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Mariners sign lauded Japanese LHP Yusei Kikuchi to unique contract, improve team sooner and later

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Seattle gets creative to ensure a massive boost to their rotation now and in the future.

High School Pitcher Yusei Kikuchi Meets Professional Baseball Teams Photo by Sankei/Getty Images

Last year the Mariners’ pursuit of the most talented player from Japan ended in heartbreak. This year, they flipped the script, and signed the man who preceded Shohei Ohtani at the same high school - LHP Yusei Kikuchi.

That deal is confusing, and of course it is portrayed unclearly by Jon Heyman, so here is the actual breakdown. Kikuchi is guaranteed 3 years, $43 million. In addition, he has a player option for the 2022 season at $13 million. That’s fairly standard stuff, however, following the 2021 season, the Mariners can elect to erase the 2022 option and instead, effectively, sign Kikuchi to a new contract for another 4 years, $66 million, covering the 2022-2025 seasons.

So, Seattle could be on the hook for anywhere between $43 and $109 million, however the average annual value (AAV) will remain fairly steady - between $14-16.5 million. For Seattle, it’s a creative solution that allows flexibility on both sides. If Kikuchi lives up to the expectations of some: a No. 2 starter, and one of the league’s best LHPs, Seattle will at minimum be thrilled with three strong years of production, and may feel comfortable exercising their option for the “extension” with another market-rate-approximate deal to sign Kikuchi through his age-34 season. Should Kikuchi struggle or be injured, it will be unfortunate, but a $13 million lost gamble is hardly crippling. And if it’s somewhere in the middle, or Kikuchi shows well but Seattle’s rebuild is stalling, Seattle could elect not to extend but still see Kikuchi opt out. He also becomes a fascinating potential trade candidate. The intrigues are endless, and the posting fee should just be a mere $9.27 million more.

Still, what is important in the moment is that Seattle’s rotation for 2019, 2020, and 2021 at minimum will be much stronger, with a 27, 28, and 29 year-old Kikuchi likely fitting as less than an ace, but a wholly capable, strong starting pitcher. Seattle’s rotation for 2019 now looks something like... Kikuchi/Gonzales/Leake/LeBlanc/Hernández, with Justus Sheffield, Roenis Elías, and Erik Swanson pushing into the mix soon. It’s an interesting thing to see that three of Seattle’s top four pitchers are ~6 ft tall LHPs, and Sheffield fits that bill as well. Perhaps the Mariners feel they have an inside track on maximizing this sometimes-overlooked player type.

Kikuchi, Gonzales, Sheffield, and Swanson figure to be part of the 2020 and 2021 rotations as well, hopefully joined by Justin Dunn and other future investments. By spending money in this way, which costs literally nothing but money, Seattle is offering at least one encouraging example of making good on their case that the financial flexibility gained by moving players like Robinson Canó will yield dividends down the line. The pathway to contending in the future is brighter thanks to this investment now.

The value entertainment-wise is also sizable. Kikuchi will likely garner one of the two starts against the Athletics in the Tokyo Dome this spring, and continue the Mariners’ streak of having at least one Japanese player on their Opening Day roster since 1998. Moreover, there seems to be a longstanding rivalry and manufactured comparison between Shohei Ohtani and his high school predecessor, which Kikuchi has knowingly chosen to continue by electing the team arguably most at odds with Ohtani’s Angels (as was noted by commenter KaminaAyato and in their Twitter feed - sorry to put you on blast).

Kikuchi needn’t be an ace to merit this peculiar deal, and he’ll have at least a year to work out the kinks. It’s an exciting day to be a Mariners fan, and that hasn’t been the case many mornings this winter. Here’s looking at you, 2019.