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Friday, January 27, 2023

Why Japanese star Shintaro Fujinami and the Oakland A’s are a perfect match

OAKLAND — There wasn’t an empty seat at the Oakland A’s introductory conference for Japanese pitcher Shintaro Fujinami, the team’s newest free agent addition.

The makeshift podium room at the A’s Jack London Square offices was jam-packed with reporters, cameras and team executives — including former president of baseball operations Billy Beane standing in the back of the room.

“Wow,” general manager David Forst said as he looked around from the podium. “This is exciting, it’s not something we do every day. It’s been a while.”

The A’s aren’t big on the pricy free agency signings that might warrant a flashy press conference — a recent history of cost cutting and low budgets forces the front office to keep spending at a minimum. So it has been a while. Think Yoenis Cespedes’ intro in 2013, or Hideki Matsui in 2010.

Fujinami’s one-year, $3.5 million deal with the A’s wouldn’t normally warrant the big press conference, but the international draw was enough to get a large group of Japanese language media who will follow “Fuji” — his preferred American nicknamed — through his MLB journey.

“Like Mt. Fuji,” Fujinami said through Japanese interpreter Issei Yamada.

Fujinami’s deal with Oakland poses a perfect opportunity for both sides. Fujinami was looking for a team that would let him start out of the rotation. And the A’s were in need of a starter.

“It was important to him to have a chance to be a starter, and that’s how we’ve seen him perform in Japan,” Forst said.

The opportunity to start alone could have been the ultimate draw to Oakland for hard-throwing Fujinami. The 28-year-old was drafted first overall into the NBP alongside superstar and high-school rival Shohei Ohtani in 2012 and made four straight NBP All-Star teams during his 10-years with the Hanshin Tigers as a hard-throwing starter who can hit triple-digits with a low 80’s mph slider and a splitter.

But Fujinami lost his command somewhere along the way. In 2017, at age 23, his walk rate jumped from 3.7 walks per nine innings to 5.7 in 26 games with the Tigers, including 11 starts. His struggles had him switching between starter and reliever toward the latter part of his Tigers career.

Lately, he’s been able to regain some of that control, lowering his BB/9 back down to 3.0 in 25 games. The 6-foot-6 pitcher struck out 65 batters with 21 walks for a 3.38 ERA over 66 2/3 innings last season — both as a starter for 10 games and a reliever for six.

It was Fujinami’s track record as a starter that interested the A’s, who are in desperate need of some stability in their rotation with Daulton Jefferies out due to Tommy John surgery and James Kaprielian likely to miss time to start the season with an injury. Oakland brought back Paul Blackburn on a one-year deal and have Cole Irvin as their returning veterans with 2022 trade acquisitions Ken Waldichuk and JP Sears among the other rotation options.

A.J. Puk will still be stretched out as a starter, Forst said, with an opportunity to earn a starter role in spring training.  The A’s also signed Drew Rucinski to a one-year, $3 million deal. The 34-year-old spent the past four seasons in the Korea Baseball Organization League.

But Forst sounded certain Fujinami will start.

“I didn’t realize we brought Mt. Fuji to the Bay Area. We’re moving mountains, I guess,” Fujinami’s agent Scott Boras said. “Today marks a very special time for him, it really does.”

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