With Japan's victory in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, the market for Japanese players in Major League Baseball has taken off. Shohei Ohtani shattered the record for the largest contract in American sports history with his $700 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto just received the richest contract ever given to a pitcher at $325 million. While Japanese talent might've been a bargain in the past, such as with Kodai Senga's 5-year $75 million deal, the secret is out and the Cardinals may be priced out of most high-upside players from overseas.
Enter Shintaro Fujinami, perhaps the most puzzling player to ever make the leap from NPB to MLB. In 2013, Fujinami's NPB career took off with promise, being selected as an All-Star in each of his first three seasons and leading the Central League in strikeouts in 2015. His electric velocity was comparable to that of Shohei Ohtani and young fireballer Roki Sasaki. However, his already high walk rate spiked after 2016 and he struggled greatly leading up to 2022 where he was sent down to the Japanese minor leagues for a 9-start stint.
After being posted by the Hanshin Tigers, Fujinami signed with the Oakland Athletics for 1 year, $3.25 million where he struggled mightily as a starter. Making only four starts, he lost all four decisions and recorded an abysmal 14.40 ERA before being demoted to the bullpen.
Control was still very much an issue for Fujinami, but he found his form in A's pen. He improved to a 5.14 ERA as a reliever and posted a 10.1 K/9, good enough to earn himself a trade to the Baltimore Orioles. When Fujinami's command was on, he was dominant. His 4.85 ERA was nothing special, but 10 of the 16 earned runs he allowed in Baltimore came in 4 of his 30 appearances. His overall FIP of 4.61 in 2023 was also much more respectable than his 7.18 ERA.
The Cardinals are clearly in need of additional bullpen help, and Fujinami would be the perfect breakout candidate for next year. He's shown flashes of greatness but still needs to put all the pieces together for success. He definitely can't be the only move, but if the Cardinals can fix his command problem they'd get another excellent high-leverage option at a very cheap price.