The Orioles have reportedly made their first move to bolster the pitching staff heading up to this year’s August 1 trade deadline. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported on Wednesday night that the Orioles were acquiring Japanese pitcher Shintaro Fujinami from the Oakland Athletics. The O’s are sending minor league pitcher Easton Lucas, once acquired from Miami for Jonathan Villar, to Oakland.
The team announced the trade before I was even finished writing this article. To make room on the 40-man roster, infielder Josh Lester, currently at Triple-A Norfolk, was designated for assignment.
I want you to be fully prepared for what you’re going to see when you go look at Fujinami’s stats, because they’re bad. Like, his ERA is 8.57 for the 2023 season and his 5.5 BB/9. Command problems plagued him at times in Nippon Professional Baseball as well. At first glance, and considering the experience of having traded for Oakland’s Cole Irvin over the offseason, one might wonder why Mike Elias would bother trading for another below average - or in this case horrible, like -2.0 WAR horrible - pitcher from Oakland.
Fujinami is a 29-year-old 6’6” right-hander who’s in his first season in Major League Baseball. A name I’ll throw out to anyone who’s entered a state of panic over this trade is Koji Uehara, who was absolutely miscast as a starting pitcher in American baseball but who ultimately carved out an interesting niche as a relief pitcher and is fondly remembered here in Birdland.
This guy started four games for Oakland and was absolutely shelled, allowing 24 runs in 15 innings in that span of time. Pretty bad! It got him swiftly kicked into the bullpen, where things have gone better, especially if we only consider his results since the start of June.
Starting June 1, Fujinami has a 3.26 ERA over 19.1 innings, with batters hitting .246/.308/.391 against him. That’s not exactly elite, but is it better than Bryan Baker? Well, no. It’s not better than Mike Baumann either. It is a lot better than Logan Gillaspie. “Better than Logan Gillaspie” is not going to get people rushing to buy the unlimited ballpark access passes for the month of August.
Lucas, a 26-year-old lefty reliever, has only reached Triple-A Norfolk this season after spending all of last year and the first part of this season at Double-A Bowie. His early results at Norfolk haven’t been very good at all, with a 4.26 ERA and 5.0 BB/9 over his first nine games.
The Orioles have given up no one of any apparent importance. There was no reason for you to have thought of him unless you’re an absolute Orioles prospect sicko, and probably not even a lot of them did. The only real downside risk in this acquisition is if Fujinami comes here and sucks like he did in April and May.
I think there’s a plausible story of improvement here. That doesn’t mean improvement is guaranteed to continue, but there’s more than just a wing and a prayer here. Pitcher comes over from Japan, is initially placed in a role he can’t succeed in, then requires some adjustment time to be able to get out batters who are harder than any he’s ever had to face before.
People who are really into everything that Elias has done with the Orioles might even tell themselves that the Orioles will be able to use their improved powers of analytical insight to sharpen Fujinami’s arsenal. I’m not willing to go quite that far, sight unseen, but the cost is low enough in terms of a non-prospect and remaining salary (pro-rated portion of $3.25 million) that there’s not much bad to say until he starts pitching. Shintaro is a great Baltimore accent name.
If this is the only trade the Orioles end up making, that sucks. If one or even two more moves that are better come along between now and August 1, that will help it all feel a lot better.