Shintaro Fujinami was arguably the Oakland Athletics’ biggest free agency signing last offseason. The Fuji experiment didn’t last long and he was flipped to the contending Baltimore Orioles for more controllable bullpen depth a couple weeks before the trade deadline.
Represented by super agent Scott Boras, the A’s signed Fujinami to a one-year, $3.25 million contract in early January after his former team, the Hanshin Tigers of Nippon Professional Baseball, posted him on December 1, 2022. Oakland also had to pay the Tigers $650k — 20% of the posting fee — and included over $1 million in potential incentives.
What were the expectations?
Leading up to his posting, Fuji was coming off a strong comeback season in NPB. After coming up as a top pitching prospect in Japan alongside Shohei Ohtani, he began to lose hype as injuries and inconsistency diminished his role. In 2022, he bounced back with a 2.77 ERA over 107 1⁄3 innings with strong strikeout and walk rates. Looking forward to his transfer to the major leagues, teams knew he had elite stuff offset by some history of wildness. The hope for the A’s was to have him start off pitching in the rotation once a week to let him slowly adjust to a major league workload. If he struggled, the A’s were open to seeing if his stuff played better in a bullpen role.
In four April starts, Fuji pitched to a terrible 14.40 ERA, giving up 24 earned runs in just 15 innings. He flashed promise one of those times with 6 innings of three-run ball, but the A’s had no choice but to move him to the bullpen. That didn’t start off well either as he threw 16 innings with a 10.13 ERA, 20 strikeouts, and 12 walks. He then hit his stride and looked like a real major league setup man, pitching to a 2.45 ERA in 18 1⁄3 innings and getting his walk rate down to a solid 8.2%. The A’s sold (relatively) high and traded him to the Orioles for southpaw relief prospect Easton Lucas, who struggled in eight September games and will compete for a bullpen spot next season. Meanwhile, Fuji was merely average for the O’s down the stretch and is once again a free agent.
What went right? What went wrong?
Fuji was nowhere close to being a major league pitcher when he first arrived, but neither was the rest of the A’s rotation in the season’s first half. He made progress and turned into one of Oakland’s more reliable relievers in June, which isn’t saying much. Though Lucas may not contribute much to the major league squad, the fact that the A’s got anything out of the Fuji experiment is a win.
Now a free agent, Fuji will likely get interest as a high-upside reliever again. With a full year of major league experience, teams may feel more confident in his ability to adjust and get outs. He won’t get much of a guarantee but I think he’ll do better than a minor league deal and will start the season in a team’s bullpen.