Seattle Mariners “My Guy” series: Yusei Kikuchi bounces back

We continue our staff exercise of picking current Mariners players to carry the flag for this season in our yearly “My Guy” series.

The Seattle Mariners made a surprising (at least to some) splash last winter, signing the big-name Japanese player of the winter, Yusei Kikuchi, to a multi-year contract. The move was celebrated by Mariners fans and Kikuchi was set as an example of how this wasn’t a traditional rebuild.

The Kikuchi signing seemed to prove how the organization wasn’t going to be interested in a traditional, long-term rebuild. Rather they wanted to start collecting players who would be a part of their core right away, not 3-5 years down the road.

But unfortunately, Kikuchi faced all of the same problems most rookies do as well as outside factors that included adapting to a new league, new country, a new language, new city, new schedule, the birth of his first child and death of his father, just to name a few.

Kikuchi’s rookie season wasn’t satisfactory for any parties involved. But there were a few positives from which to build. Kikuchi made 32 starts in his rookie season, avoided the IL, and ate 161 innings for the Mariners.

He looked the part of a legitimate number 2 starter in a handful of starts, including a 2-hit, complete-game shutout in Toronto and 7.2 innings of 3-hit baseball in Yankee Stadium. He showed legitimate, MLB stuff and avoided walking too many hitters.

But again, the overall results were a bit disappointing. So why am I so high on Kikuchi? First, the stuff is good enough to be a quality MLB starter right now, which is half the battle. The issues surrounding Kikuchi were all related to his command. He needs to throw better quality strikes.

Second, he now has a full season of MLB and all the life changes he went through under his belt, something he couldn’t possibly have dealt with last year.

Third, Kikuchi is a noted grinder who is willing to make changes to reach his full potential. We have already seen this willingness to adopt new ideas. Last season, his best start came against the Toronto Blue Jays, and in that game, he ditched the traditional hesitation in his delivery. He also has a desire to learn from others, such as former Indians starter Trevor Bauer.

Kikuchi really should use his changeup a bit more this year and I hope he does. He gets good value out of the fastball and the slider is a 60-grade pitch. He needs a 3rd offering and the curveball just wasn’t cutting it last year.

But with fewer distractions and off the field obstacles to overcome, as well as a full year adapting to a new baseball and a more rigorous MLB schedule, I’d expect significant growth from Kikuchi this season. He never had the stuff to be a number 1 or 2, but if he posted a 3.80 FIP with 8 K/9 over 170 innings this season, I wouldn’t be shocked.