The Athletics have added another starting pitching option for the 2023 season, signing Japanese right-hander Shintaro Fujinami to a one-year deal. Full terms of the deal aren’t yet available.
Per reports, Oakland plans to immediately insert him into starting staff. That means that at least 3/5ths of the starting rotation is now definitively spoken for, with staff leader Cole Irvin and 2022 All-Star Paul Blackburn also in line to begin the year in the rotation. Behind those three, James Kaprielian is also probably a favorite at this point to grab a rotation spot since he is out of options and had a decent year last season, leaving just one opening remaining. Fellow overseas pitcher Drew Rucinski might have a leg up on the competition for that final spot, however.
Fujinami, 29 in early April, is a hard-thrower who was a highly-touted arm coming out of high school, and was even in the same draft class as Shohei Ohtani. After finding early success in his career, command troubles began to become too big to ignore for his club and he was shuttled between the Hanshin Tigers’ major league team and their minor-league affiliate. He made his way back in 2022, however, tossing 66 ⅔ innings with a 3.38 ERA between 10 starts and six relief appearances, all while finally getting a grip on his control problems. He’s got an upper-90’s fastball that can hit triple digits and a wipeout slider, so if he struggles in the rotation a move to the bullpen might help, but Oakland is going to allow him to struggle and adjust to MLB hitting, at least early on.
It’s a low-risk signing that could end up paying big dividends. Major league scouts have had an eye on him since he was 19 and while he’s had struggles, it seems Oakland is committed to giving him a legit shot at thriving in the Majors. And just like with all of their signings this offseason, if he makes a successful transition then Oakland might consider trade deadline deals for him to help further bolster the farm system.
As for the rest of the starting pitching options in the organization, it seems the A’s are in no rush to promote any of their best young arms. Top prospects like Ken Waldichuk and Kyle Muller already had to really impress in Spring Training to make the starting staff, and that goes extra for other arms like JP Sears, Adrian Martinez, Adam Oller, and Freddy Tarnok. That doesn’t even account for AJ Puk, who will be attempting to shift back to the rotation after spending the ‘22 season in the bullpen (although don’t hold your breath on that). It’s very likely that all of those pitchers make up the Triple-A starting rotation to begin the season, with Waldichuk and Muller likely the first men up should an injury arise.
All in all, it’s a low-risk, high reward signing that fits exactly what the front office has been trying to do with free agents this offseason. And at worst, the signing allows the organization to take their time with their top pitching prospects. It’s somewhat surprising that he’s essentially already been given a rotation spot, but that should tell you how much the front office believes in Fujinami. And anyway, it’s always exciting to see an overseas talent make the jump to the States!