The Mets have agreed to a deal with free-agent righty Shintaro Fujinami, reports Jon Heyman of the New York Post. He’ll earn at a $3.35MM rate in the majors on the one-year pact and can unlock an additional $850K worth of incentives. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that the contract does not contain any language preventing Fujinami from being optioned to the minors. Fujinami is represented by the Boras Corporation.
Fujinami, 29, was a high school rival of Shohei Ohtani and entered Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s top professional league, at the same point as the two-way phenom. Early in his NPB career, Fujinami looked the part of a burgeoning phenom himself. He went right from the NPB draft into the Hanshin Tigers’ rotation, pitching to a 2.75 ERA in 137 1/3 frames as a 19-year-old rookie. He turned in a sub-3.00 ERA in each of his first four seasons in NPB and was named an All-Star each year along the way.
Fujinami’s star faded beginning in his age-23 campaign. He’d already been showing some command struggles the year prior, and was controversially left in a game to toss a stunning 161 pitches in a single start — one that began with him surrendering five runs in his first three innings of work. The extent to which that contributed to his decline can’t be known, but Fujinami battled injuries and poor command for much of his remaining time in NPB. The Tigers sent him down to their minor league club on multiple occasions and shuffled him between the rotation and bullpen at various points as well.
In 2022, Fujinami had a resurgence. The hard-throwing righty made 10 starts and six relief appearances with the Tigers’ top team, pitching to a 3.38 ERA in 66 2/3 innings. He fanned 23.6% of his opponents and, most crucially, turned in a career-low 7.6% walk rate. That was not only the best mark of Fujinami’s career but the first time since 2016 he’s posted a walk rate under 10%.
That led to a one-year, $3.25MM deal with the Athletics last year. Fujinami’s MLB career started out in catastrophic fashion. He was absolutely shelled in four starts with Oakland (14.40 ERA) before moving to the bullpen and continuing to struggle, surrendering 15 runs in his next 12 1/3 innings of relief.
Things took a quick turn, however. Fujinami reined in his command beginning in early June, and for nearly two months leading into the trade deadline turned in a 3.18 ERA with a 24-to-9 K/BB ratio in 22 2/3 frames — all while averaging better than 99 mph on his fastball. The turnaround prompted the Orioles to send minor league righty Easton Lucas to the A’s in order to acquire Fujinami in a deadline swap. The 6’6″ righty didn’t quite sustain his recent run of strong results but didn’t regress to his disastrous early-season results, either. He tossed 30 innings with a 4.85 ERA as an Oriole, striking out a quarter of his opponents against an 11.9% walk rate.
Setting aside that miserable start to the year, Fujinami closed out his MLB rookie campaign with 48 innings of 3.94 ERA ball. He struck out 25.6% of opponents, walked 10.6% of them, yielded just a .206 opponents’ batting average, kept the ball on the ground at a 43.5% clip and averaged a massive 99.1 mph on his fastball in that time. That type of production would be plenty commensurate with a one-year deal at this price point — if not more — though there’s certainly some risk, given the tall righty’s first two months in 2023.
By guaranteeing Fujinami a 40-man roster spot and a not-insignificant $3.35MM, the Mets are placing a bet that he can at least sustain the performance he showed from June onward — if not improve upon it. There’s something to be said for a pitcher transitioning to a new league and new culture when making the jump from a foreign professional league to MLB, but the extent of Fujinami’s early struggles was nevertheless alarming. If the final four months of his performance are more representative of his abilities, however, he could make for a nice addition to a radically overhauled Mets bullpen.
New York has re-signed Adam Ottavino but also brought in newcomers Jorge Lopez, Michael Tonkin and Austin Adams — none of whom can be optioned without first clearing waivers. The Mets are also reportedly close to a deal with veteran lefty Jake Diekman, and SNY’s Andy Martino tweets that the team is still optimistic his deal will be completed. Given the mounting slate of bullpen additions, it’s quite possible the Mets try to pass someone like Tonkin or Adams through waivers; neither has five years of MLB service, and the salary agreed to on each player’s big league deal could help them clear waivers and head to Triple-A as depth options.
The Mets are set to pay the luxury tax for a third consecutive season in 2024 and are already well into the fourth and final tier of penalty levels. Any dollars spent at this point come with a 110% tax, meaning the Fujinami pact will cost them $7.035MM after taxes. If he unlocks the full $850K incentive package, that’d cost an additional $1.785MM after taxes, although getting to that point would very likely mean he’s pitched well enough to be worth that amount and then some. The Mets will need to open a spot on the 40-man roster for Fujinami and likely for Diekman (assuming that deal is indeed completed), so additional transactions should be on the horizon within the next few days.