow starts in recent years.

If only Fukudome could bottle his ­career March-April numbers (.345 batting average, .454 on-base percentage, .526 slugging percentage) for seasonlong use.

“I want to know that, too,’’ Fukudome said. “I don’t understand it myself.’’

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