Yusei Kikuchi: The Seattle Mariners’ Newest Import?

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 30: GM Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners looks on from the dugout prior to the game against the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on September 30, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 30: GM Jerry Dipoto of the Seattle Mariners looks on from the dugout prior to the game against the Houston Astros at Safeco Field on September 30, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) /

The Seibu Lions of the Nippon Professional Baseball league are expected to announce on Monday that they will post star pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. Here is everything you need to know about his fit with the Mariners.

A bevy of teams are poised to inquire on SP Yusei Kikuchi as his team prepares to post him (Japanese source), and the Mariners could be among the most interested parties. Roster needs and long-standing ties to Japan make him an obvious target, but certain things must be considered to assess how well he fits in Seattle.

First off, Yusei Kikuchi is clearly a talented pitcher.

This past year he logged a 3.08 ERA and 1.033 WHIP with a 23.4% K% and 6.9% BB% over 163.2 IP.

For his career (8 seasons), he has a 2.81 ERA, 1.177 WHIP, 21.7% K%, and 8.9% BB% over 1035.1 IP.

He may not be a strikeout pitcher or a command artist, but he certainly rates well in both regards and has obviously done plenty to keep runs off the board.

The source above mentions Kikuchi has been previously been compared to Patrick Corbin in that he is a lefty who heavily leans on his fastball/slider combo. While he doesn’t seem to have the upside that Corbin showed in 2018, he does compare well to Corbin’s past iterations — 2017 especially.

You can’t guarantee that Kikuchi will establish himself in the majors, yet he appears to be a safe bet to be an MLB-quality starter. And at 27 years old, he is exactly the kind of young, controllable talent the Mariners (and every team) would look to add to their rotation.

His health could temper some expectations though.

Over the past two seasons respectively, Kikuchi has thrown 163.2 and 187.2 innings — and it is worth noting the NPB season is only 144 games long — but there is no getting around the fact that his throwing shoulder has been an issue.

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He was evidently shut down in 2010 and 2013 with shoulder issues, and in 2018, he missed time due to what was called (or translated as) “decreased functionality” in his shoulder (Japanese source). However ominous that sounds, it was not deemed to be serious. Still, it is less than promising.

Of course, Jerry Dipoto isn’t known to shy away from starting pitchers with injury risk and that reputation dates back to his days as the Angels’ GM. I wouldn’t expect health issues to be a deterrent unless he actually fails a physical.

That being the case, the Mariners should be in hot pursuit of Kikuchi so long as he fits the budget.

As we have covered before, unless the Mariners decide to push their payroll to new heights, there isn’t a great amount of money to go around. A hefty commitment could be made to any one player, but that might also mean penny-pinching in other areas of the roster.

The good thing is despite Kikuchi’s prospective popularity on the market, his earning power will not be otherworldly as he appears quite comparable to Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Prior to coming to the majors, Ryu threw 182.2 innings at a 2.66 ERA with a 28.6% K% and 6.3% BB% for the Hanwha Eagles in only the most recent of 7 great years in the KBO, and he signed for “just” $36 million over 6 years.

Ryu separates himself from Kikuchi being 2 years younger (at the time of his posting) with much higher innings totals and better strikeout numbers over his career, but Kikuchi has played in a tougher league and enjoyed a fantastically dominant 2017 season in which he posted a 1.97 ERA with a 0.911 WHIP and 29.5% K%.

The upside of each player seems similar, but Kikuchi threw the best season between the two of them and did so very recently. Coupled with the fact that he has played in a tougher league his whole career, that should make Kikuchi a hotter commodity and project him to outearn Ryu.

For reference, Ryu’s contract broke down as follows:

2013: $2.5 million

2014: $3.5 million

2015: $4.5 million

2016: $7 million

2017: $7 million

2018: $7 million

He also received a $5 million signing bonus and from the article above:

"Ryu can earn up to $1 million annually based on innings pitched. He gets $250,000 for each of 170, 180, 190, and 200 innings. That could bring the total value of the deal to $42 million…"

Knowing that Ryu’s signing paid off quite well for the Dodgers even considering the time he lost to injury, around 6-years/$42 million would seem like a fair starting point for contract negotiations, and at an AAV of $7 million per year, the Mariners could definitely afford Yusei Kikuchi.

The Dodgers did, however, pay a $27.5 million posting fee to land Ryu for a total commitment of about $61 million, so there is more to be considered.

At first glance, Seattle should not be priced out of the running, but we have to consider the new posting rules.

The new system dictates the following:

"• For Major League contracts with a total guaranteed value of $25 million or less, the release fee will be 20 percent of the total guaranteed value of the contract.• For Major League contracts with a total guaranteed value between $25,000,001 and $50 million, the release fee will be 20 percent of the first $25 million plus 17.5 percent of the total guaranteed value exceeding $25 million.• For Major League contracts with a total guaranteed value of $50,000,001 or more, the release fee will be 20 percent of the first $25 million plus 17.5 percent of next $25 million plus 15 percent of the total guaranteed value exceeding $50 million.• For all Minor League contracts, the release fee will be 25 percent of the signing bonus. For Minor League contracts that contain Major League terms, a supplemental fee will be owed if the player is added to the 25-man roster.• If a posted player signs a Major League contract that contains bonuses, salary escalators or options, a Japanese team may receive a supplemental fee equal to 15 percent of any bonus or salary escalators actually earned by the player, and/or 15 percent of any option that is exercised."

As I interpret it, Kikuchi will essentially be treated as a regular free agent with an added fee based on his contract to facilitate his release from the Seibu Lions (and some potential extra fees for bonuses, etc.).

Under these rules, a $42 million commitment to Kikuchi would constitute only about an $8 million posting fee.

Recently, the posting fee was simply capped at $20 million and guys like Masahiro Tanaka and Shohei Ohtani, of course, maxed that out easily. Because Kikuchi would seem liable to also max out the posting fee under the old rules, it is likely that his actual guarantee will outpace that given to Hyun-Jin Ryu in order to better compensate the Seibu Lions.

Considering the current posting rules, it was thought that Kikuchi could earn nearly a $100 million deal and despite some questions about his shoulder and a great but not exceptional follow up to 2017, that price tag may not have fallen too much.

At the very least, Ryu’s total guarantee of roughly $61 million should represent the low-end of Kikuchi’s earning power. Speculatively, it might take 6-years/$80+ million to rein him in, and the Mariners still figure to be able to afford that given that the “transfer fee does not count towards the team payroll.”

The Mariners will face tough competition for Kikuchi though as other teams appear to be more attractive destinations.

Almost every team, if not actually every team, will express some interest in Kikuchi and that means Seattle will be fighting an uphill battle to land him. This is especially true because it is still the case that any team willing to pay the posting fee may negotiate for a posted player.

As it stands, the Mariners will be trying to leapfrog some teams to land a wild-card spot and while some key prospects are on-the-rise, the organization’s overall talent is lackluster. Meanwhile, other interested teams will be projected to win their divisions and have stronger reinforcements on the way.

If Kikuchi wants to win now and win often, Seattle isn’t the most prime destination, but it is still a fine landing spot.

The Mariners’ ties to Japan as well as their physical proximity figure to always make them an appealing destination for Japanese players, and a backloaded deal could allow them to offer a very substantial commitment to Kikuchi — one possibly approaching $100 million — without pushing their 2019 budget to the brink.

With significant money coming off the books or potentially being bought out after each year from 2019 to 2023, the length of the guarantee shouldn’t scare the Mariners off either.

Next. Mariners Free Agent Profile: Adam Jones. dark

All in all, Yusei Kikuchi figures to be heavily coveted by most teams, including the Mariners. The bidding for his services should be frenzied, but the Mariners appears to have a legitimate chance to come out on top although it might mean being willing to pay more than any other team. That is a daunting prospect but one that would improve the club in 2019 and beyond while still leaving room to make other moves.