The A’s will build rotation around Shintaro Fujinami in 2023

Strap in, A’s fans. The Shintaro Fujinami Experience should be a wild one in 2023. 

The Japanese right-hander performed as advertised in his first Cactus League with Oakland this spring. He’s probably got the best stuff on the staff, highlighted by a 96+ heater and mean splitter, but he’s also capable of imploding at a moment’s notice.

Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers in his final spring tune-up is Exhibit A. Fuji spun six hitless innings but was charged with two earned runs. How did he pull off that odd feat? He walked both the runners on and moved them two bases with two wild pitches, scoring a run in the process. Then he got a big 6-4-3 double play to stem the tide but that brought home the game-tying run.

You can’t help but be enamored by Fuji’s potential, but those types of slippery slopes are alarming. Aside from the wild pitches, he also had some pitches that were way outside of the zone. But when he’s humming, the 28-year-old can be a strikeout and flyball machine.

Check out this quintessential Fuji line from Saturday’s start:

6 IP, 0 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 4 BB, 3 K, 90 pitches

“I thought he pitched great,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said, via A’s media relations. “He’s always got that one inning, it seems, where he gets a little erratic with the command. But six innings and no hits, two runs – you don’t see that line very often. But I thought he had a great day.”

Earlier in the day, Kotsay told reporters that Fuji will be pitching once-a-week on Saturdays going forward, so book your tickets accordingly. He’s slated to make his MLB debut on April 1 against the Los Angeles Angels, where he should face Shohei Ohtani (the batter) for the first time in the bigs.

In five Cactus League starts, Fujinami finished with a 3.86 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in 18.1 innings with 20 strikeouts. Opposing hitters batted just .121 against him but he issued an alarming 17 walks, nearly one per inning. It’s only spring training, but that type of walk rate simply isn’t sustainable in the MLB for success, with a constant diet of big leaguers churning through the order. According to Kotsay, it’s a matter of controlling his fastball command, but he’s happy with the way Fuji developed this spring.

Kotsay said the A’s will use a five-man rotation to begin the year. The other four starters will try to stay on four or five days’ rest, but Oakland will also need to fill some gaps along the way.

“That’ll be a spot start,” Kotsay said. “How we manage that will be based on how we get there. Could be a bullpen day, could be a long-guy role out of the ‘pen. It’s been thought of.”

The A’s aren’t wed to the idea of this hybrid six-man rotation for the whole year.

“We’re gonna start out that way,” Kotsay said. “The main reason of starting out that way is that Fuji has never done anything different. There’s a lot of change going on for him, keeping things consistent for him. …

“There’s no limitations on innings for Fuji. I think he’s at a point of his career where an innings limit isn’t an issue anymore. We may make an adjustment to his seven-day start. If we feel good and confident, and he’s able to do it, we may decrease it from seven, but at this point that’s how we’re starting out.”

Opening day belongs to left-hander Kyle Muller this season, while Kotsay said right-hander James Kaprielian and southpaw Ken Waldichuk will begin the year in the rotation if they make it through the exhibition Bay Bridge series on Sunday/Monday healthy. 

Kotsay knows it’ll be an adjustment for his other pitchers on the staff to fit with Fuji’s schedule.

“In terms of the other guys and how we manage them, it’s very similar to a six-man rotation in that guys are going to be getting extra days,” Kotsay said. “Which can be beneficial. I’ve seen a lot of teams giving their starters rest early so they’re fresher at the back end.”

Right-hander Paul Blackburn (finger avulsion) and right-hander Drew Rucinski (hamstring) remain rehabbing. Kotsay was vague on Rucinski’s return date when asked Saturday.

“I think the biggest thing for me is to try and refrain from a timeline,” Kotsay said. “I don’t have an exact day for the mound right now. … We’re gonna take it day-by-day with Drew and see how it progresses with his hamstring.”

It’s also worth noting that right-hander Adam Oller was scratched from his scheduled appearance Saturday after experiencing vertigo.

“I don’t have a timeline until the symptoms go away,” Kotsay said.

That could open the door for lefty JP Sears to get the last dedicated rotation spot and perhaps righty Adrián Martínez, who spent the World Baseball Classic with Mexico during its run to the semifinals, but only pitched 2.1 innings. But the flex rotation will give the other guys opportunities to get starts while Blackburn and Rucinski heal up.

“It’s still an ongoing question,” Kotsay said. “The final decisions to the roster haven’t been made and most likely won’t be made until through the Bay Bridge series.”

The A’s will host the Giants at 1:07 on Sunday before heading across the Bay for 6:45 p.m. matchup on Monday. Then the real deal starts Thursday with the Muller-Ohtani matchup at the Coliseum on opening day.