While many will continue to dream of adding superstar Shohei Ohtani by the Aug. 1 trade deadline, the Orioles have acquired the second Japanese-born player in team history in hopes of beefing up their bullpen for the stretch run.
On Thursday, general manager Mike Elias sent minor-league pitcher Easton Lucas to Oakland in exchange for right-hander Shintaro Fujinami. The 29-year-old is in his first major league season after pitching 10 seasons with the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball. Fujinami was a three-time NPB All-Star selection from 2013-15.
Fujinami’s numbers aren’t pretty as he’s pitched to an 8.57 ERA in 49 1/3 innings, but he’s shown marked improvement since abandoning an early-season starting role and settling into the Athletics bullpen. With a fastball that hits triple digits as well as a splitter, cutter, and slider, Fujinami has pitched to a 2.45 ERA and struck out 19 batters while walking six over his last 18 1/3 innings dating back to June 5. Pitching coach Chris Holt and the organization will be tasked with helping the right-hander continue that improvement, and one can look no further than the work the Orioles did with All-Star setup man Yennier Cano — who struggled mightily in limited major league work with Minnesota in 2022 — as reason for optimism.
Lucas is a 26-year-old left-hander who was acquired in the Jonathan Villar trade in December of 2019. He had a 4.61 ERA in 13 2/3 innings at Triple-A Norfolk this season.
The Orioles have been searching for middle relief reinforcements to bridge the gap to Cano and All-Star closer Felix Bautista in the late innings, and it’s unlikely that Fujinami’s addition will be the final attempt to fortify the bullpen between now and the deadline. Baltimore entered 2023 expecting veteran right-handers Mychal Givens and Dillon Tate to be key members of the bullpen, but they have combined to pitch just four innings in the majors because of injuries. And while Cano and veteran lefty Danny Coulombe have been surprising contributors this season, right-hander Bryan Baker and lefty Cionel Perez haven’t been able to duplicate their 2022 performance levels.
Fujinami will be the first Japanese-born player to appear in a game for the Orioles since Koji Uehara, who pitched for Baltimore from 2009-11 and eventually became one of the better late-inning relievers in baseball for several seasons.