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Offseason Lowdown

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Lowdown: Mariners Ink Kikuchi

Wednesday, January 2, 2019


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Mariners Sail to Japan


The Mariners appear to have reeled in one of the biggest fish left on the pitching market. Jon Heyman of Fancred reports that starter Yusei Kikuchi will make $43 million over three years in his reported agreement with the Mariners. After three years, the club can extend Kikuchi for four more years at $66 million. If they don't, Kikuchi can either opt into free agency at age 30 or exercise an option for a fourth year at $13 million. He could max out at $109 million if the Mariners extend him. The 27-year-old lefthander was posted by the Saitama Seibu Lions last month and faced a deadline of January 2 at 5 p.m. ET to sign with an MLB team. His signing will keep alive the Mariners' streak of having at least one Japanese player on their roster every year since 1998, when they signed future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. With Hisashi Iwakuma leaving the team this offseason to go back to Japan the streak was in danger of being broken. I'm sure that doesn't have anything to do with why they signed Kikuchi but it is an interesting note. The club was owned by the Japanese company Nintendo for 25 years until they sold it in 2016.


Kikuchi played eight seasons for the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball, compiling a career 2.81 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 158 starts and five relief appearances. He has career rates of 8.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 0.7 HR/9 in NPB, which is a slightly more pitcher-friendly league than MLB. The league-wide ERA in NPB was 3.91 in 2018 compared to an average 4.14 ERA in MLB (including starters and relievers). His best season came in 2017 when he went 16-4 with a 1.97 ERA and 217 strikeouts in 187 2/3 innings. He came in second in the voting for the Sawamura Award that year, which is the Japanese version of the Cy Young Award (see more about the Sawamura Award below). His numbers took a step backward in 2018, when he went 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 163 2/3 innings. Some of the downturn can be explained by a reoccurence of a nagging shoulder issue that has plagued him at times throughout his career. He is believed to be fully healthy now and should be ready to go for the upcoming season. Kikuchi struggled with the walk early in his career but has tamed his wildness over the past couple of seasons. One unpleasant side effect of throwing more strikes is that it led to more home runs -- he allowed 16 home runs in each of the last two seasons after having never allowed more than nine in any previous season. His home run rate is still low by MLB standards though, so it will be interesting to see if he is homer-prone when he joins the Mariners.

 

He will likely slot in at the top of the Mariners' rotation in front of Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc and either Felix Hernandez or Justus Sheffield. The Mariners play their first two games of the season in Tokyo against the Athletics and Kikuchi will have the amazing opportunity to make his first start in the major leagues in his home country.


Most American observers have pegged Kikuchi to become a mid-range starting pitcher in MLB. The southpaw is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher whose velocity will be roughly average in his new league. His fastball averaged 91.5 MPH last year in Japan but he is capable of reaching up to 95 on occasion. He has a completely different repertoire compared to some of the other Japanese pitchers who have come to the States, most of whom are known for having large pitch selections with a variety of breaking balls -- for example Yu Darvish has claimed he throws nine different pitches.


For comparison's sake, here are the career ERAs for several pitchers who made the transition from Japan to the majors in recent seasons:

Yu Darvish -- 1.99 ERA in Japan, 3.49 ERA in MLB
Masahiro Tanaka -- 2.30 ERA in Japan, 3.59 ERA in MLB
Shohei Ohtani -- 2.52 ERA in Japan, 3.31 ERA in MLB
Kenta Maeda -- 2.39 ERA in Japan, 3.80 ERA in MLB
Hisashi Iwakuma -- 3.25 ERA in Japan, 3.42 ERA in MLB
Miles Mikolas -- 2.18 ERA in Japan, 2.83 ERA in 2018 in MLB, 3.61 career ERA in MLB
Koji Uehara -- 3.02 ERA in Japan, 2.66 ERA in MLB
Yoshihisa Hirano -- 3.10 ERA in Japan, 2.44 ERA in MLB

 

This is definitely not a scientific comparison but perhaps it can be a bit informative. All of the pitchers in the list above were dominant in Japan and remained quite successful in the States. Most of them saw their ERAs jump by about a run on average. Uehara was a starter in Japan and became a reliever in MLB and that likely explains why he actually improved his ERA after the transition and we are seeing a similar effect from Hirano after his first season stateside. If Kikuchi enjoys a transition similar to these players, he may wind up with an ERA near 4.00 or maybe a bit better. That jives nicely with what the scouts are predicting -- a 4.00 ERA is roughly what we would expect from a number three starter in the majors. Sean Newcomb, Kevin Gausman, Julio Teheran, Jake Arrieta, Marco Gonzales and Jose Quintana all had ERAs very close to 4.00 in 2018. When draft day comes we expect Kikuchi to be selected well before all of those guys. Kikuchi is the shiny new toy on the market this year, and given how successful the pitchers on the list above have been it is expected that Kikuchi will be drafted very early in most leagues -- perhaps earlier than he should be. That being said, he may very well be worth the price as it's hard to argue with the results most of the highly-touted Japanese imports have delivered in recent years.


The Mariners certainly think he is worth the price. They obviously believe he is going to be good because they have essentially guaranteed him at least $56 million. That values him as either the third or fourth best pitcher on the free agent market this winter. Patrick Corbin got six years and $140 million from the Nationals. Nathan Eovaldi got four years and $68 million from the Red Sox. Dallas Keuchel hasn't signed yet but is likely to get more than $56 million from his new team. Some good pitchers who settled for less money than Kikuchi: J.A. Happ $34 million, Charlie Morton $30 million, Lance Lynn $30 million, Anibal Sanchez $19 million, Hyun-Jin Ryu $18 million, Garrett Richards $15 million, Matt Harvey $11 million, Trevor Cahill $9 million and CC Sabathia $8 million. That gives a good market-based indication of where Kikuchi might fall on the league's starting pitching hierarchy. Kikuchi's contract is a lot more lucrative than the two-year, $15 million deal Mikolas got last offseason after dominating the Japanese league for three years.


A pitcher named Tomoyuki Sugano won the Sawamura Award in both 2017 and 2018. We may start hearing about Sugano potentially coming to Major League Baseball someday soon as well. He is 29 years old and has a career 2.17 ERA in 154 starts for the Yomiuri Giants. Yomiuri has a policy of not posting players, so Sugano likely won't be eligible to make the move to North America until 2021 when he becomes an international free agent. If he stays healthy and effective until that time, he will probably be the next high-profile Japanese import. The list of prior winners of the Sawamura Award include several names that our readers will be familiar with. Current major leaguers Kenta Maeda (twice), Masahiro Tanaka (twice), Yu Darvish and Koji Uehara (twice) all won the award as Japan's best pitcher. Former major leaguers Hisashi Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideo Nomo also won the award before coming to the States.


Around the League


** Now that Kikuchi has found a home Dallas Keuchel is the only high-grade starting pitcher left on the free agent market. He has been linked to the Phillies, Rangers, Angels, Brewers and Padres in recent weeks but several other teams are believed to be interested if his price falls a bit. He is looking for a five-year deal but no team has been willing to go that far with him. Yesterday was his 31st birthday. The 2015 Cy Young winner wasn't at his best in 2018 but he can still be counted upon to keep the ball on the ground and out of the stands. He went 12-11 with a 3.74 ERA and 18 home runs allowed in 34 starts for the Astros this past season.

 

** Every move Bryce Harper makes sparks a new rumor about his destination. The free agent outfielder made news last week by liking an Instagram post about the Dodgers. He made news again this week by spending New Years Eve on a double date with Kris Bryant and his wife in Las Vegas. The spin machine points to that as an indication he wants to play for the Cubs. Harper and Bryant have been friends for many years though so this probably doesn't mean a thing. The Cubs are interested in potentially signing Harper -- they asked his agent Scott Boras to not accept an offer from another team without checking back in with them first.

 

** The market for free agent infielder Manny Machado seems to be narrowing down. The Yankees, Phillies and White Sox all want him badly and are willing to pay up for the huge contract he demands. The Yankees are believed to be the big favorite at this point. Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports reported that Machado made waves by liking the Yankees' YES Network on Instagram on Monday. He then unliked it a few hours later. It doesn't take much to cause a commotion these days.

 

** ESPN's Jeff Passan reports that Troy Tulowitzki has agreed to a one-year deal with the Yankees, pending a physical. Passing a physical is no sure thing for the chronically injured shortstop. He'll make the major league minimum, with the Blue Jays footing the bill for the remainder of his $20 million salary in 2019. He's due another $14 million from Toronto in 2020, and there was a $4 million buyout on his option for 2021. Tulo was released by the Jays last month after missing the entire 2018 season following surgery to address bone spurs in both of his heels. He also appeared in just 66 games in 2017 and posted a weak .249/.300/.378 batting line when healthy.

 

** The Tigers are likely to trade outfielder Nicholas Castellanos this offseason but they want to wait until after Bryce Harper signs somewhere according to Jason Beck of MLB.com. Castellanos would then be the top outfielder available on the market. He will be a free agent after the upcoming season. He is the Tigers' top trading chip as they look to rebuild.

 

** Left-handed starter Derek Holland said on MLB Network Radio that the Reds have been in contact with him this offseason. Holland is from Newark, Ohio and has said that he would prefer to pitch in the National League. A return to the Giants remains a possibility while the Rangers have also reached out about a reunion, though that would mean moving back to the American League. Holland, 32, enjoyed a nice resurgence in 2018 with a 3.57 ERA and 169/67 K/BB ratio over 171 1/3 innings. However potential suitors will remember Holland's dismal 2017 season when he went 7-14 with a 6.20 ERA in 26 starts and three relief appearances for the White Sox.

 

** The Reds signed RHP Anthony Bass to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Bass posted a 2.93 ERA and 14/3 K/BB ratio over 15 1/3 innings for the Cubs last season. He will compete for a spot in the Reds' bullpen.

 

** The Rockies signed OF Michael Saunders to a minor league contract. Saunders batted just .158/.273/.248 with two home runs in 154 plate appearances last season between the Triple-A affiliates of the Orioles and White Sox.

 

** The Pirates signed LHP Tyler Lyons to a minor league contract. Lyons struggled through back and elbow injuries in 2018 and posted a brutal 8.64 ERA over 27 relief appearances with the Cardinals, but he was excellent in 2017 and could be a bounce-back candidate in Pittsburgh, assuming better health.




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