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40 in 40: Yusei Kikuchi

The most exciting new Mariner — and, perhaps, a core piece of the next contending M’s team

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Workout
Yusei yes, I say heck yes
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Why do we watch spring training games?

The outcomes don’t matter; in 2001, the Mariners finished 13–19 in the spring before...well, you know. The numbers have precious little predictive value; look no further than Daniel Vogelbach’s .407/.529/.926 slash line last spring, the best among all players with more than 10 plate appearances. The games themselves are far from top quality, with so many players fighting to make the roster mixed in with rusty defense and random mid-game substitutions.

No, we watch for reasons far less tangible. We watch for those flashes of excitement that get us HYPED for the season to come.

In other words, we watch for moments like this:

That’s Yusei Kikuchi, the latest in an illustrious line of Japanese imports to don the blue and green (or perhaps just the powder blue, for now?), making a fool out of six-time All-Star Joey Votto.

We’ve written extensively about Kikuchi here — from Jake laying out the case for signing him (and giving an excellent scouting report while he was at it), to John announcing his signing, and to Kate taking detailed notes of his initial press conference.

We’ve figuratively spilled so much ink on Kikuchi because he’s the most interesting acquisition the Mariners made all offseason. With rebuilding front and center on the minds of most, prospects have taken center stage. Names like Kelenic and Sheffield and Rodriguez are the new objects of our dreams, and the release of each new top-100 list becomes the latest obsession.

But Kikuchi? He’s going to take the mound this year, in 2019, just eight months older than fellow rotation mainstay Marco Gonzales. And, with any luck, he’ll be on the mound for the next contending M’s squad. He’ll mix in his 93 (touching 95!) MPH fastball and his gorgeous looping curveball, plus a changeup and a strong, biting slider. He’ll deceive hitters with his motion:

My favorite part about Kikuchi, though, is his rationale for joining the Mariners. The cynical might point to the $56 million reasons he has to come to the PNW, and they’re not wrong. But when asked in that very first press conference, it became clear that there were other factors at play, from the team... a legend in Japan as well as in the States:

By wearing #18, Kikuchi is donning the number traditionally reserved for aces in Japan. It was, of course, last worn by Hisashi Iwakuma, who won over so many hearts during his six years with the M’s. When Iwakuma signed an incentive-laden one-year deal back in 2012, new Tampa Bay Rays analyst Jeff Sullivan called it “a heck of a deal” with “practically all upside.”

No, guaranteeing Kikuchi over $50 million isn’t risk-free. And it stings a bit to realize that at least one of those years — maybe even half of that money — will be spent to help the Mariners win 75 games instead of 73. But I’m going to enjoy watching this guy pitch. I’ll love watching his average-ish curveball tumble toward the ground, and seeing him smile as he walks off the field after seven shutout innings. Heck, I’m even excited to get book recs from him, given that he apparently reads 20 books a month(!).

What stands out to me the most was that very first press conference, back in the first week of January. Here’s a star player, in his first public appearance in a foreign country, introducing himself in a foreign language because he wanted to. It’s hard to imagine how nervous he must have been, but it’s not hard to imagine how many hearts he won over with that speech.

Jeff’s last paragraph for Iwakuma sums up the Kikuchi signing as well:

We’ve talked a lot about Iwakuma lately. I don’t need to re-hash it. It’s hard to say whether he’ll be good or bad or okay. His stuff could work, or his stuff could not work. But it’s fun to consider the Hiroki Kuroda possibility, and it’s just nice to see the Mariners making a Major League move. Welcome, Hisashi Iwakuma. Be awesome.

It’s fun to consider the Yusei Kikuchi possibility, too. Welcome, Yusei Kikuchi. Let’s help you live out your dream.