One of the brighter spots in spring training this year was the obvious changes Mariners LHP Yusei Kikuchi made last winter. The delivery was simplified and Kikuchi removed the hesitation from his set up. We also saw the fastball sit 94 and touch 96 for most of his time on the mound, a big difference from the 92.5 MPH he averaged in year 1.
Kikuchi was still struggling with his command and that remains his biggest hurdle left to overcome to reach his ceiling as a good #3 starter. 2020 was going to go a long way to showing the Mariners where Kikuchi fit into their future plans. But let’s consider the 3 most probable outcomes and ask if there is an outcome that makes the trading of Kikuchi make sense.
First, let’s imagine that we largely see the same Kikuchi we did in 2019. What team is going trade anything to Seattle for that guy with at least 1-year at $17 million salary, plus a $13.5 million option Kikuchi can activate after 2021?
Second, what if Kikuchi does improve, but lands at a run-of-the-mill, #4 starter? Would it make sense for the Mariners to then trade Kikuchi for next to nothing to save a little bit of cash? Or does it make more sense to use the positive steps as a springboard and try again in 2021?
Finally, what if Kikuchi actually hits his ceiling and is a good #3 starter? Why would the Mariners trade a #3 starter making below-market value for a deal they can opt-out of anytime from 2022-2025? The option years become so valuable here, that trading Kikuchi after his breakout season won’t make much sense because you don’t have his replacement for 2021 in the organization.
There just isn’t much of a scenario where trading Kikuchi makes sense. That doesn’t mean there won’t be one, as strange things have a tendency to show themselves in a pennant race, but the odds are so low, we have Kikuchi at #3 on our list.