The Seibu Lions will make left-hander Yusei Kikuchi available this winter via the posting system, according to a report from Sankei Sports (hat tip to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times). The 27-year-old isn’t eligible for full free agency until 2020, but reports from earlier this year indicated that Kikuchi was interested in testing himself in Major League Baseball, and it had been expected that the Seibu Lions would accommodate his request.
Kikuchi immediately becomes one of the most intriguing members of the 2018-19 free agent class, as he has posted strong numbers over eight pro seasons (all with Seibu Lions, apart from five starts in the Australian Baseball League in his rookie year). Kikuchi has a 2.81 ERA, 8.0 K/9, and 2.43 K/BB rate over 1035 1/3 career innings, and particularly stood out after recording a 1.97 ERA and 10.4 K/9 over a career-best 197 2/3 frames in 2017.
Despite taking a bit of a step back results-wise (3.08 ERA, 3.40 K/BB rate, 8.4 K/9) this season, Kikuchi still drew quite a bit of attention from Major League scouts. Fancred Sports’ Jon Heyman recently wrote that “most teams have been to Japan to see him this year,” specifically naming the Royals, Padres, Dodgers, and Phillies as interested suitors. Evaluators from the Brewers, Giants, Red Sox, and Rangers also recently watched Kikuchi, as per the Kyodo News’ Jim Allen (Twitter link).
For an idea of what Kikuchi brings to the mound, Fangraphs’ Sung Min Kim provided a scouting report before the season, while MLB.com’s Jon Paul Morosi had a look at Kikuchi’s 2018 season back in August. Kikuchi has a strong slider and a fastball in the 92-94mph range (that has touched 98mph at its fastest) as his two primary pitches, and he has worked both a changeup and a curveball into his repertoire this season, as former big leaguer and current Rakuten Golden Eagles pitcher Frank Herrmann told Morosi. Herrmann warned that Kikuchi’s slider wasn’t as effective this year as it was in 2017, which led to Kikuchi leaning more heavily on his two secondary pitches. Kim used Patrick Corbin as a partial comp for Kikuchi, as another left-hander with a strong fastball-slider combination, with the caveat that Kikuchi’s usage of the curve roughly 10% of the time is a notable difference between he and the Diamondbacks hurler.
Kikuchi’s durability could also be an issue, as shoulder problems have bothered him at several points during his career, including this season. Kikuchi “had not reached the qualified amount of innings pitched in a season until 2016,” Kim writes. The southpaw is listed at just 6’0″ and 194 pounds, and thus doesn’t have the big frame that would more easily project as capable of handling a regular turn in a Major League rotation, so interested teams could be wary of how Kikuchi would hold up health-wise. That said, with more and more teams using their bullpens in creative ways, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kikuchi eased the big leagues by pitching receiving an extra day of rest, working on a limited pitch count in starts, or any number of other possible answers if his shoulder is of particular concern.
Kikuchi first appeared on the Major League radar screen back in 2009, when he considered taking the unusual step of signing with an MLB team as an amateur rather than an NPB club. It’s interesting that several of the teams — the Dodgers, Rangers, Red Sox, and Giants — interested in Kikuchi almost a decade ago are still keeping an eye on him now, after he has established himself as a quality starter in Japanese baseball.
There was some thought earlier this year that Kikuchi could land a $100MM contract from a Major League team, though it’s possible that price tag has dropped thanks to the slight dip in form and the shoulder problems that Kikuchi dealt with over the 2018 season. Kikuchi’s age and experience makes him exempt from the international bonus pool system, so he is in line for a very lucrative multi-year contract rather than the limited deal that Shohei Ohtani had to settle for as a 23-year-old last winter.
Kikuchi also looks to be the first major name whose arrival in North American baseball will be covered by the new posting agreement between MLB and NPB. Under the former agreement, Japanese teams would receive a posting fee that maxed out at $20MM, whereas now teams will receive a posting fee that is determined by the size of the contract that the player signs with his new Major League team. Morosi notes that a player must be posted between November 1 and December 5, and the player will have a 30-day window to negotiate with teams after being posted.