The Mariners are reportedly in agreement with Japanese free-agent pitcher Yusei Kikuchi on a four-year deal, per reports from Yahoo! Sports’ Tim Brown and Jeff Passan and MLB.com’s Jon Morosi:
Happy New Year, Seattle: The Mariners appear to be nearing an agreement with Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi, major league sources tell @JeffPassan and me. The 27-year-old Kikuchi must sign before the Jan. 2 posting deadline.— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) January 1, 2019
Kikuchi, 27, is widely regarded as the top international free agent of this offseason (at least if you’re not counting Cuban outfielder Victor Victor Mesa, who signed with the Marlins back in October). With that said, it’s a pretty weak class of international free agents, and the Kikuchi signing certainly is not free of risk. After a three-year run of dominance from 2015-17 during which he posted ERAs of 2.84, 2.58, and 1.97 for the Saitama Seibu Lions, Kikuchi took a bit of a step backward (though he was still very good) in 2018, throwing for a 3.08 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP with 153 strikeouts and 45 walks over 163.2 innings. Seeing as he’ll turn 28 in June, it’s fair to wonder if he’s nearing the end of his prime.
In addition, Kikuchi has a rather concerning injury history. He missed the entire 2010 season with shoulder pain, was limited to 108 innings due to shoulder pain again in 2013, dealt with elbow discomfort in 2015, then an oblique strain in 2016 and shoulder stiffness in 2018. The Mariners will likely have to manage his workload very closely to make sure he stays healthy, though it’s likely that they would have treated him with kid gloves regardless during his first season in North America.
Though it’s very possible that his deal will be more like the one that Kenta Maeda signed with the Dodgers ($25 million over eight years) than some of the other massive contracts that have been given to Japanese megastars over the years, the decision for the Mariners to invest in a 27-year-old pitcher like Kikuchi is somewhat surprising considering that they’ve made such an effort to shed their established stars and cut payroll this offseason. It’ll be interesting to see if he gets any sort of no-trade clause, seeing as he’s in the heart of his prime (or maybe even the latter stages of it) and GM Jerry Dipoto is so well-known for his love of wheeling and dealing. Kikuchi is expected to slide into a Mariners rotation that is set to include Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, and then some combination of Felix Hernandez, Wade LeBlanc, Roenis Elias, and newly-acquired former Yankees prospects Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson.
Kikuchi is the latest in a long, proud legacy of Japanese players to play for the Mariners. He follows Mac Suzuki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Masao Kida, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Kenji Johjima, Nori Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, Hisashi Iwakuma, and, most notably, Ichiro Suzuki.