The Mariners have plenty of things that they will be going after this offseason. Prospect evaluations. FA needs and wants. Arbitration hearings. There is one thing hanging over their head that is likely going to be their first major decision. Should they or shouldn’t they pick up the team option that they hold on Yusei Kikuchi?
If you’re a big fan of recency bias, the resounding answer to this is “NO! Please don’t exercise the option on Yusei Kikuchi.” The team holds a 4 Year, $66 million extension for Kikuchi. Based on how he finished the second half of the season, it seems like they are unlikely to pick it up.
Would turning down the club option on Yusei Kikuchi be the right call?
Think about the type of pitcher currently that is being paid that kind of money ($16.5 per year). Dallas Kuechel, Lance McCullers, Madison Bumgarner, Miles Mikolas, Alex Cobb, Kyle Hendricks, or Danny Duffy. They all have multi-year deals between $13-$18.5 million per year. Would you take Kikuchi over any of them?
Yusei just finished up his age-30 season. He’s thrown 365.2 innings in 70 starts for the Mariners while compiling a 4.97 ERA, a 1.403 WHIP, with a BB rate of 3.2, and a K rate of 8.0.
Taking that into account, the easy answer is no. There is no reason at face value that you would want to pay someone with those types of numbers $16.5 million per year, which is essentially a #1 or a really strong #2 salary. Not Ace salary, but really good.
There’s that little bit that hangs on though. Kikuchi showed a good velocity increase, touching 97/98 occasionally. He also had a great stretch to start 2021. If, and it’s a big if, he could throw like that, then it would be a bargain at $16.5 per year. You would be getting a low 3 ERA, with over a strikeout per inning, as well as someone who can consistently give you six innings.
Unfortunately, he finished right around 160 innings in both 2019 and 2021. It’s a big risk to gamble 4-66 on a guy who is likely giving you a 15% chance at becoming that front-line pitcher. With the pitchers the Mariners already have (Gonzales, Gilbert, Flexen) as well as the ones coming up, it doesn’t seem like a smart investment.
Then, there is the player option that Kikuchi holds. Getting benched to start the year has to leave a sour taste in his mouth. There are a couple of ways that I think this could manifest. He could take the $13 million, wanting to prove his worth to not just the Mariners, but the rest of the MLB. It should earn him a big contract, as handing a 31-year-old FA a 5-80 (or bigger if he does well) wouldn’t be crazy.
He could also take the deal out of spite. A “you benched me, so I’m taking this money and you can do whatever you want” type attitude. It doesn’t really seem like anything that Kikuchi would do, but sometimes it’s hard to know what professional athletes are truly thinking and feeling.
Then there is the third option, and I think it is one that needs to be seriously considered. What if Yusei Kikuchi just doesn’t like pitching in the majors? He could decide that he wants to go back to Japan and finish out his career pitching there. It’s just conjecture, but it wouldn’t catch me too off-guard if it came out that both sides had declined their offers, and he was going to head back to Japan to pitch.
There is a 4th, less likely option. The team works out some sort of completely new deal, but that seems to have a very low possibility of happening.
It also remains to be seen as to where he will pitch out of next year. Will he continue to be a starter? Or, will they let him focus on velo and movement, and come out of the pen. With his velocity increase, watching him touch 100 doesn’t seem too far-fetched if he is only expected to throw 25 pitches in a given night.
Will Yusei Kikuchi be here next year? How will he be pitching? How much will he be making? The Mariners have a lot of decisions to make, and the majority of them start with Yusei Kikuchi.