The Mariners may be rebuilding, and while they did whiff on a notable Nippon Professional Baseball import in Shohei Ohtani, the consolation prize comes a year later as they have agreed to a four-year deal with Seibu Lions starter Yusei Kikuchi.
The deal has some incredibly favorable terms. The four-year contract is worth $43 million, but after that, the team can trigger a four-year, $66 million extension. If they decline, Kikuchi can either exercise a $13 million option or elect free agency.
The Mariners get the prime of Kikuchi’s career if he lives up to the hype, as well as eight total years of control. It also opens the possibility they could renegotiate that deal if, say, he is oft-injured or under-whelming and they still want to work something out. The Lions, under the posting system, will receive $5 million and 17.5% of the value of the deal beyond $25 million, and likely $4.375 million and 15% of any amount over $50 million if the Mariners either extend him or Kikuchi picks up his option.
The scouting report on Kikuchi is that he’s not elite and he has had shoulder troubles, but the pieces are all present. Dennis Lin from The Athletic ($) said the following:
“[T]he makings of a quality major-league starter are there. Kikuchi’s fastball is consistently in the mid-90s. His curveball, slider and splitter all rate as average or slightly better. ‘He is a good one,’ one scout wrote in a text. ‘Has not been real durable, but stuff is solid.’”
In the past, that probably wouldn’t warrant much notice from major league scouts, and it’s a testament to how much the relationship between the two leagues have grown. Think about that in comparison to the possible Cuban agreement, and how the talent pool could really expand over the next few years. While it may have required Dice-K-level abilities to come over, now the likes of Hiroki Kuroda, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Masahiro Tanaka prove that a track record of success in NPB is a pretty good indicator of success stateside.
And what a track record that really is. In his last NPB season, he put up a whopping 5.6 WAR, the third highest in the league according to DeltaGraphs. In 2017 it was 6.8... exactly the same as successful import Miles Mikolas. His collective NPB career is 1035 1⁄3 innings pitched, a 2.81 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.177. While he has never had the traditional workload of a starter given the six-man rotations, I would imagine that won’t be an issue as major league starters continue to toss fewer and fewer innings.
For the Mariners, some would call this move curious, but I think it’s pretty slick. Tanking or rebuilding shouldn’t be throwing away any vestige of competitiveness, and it shouldn’t preclude you from making moves that help you in both the short and long-term. Just because it happens to make them maybe a couple of wins better now doesn’t mean that isn’t valuable when, say, he’s up for an extension in 2022. They could be good in 2022, and think about that extension in comparison to getting that same value on the free agent market.
At just 27 years-old and with only about 1000 innings under his arm, four, five or eight years is a wonderful opportunity for a rebuilding team to add immediate talent that can get them through the tough years, but also will be around for something better.