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A’s Miss Opportunity, Name Unqualified Opening Night SP Instead

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics
“At least I’m not a one-hit wonder.”
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

Folks, folks, folks. If you can’t conjure up a worthy candidate, at least have some sense of drama and decorum. Cole Irvin: traded. Paul Blackburn: Injured. James Kaprielian: Recovering.

So the A’s Opening Night SP was going to have to be someone new and not really a natural choice to start the first game of the season. And it wasn’t even going to be Drew Rucinscki, who at least had 41 MLB games under his belt, as he rests a tender hamstring.

Circumstances, one by one, left the A’s with really only one obvious choice and that was to offer the media spectacle, and likely big fan draw, of matching up Shohei Ohtani with fellow Japanese import Shintaro Fujinami.

It even had the logic that to go toe to toe with Ohtani you need a pitcher with significant upside and Fujinami has the wipeout stuff that could, on a good day, match zeros. In all likelihood, on a limited pitch count Fuji’s first start will only yield about 4 IP and based on what we’ve seen so far it might come with 5 BBs but only one hit.

Nonetheless, it was poised to be somewhat of an intriguing matchup and one worthy of attention nationally. Heck, analysts at ESPN might have walked away actually capable of locating Oakland on a map.

Instead? The nod goes to Kyle Muller, who may have good stuff but oh my. He has thrown 18 IP this spring to a combination of big leaguers and minor leaguers and served up 30 hits. 13 ER yields an unsightly 6.50 ERA for a guy whose mid-90s fastball has been eminently hittable. Perhaps Todd Van Poppel has been reborn as a lefty.

Most likely, Muller didn’t earn the Opening Night start based on his MLB track record of allowing 11 ER in 12.1 IP for the Braves in 2022. Perhaps the A’s are banking on the “Bob Welch Factor” in which an A’s pitcher can toss batting practice all spring training and then go out and win 27 games.

I hope Muller steps it up, throws a gem, with it gains confidence, and on his own makes the Sean Murphy trade look like a steal for Oakland. But it is just an odd choice to give that honor, and with it put on the pressure, when a rather clear alternative was staring you in the face.

Even the schedule makers were begging for a Fujinami March 30th start, offering a day off on the 31st, then another one on April 6th, which could have allowed Fujinami to pitch on his 6th day twice while the A’s stayed in a 5-man rotation. Instead the A’s have pushed Fujinami past the first of those days off, which will necessitate a “6th starter” sooner.

Fujinami may be an MLB “rookie” but at age 28, with several seasons behind him in Japan, he should not be overly phased by an Opening Night assignment. What’s unclear to me is why the A’s felt it was helpful to put that spotlight on Muller, who seemingly neither needs it nor deserves it. Let him ease in and hopefully push his way higher and higher in the rotation like most rookies do.

Color me a bit baffled here, unable to identify the reason this selection, over the option of an Ohtani-Fujinami showdown, does make sense. I would have opted for the “Fujinami with a JP Sears chaser” tandem for the first 6-7 IP, knowing that even if a game 1 win wasn’t in the cards you had put your best foot forward and at the same time given fans, and perhaps a national audience paying attention, a good show.

Go get ‘em, Kyle. But really I could have waited a couple more days to see your debut.