As is commonplace with almost every Japanese player making the transition from Nippon Professional Baseball to the Major Leagues, the Mariners have been connected to the latest pitcher making the cross-pacific move. Yusei Kikuchi was posted earlier this month by his Japanese club, the Saitama Seibu Lions, and reports out of the Winter Meetings this week have linked him with a number of teams including the Mariners. As TJ Cotterill reported yesterday, the Mariners interest in Kikuchi isn’t just a formality, Jerry Dipoto is seriously pursuing the Japanese lefty.
On the surface, signing Kikuchi this offseason might not seem like a fit for the Mariners who are clearly
restructuring rebuilding reimagining remixing reshuffling. But he’s just eight months older than Marco Gonzales and would fit the 2020, 2021 window the Mariners are aiming for if he signs a multi-year contract. Dipoto definitely recognizes this fit too:
“I don’t know what his interest level is in playing in Seattle just yet, but we are interested and he does fit our timeline. By the time we get to our next (playoff) window he’s 29. And since I don’t think Kikuchi is going to sign a one-year deal, he should be very capable of being a part of what we’re trying to do.”
As for what he would bring to the Mariners roster, well he’d immediately fit in as a mid-rotation starter with the potential for even more. Even with the additions of Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Erik Swanson to the Mariners prospect ranks, they could certainly use all the pitching help they can get.
The Scouting Report:
Kikuchi has been on the radar of Major League teams ever since he considered foregoing the NPB Draft as an 18-year-old high school senior. He ended up staying in Japan and was drafted by the Seibu Lions. He has shown tons of promise throughout his Japanese professional career but has been held back by bouts of inconsistency and injury. He finally broke out in 2017, striking out over 200 (a 29.5% K%) and leading the Pacific League in ERA. He took a bit of a step back in 2018, dropping five points off his strikeout rate. His walk rate has stabilized around 6.7% the last few seasons after sitting over 10% for most of his early career.
He possesses a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by a good fastball that sits 91-93 mph and a plus hard slider. He’ll occasionally use a curveball or changeup to change the pace of an at-bat but neither pitch is better than average. This highlight video from 2018 should give you a pretty good idea of what his pitches look like.
His fastball possesses some cutting action which helps generate weak contact against right-handed batters and whiffs against left-handed batters. In years past, he would throw this pitch with max effort getting the velocity into the upper 90s, but some shoulder issues have hampered his velocity. Still, he’s capable of locating the pitch on both halves of the plate and is comfortable throwing inside to righties. His command of his fastball has made up for any velocity issues he’s suffered recently.
His slider is easily his best pitch. He throws it around 87 mph though he’ll often change the velocity and shape of the pitch depending on the situation. Left-handed batters have a particularly difficult time with this pitch but he’s just as likely to throw it to the back foot of a right-handed batter to get a swinging strike too. He’s also comfortable throwing his slider earlier in the count to steal a strike or to keep his opponent off balance.
He’s said that Clayton Kershaw is his favorite pitcher to watch and the comparison is apt. Both Kershaw and Kikuchi rely heavily on a fastball-slider combo, throwing the pair of pitches over 80% of the time. But where Kershaw has a plus curveball to call on as well, Kikuchi’s curveball is merely average. It’s a slow, looping curve that can catch batters off guard but isn’t consistent enough to be a true weapon. His changeup has good action as well and comes in around 10 mph slower than his fastball, but he has trouble spotting it consistently. If he wants to take a step forward in the Major Leagues, he’ll have to work on one of these two pitches to reach his full potential.
His mechanics are reminiscent of Hisashi Iwakuma—and many other Japanese pitchers—using excellent balance to create a repeatable delivery. Like I mentioned above, an occasional max-effort delivery introduced a big leg kick a la Rich Hill, though he’s moved away from that recently to simplify his delivery and hopefully move past some of his injury concerns.
Speaking of injuries, he’s dealt with a recurring shoulder problem throughout his career. He sat out the entire year after he was drafted because of a shoulder injury and missed significant time in 2013 to the same injury. It was a concern again this year, though it only sidelined him for just a month.
The contract and fit:
Overall, Kikuchi profiles as a mid-rotation starter with the potential for more if he can stay healthy and find some consistency with one of his secondary pitches. He doesn’t have the ceiling of Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish. He’s actually fairly similar to Kenta Maeda as far as his NPB history and MLB potential are concerned. Maeda provides a decent contract comparison too. The Dodgers won the rights to negotiate with Maeda with a maximum $20M posting fee. They then signed him to an eight-year contract with an average annual value of $3M. That low AAV was bolstered by up to $10.15M in performance bonuses based on games started and innings pitched, bringing the total potential outlay up to $106.2M, even if some of those performance bonuses were unlikely to ever be paid out.
With his extensive injury history, building a contract for Kikuchi that includes substantial performance bonuses might be the most prudent course, however, with Scott Boras representing him, I’d be surprised if he’d accept an AAV as low as Maeda. With the revamped posting system in place, any posting fee paid to the Seibu Lions will be a percentage of the contract Kikuchi signs. Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs projects a four-year, $40M contract, with the FanGraphs crowd projected a four-year, $52M contract. MLB Trade Rumors projected a longer contract with a lower AAV, six years, $42M. McDaniel’s projection seems pretty reasonable, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were significant performance bonuses attached to the contract in addition to the $10M AAV.
The benefits of signing Kikuchi are clear. He’s the youngest “big” free agent starter on the market this offseason and doesn’t have draft compensation attached to him like Dallas Keuchel or Patrick Corbin. The risk of signing a Japanese import and his injury history could dampen his market, but his potential high-upside is enticing to a number of ballclubs. Henry Schulman reported on Sunday that the Giants were the early favorites to land Kikuchi but it’s still early in the negotiating period. The Yankees, Dodgers, Padres, and Rangers have all been linked to him in varying degrees over the past week. For the Mariners, landing Kikuchi would give them a top-flight left-handed starter in the prime of his career. Signing him now would give him a season or two to acclimate to the Major Leagues before being counted on as a core piece when the new wave of youngsters reach the majors in a few years. I’d be surprised if Kikuchi signed before Christmas. Boras will probably want to maximize his market and will probably wait until close to the end of the negotiating period (Jan 2) to select a team. Until then, the Mariners should continue to be connected with the Japanese hurler, hopefully building a strong case to convince him to sign in Seattle.