Over the next several weeks, members of the Camden Chat staff will be reviewing one 2023 Orioles player each day to see how the season went for each of them.
The Orioles declined to buy at the trade deadline in 2022. A year later, Baltimore entered the second half of July in heavy pursuit of a division title. Still, the front office showed little interest in dealing from its top crop of prospects.
Mike Elias eventually made a deal to bring a second-tier starter to Camden Yards. Two weeks earlier, the guys inside the warehouse made a low-risk, high-reward type of move with the intention of bolstering the bullpen.
Baltimore acquired Shintaro Fujinami in exchange for prospect Easton Lucas. Lucas, a pitcher gained in the Jonathan Villar deal, never figured to make an impact in Baltimore. Fujinami, a Japanese reliever with electric stuff, had an opportunity to do just that.
Oakland used Fujinami as a starter early in the season, but the former Hanshin Tiger struggled with control. The A’s moved Fujinami to the bullpen, and his performance eventually moved in the right direction. The 29-year-old held a 8.57 ERA at the time of the deal, but he posted an encouraging 3.26 ERA from June 1 to July 19.
It only took one look at Fujinami to grasp why the Birds made the move. Fujinami’s 98-MPH fastball ranked in the 97th percentile for velocity, and his 78 percent whiff rate fell in the top quarter of MLB pitchers. He possessed electric stuff, and the Orioles advanced analytics department intended to help the pitcher hone his control.
Fujinami went on to post a 4.45 ERA over 29.2 innings with the Orioles. He struck out 32, walked 15, and posted a 2-0 record in 30 appearances. The numbers aren’t great, but they fail to truly describe Fujinami’s Jekyll and Hyde persona.
Fujinami allowed runs in his first two appearances before stringing together six consecutive scoreless outings. He yo-yoed throughout the month of August, but one thing became very apparent. The 6-foot-6 righty shined when he pounded the strike zone and quickly unraveled when he lacked control.
For every three walk, three earned-run outing against Houston, Fujinami seemed to counter with a three strikeout performance against the Jays. Unfortunately for O’s skipper Brandon Hyde, the Orioles never knew which Fuji would exit the bullpen on a nightly basis.
Fujinami could have emerged as a true late-inning option once the Orioles lost closer Félix Bautista, but Fujinami never earned the trust of Hyde. Baltimore turned to the reliever when they needed to, but his presence always came with cause for concern.
The Orioles ultimately left Fujinami off the ALDS roster despite injuries to Bautista and starter John Means. With the benefit of hindsight, Fujinami may have fared better than Bryan Baker or Jacob Webb, but the reliever never appeared to truly turn a corner.
Fujinami entered the offseason as one of Baltimore’s few free agents. He showed enough talent to justify another contract under the right circumstances, but the Orioles are no longer a rebuilding team with roster spots to spare. The O’s have a need for relievers with Bautista set to miss the entire season, but it’s time for the team to spend on legitimate pitchers with a proven track record.
Fujinami will likely jump at a major-league offer from a rebuilding club. A team could offer Fujinami a chance to compete for a rotation spot, but the Orioles need more credible options to take the ball every fifth day.
Tuesday: Aaron Hicks