The Kikuchi Problem In Seattle

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Yusei Kikuchi’s 2021 season for the Seattle Mariners is the dictionary definition of a tale of two halves. The lone All-Star representative for Seattle, Kikuchi got off to a blistering start to begin the year, striking out 98 in 98.1 IP. A 3.48 ERA pre-ASG was good enough for the top spot among Mariner starters, and any time Kikuchi was on the mound it felt like the Mariners had a shot to win. That faith would evaporate as quickly as it developed in the second half of the season, with his ERA increasing to nearly 6. Kikuchi’s sharp downturn also lines up relatively well with the enforcement of the sticky substance ban that came into place in early June, with all signs pointing to the fact his early-season dominance may have been aided by foreign substances. The Mariners have the option to exercise a team option for Kikuchi this summer, and if you had asked in June it would’ve appeared to have been a near certainty they would, but that decision is notedly more complicated now.

Contract Details:

Upon signing for the Mariners from the Saitama Seibu Lions of the NPB, Kikuchi agreed to a base deal of $43M over three years, along with a $6M signing bonus. Where this contract strays from the norm is the option structure. Typically, team/player options are for one year following the end of the natural contract, occasionally two. In Kikuchi’s case, the Mariners have a four-year, $66M team option that they can decide on this summer. With Kikuchi’s lack of consistency, a four-year commitment to paying him over $15M AAV (average annual value) seems like a rather awful decision to make. According to numbers found by Fangraphs (found here), 1 WAR goes on the free-agent market for nearly $7.6M based on averages over 2018-2020. With Kikuchi slotted to make $16.5M over those next four years he would need to be worth at least 2 WAR during a full season. In the course of his three-year career with the Mariners Kikuchi has put up a total of 2.4 bWAR. In short, he’s not worth the money. He’s never pitched to an ERA+ above league average. In terms of career numbers, his ERA is nearly 5, his WHIP is a very mediocre 1.403. The Mariners have an easy decision to make, do not under any circumstances exercise that team option.

Where It Gets Complicated:

If only it were that simple. There’s more to Kikuchi’s contract than just that team option. If the team option is declined, a player option for 2022 is incurred. Kikuchi has till the fifth day after the World Series to sign that option, which if he does so he will earn $13M on the year.

If Kikuchi is concerned about dollars and cents, it’s likely he will exercise that option. $13M is certainly a higher price tag than the pitcher would find on the open market, and it would provide him a year-long opportunity to rebuild his value. There is risk to that method though, with Kikuchi’s performances such a rollercoaster over the last season. It is just as likely the Mariners get the second-half performances that were so abysmal that starts get skipped as we do those first-half starts that had him looking like a bona fide star.

While it would most certainly involve a pay cut, Kikuchi could cling ahold to the value he has left in search of a deal with more guaranteed years elsewhere. There is always going to be a market for starting pitchers, and with an All-Star ceiling, some team is bound to take a flyer on him with a deal in the $5-6M a year AAV. Teams in the midst of rebuilds who have little pressure on the line to meet expectations can afford to take a risk, leaving the Orioles, Twins, and Rangers as three teams that stand out as potential landing spots.

If He Exercises the Option:

If Kikuchi does exercise his option to return for 2022, more question marks emerge. Does Scott Servais trust him enough to reinsert him in the rotation? With Tyler Anderson a free agent, the Mariners currently have one question mark in the rotation and another could be a larger problem. While prospects George Kirby and Emerson Hancock are looking very good in the minors, neither will be ready to make the leap to the majors to fill one of these slots anytime soon. Matt Brash is likely to pitch out of the bullpen if he does begin the season in Seattle, but expect him to see some time in Tacoma.

Long Reliever Potential:

Could Kikuchi himself become a bullpen arm? Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield have both made the pivot from a starter role to the ‘pen. Kikuchi could serve rather effectively in the role that Sheffield served later in the season as a long reliever who could go out and get you 2-3 innings in a desperate situation. While he may be useful there, do you want to commit $13M to an arm you would not see more than two times a week? The bullpen is the Mariners’ most established position group, and while there may be room in the inn for Kikuchi, do we really want Dipoto and co. to pay for his stay?

A move to the pen could allow Kikuchi to shift his focus to more effective pitches as opposed to his four-pitch mix. His fastball registered a BA against of .207 in 2021, with his changeup sitting at the .176 mark, despite being thrown only 10% of the time. Perhaps the ability to shift to a mix of the 4-seam and changeup will revolutionize the 30-year-old’s game, especially if that allows him to add velocity to the fastball. Kikuchi’s best outings line up with when he is most able to peak his fastball at 96-97 MPH, typically locating it at the top of the zone when it is working. Embracing the 4-seam would also likely lead Kikuchi away from his cutter, by far his worst pitch. Despite throwing the 4-seam slightly more often (difference of 1%) Kikuchi gave up significantly more hits, home runs, and allowed a much higher batting average against his cutter. Removing that from his game is bound to make him a better pitcher.

Kikuchi as Trade Bait?:

Calling all those interested in a package deal that involves taking on some salary! The good folks over at SodoMojo predicted a trade in which the Mariners would net Gio Urshela and prospect Oswaldo Cabrera in return for Kikuchi, Anthony Misiewicz, and minor leaguer Adam Macko. (Find the breakdown here) While I tend to think that trade feels a little lofty, Kikuchi could absolutely find his way into a different uniform by way of trade. Dumping his salary is the main benefit of any move involving him, but if packaging him with other talents could net a return of an everyday player, count us Mariners fans in. He won’t be the belle of the ball in any trade he’s involved in, especially with club control limited to one year, but a partnership of Kikuchi and some top-30 prospect could answer the question marks that exist at second and third base.

Time Will Tell:

As of right now, this is all just speculation. More will become clear in the coming weeks when the option questions are answered, but what we know for sure is that the Mariners have absolutely no reason to exercise the four-year team deal. Hope and pray that Kikuchi takes a risk and declines the player option afterward, allowing the Mariners to free up more money to spend on someone who could provide more value to the team. (Looking at you, future Mariner Jon Gray) If Kikuchi is to come back, it almost creates more uncertainty than if he were not on the roster, and that’s where the real creativity with his situation begins.

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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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