Did the Cardinals miss out on this reliever?

He was an intriguing buy-low candidate with significant upside. This is the type of move the Cardinals should seek to emulate.
Shintaro Fujinami takes the mound for the Baltimore Orioles
Shintaro Fujinami takes the mound for the Baltimore Orioles / Mike Ehrmann/GettyImages

The 2023 edition of MLB’s trade deadline mania officially kicked off with the Baltimore Orioles acquiring Shintaro Fujinami from the Oakland A’s. On the surface, the move appears to be a head-scratcher for the Orioles. After all, Fujinami, who made the move stateside after an up-and-down 10-year run in Japan’s NPB, has struggled mightily in his first MLB season. Oakland inked him to a one-year, 3.25 million deal back in January, hoping to find a diamond in the rough. Oakland included him in their Opening Day rotation, and Fujinami performed terribly. Oakland removed him from their rotation after four dismal starts in which Fujinami recorded a 14.40 ERA.

However, since being moved to the bullpen, Fujinami has reemerged as an intriguing bullpen arm. In that span, he has appeared in 30 games, and the numbers are significantly better. Though still concerning, his 6.03 ERA over this span is inflated by Oakland’s inconsistent defense. Fujinami’s 3.90 FIP and his strong strikeout rate (10.2 K/9) paint another picture, one that shows the potential to become a shutdown reliever. And that’s exactly what he’s been lately.  Fujinami has been straight-up dominant over the last few weeks. He’s allowed runs in just one of his last 9 appearances, pitching to a 1.64 ERA with 12 strikeouts and 0 walks over 11 innings. Then there’s the fact that his fastball has clocked nearly 103 MPH and routinely breaks 100 MPH.

Suddenly, it becomes much easier to see why a team like Baltimore, which tends to find the best in overlooked relievers (see 2022 Jorge Lopez, 2023 Felix Bautista, and 2023 Yennier Cano), may covet Fujinami. Due mostly to his early season struggles, Fujinami cost Baltimore almost nothing. In return, Oakland received Easton Lucas, who, at nearly 27 years old, has yet to reach the majors and has struggled in Triple-A. If Fujinami continues his recent run of dominance, teams across the league will regret not having made a bid to acquire him. Perhaps none are quite as hungry for low-cost high-potential back-end help as the St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s no secret that the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen has cost them this year. Their 21 blown saves lead MLB. With Helsley hurt, they’ve done their best to sift through a plethora of options at the back end, but only Jordan Hicks has emerged as a consistently reliable option. Unfortunately, Hicks, along with Chris Stratton, is likely to be dealt at the upcoming deadline, leaving the Cardinals with an even greater need for relief help. The Cardinals have signed other veteran journeymen over the last several days, including the recently DFA’d Ryan Tepera.

The imminent departure of Hicks and Stratton will leave a large hole, perhaps one that Fujinami couldn’t have filled, but acquiring him would have been a step in the right direction. Most importantly, it would have been a step that cost the Cardinals almost nothing of value. It would not have compromised their position as sellers, and perhaps could have instilled some sense of confidence in a team that has played great baseball during the month of July. If anything, watching Fujinami pump in 102 MPH fastballs would have at least made the Cardinals more enjoyable to watch down the stretch.