What will the Seattle Mariners do with Yusei Kikuchi?


Seattle Mariners Yusei Kikuchi before game

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – AUGUST 01: Yusei Kikuchi #18 of the Seattle Mariners reacts while warming up prior to taking on the Oakland Athletics at T-Mobile Park on August 01, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners are currently tied up with Yusei Kikuchi and his odd contract. How is Jerry Dipoto going to handle this situation?

Nearly two years ago the Seibu Lions posted Yusei Kikuchi, their former star left-hander, making him available to negotiate contracts with Major League clubs after a fee is paid out to Seibu for his rights. The Seattle Mariners and Jerry Dipoto took a chance on the Japanese left-hander, coming to terms on an option-filled contract following a $10.725M posting fee.

Kikuchi made $8M in his first MLB campaign, but that number jumped to $14M last season and will rise to $15M this coming year. But, this next offseason is where things start to get very interesting for Kikuchi and the M’s.

The Mariners attached a four-year option to the end of the 2021 season on his contract, worth $16.5M per year. But here’s the kick; if the Mariners decline the four-year option, the contract turns into a one-year player option worth $13M that Kikuchi would have five days after the 2021 World Series to opt into.

This would obviously take a good-sized chunk out of Seattle’s 2022 payroll, a year littered with prized offseason free agents across the board. This begs the question, what is going to happen with Yusei Kikuchi over the course of the next year?

Possibility #1

Yusei Kikuchi builds off of his incomplete but promising 2020 campaign and finally bursts onto the scene with a vengeance, leading the upstart and suddenly contending Seattle Mariners to either pick up his four-year option or happily settling with the $13M he would likely be owed otherwise in 2022.

Believe it or not, this is actually still well within the realm of possibilities. Out of his nine starts in 2020, Kikuchi had three quality starts with a few more that were borderline. On August 27th he went 5.0 innings giving up three earned in the back half of a seven-inning doubleheader against the Padres. He also went 6.0 innings but gave up four runs in Arizona while walking his first batter in almost a month.

The back of Kikuchi’s baseball card may not say so, but he made some pretty noteworthy adjustments and improvements in 2020. It all started with his revamped mechanics that led to a three MPH jump in velocity. Kikuchi touched as high as 98 MPH on his fastball in 2020.

His FIP was nearly two whole points below his actual ERA, signaling that a lot of luck was involved when teams were getting to Kikuchi. His 1.1 WAR completely backs that up, which is typically unheard of for a starter whose ERA was residing in the low-to-mid 5.00 range for the last month of the season.

Kikuchi struck out nearly 8% more batters in 2020, and also saw a similar near-8% rise in his ground ball percentage. He also cut his home run rate essentially in half, which was huge for Kikuchi as he was second in the American League in home runs allowed in 2019. He could be primed for a breakout-type season in 2021.

Possibility #2

All of the facts stated above come to fruition and Yusei Kikuchi has a great first half in 2021, leading to the sub-.500 Mariners and Dipoto shipping Kikuchi off to a contender for multiple prospects in his final touches of the three-year rebuild.

This seems like the most likely of the three possibilities, as Kikuchi’s advanced metrics point to a possible breakout and the Mariners are unlikely to seriously contend for the pennant in 2021. Throw in the economic recovery that the game will be slowly going through and Dipoto’s trading habits, it would be more than likely the then 30-year-old Kikuchi finishes 2021 in another uniform if the Mariners are out of contention while he is performing as a mid-to-top of the left-handed rotation piece.

Possibility #3

Regardless of the Mariners record in 2021, Kikuchi’s results continue to disappoint in the Majors, and the M’s are unable to get any team to take on his contract, leading to his four-year option being declined and Kikuchi opting into the 2022 season at a $13M clip.

If Yusei Kikuchi does not figure it out this season, there will no market for him on the trade block at the deadline, and he would more than likely face a demotion to Tacoma or a move to the bullpen, as the Mariners have not been shy about moving unsuccessful starters into the bullpen as relief weapons.

Kikuchi would be 30-years-old and coming off three subpar seasons in a row as part of the Mariners rotation. This would create a bit of a pickle financially for Seattle, as his $13M base salary in 2022 would hurt the M’s chances at landing multiple prized offseason free agents in the star-studded yet incredibly deep free-agent class of 2022.