The Mariners have spent much of the offseason making trades to aggressively reshape their roster, but they announced on Wednesday what figures to be one of the largest pitching signings of the offseason: a four-year contract for free-agent left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. The Scott Boras client, who had been posted for MLB clubs by the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball, will reportedly receive a guaranteed $56MM on a uniquely structured contract.
The first three years of Kikuchi’s contract will reportedly pay him $43MM, and at that point he’ll have a player option for the 2022 season that is valued at $13MM. However, the Mariners can also preemptively exercise a four-year club option on Kikuchi that would promise him an additional $66MM. In doing so, they’d effectively be extending his contract to a seven-year, $109MM deal. Conceptually, the deal is similar to the contract that Boras brokered between the Phillies and Jake Arrieta last year, though the overall length of the two pacts differs (as one would expect give the age discrepancy between the two).
Kikuchi, 27, was one of the more intriguing players available on this year’s free-agent market. He was free to sign with any team that he wanted after being posted by the Lions, but he had until early January to come to terms with a new team after being posted in early December, as the current posting agreement between Major League Baseball and NPB gives MLB clubs a 30-day window from the onset of the posting period. As part of that agreement, the Mariners will pay the Lions a release fee equal to 20 percent of the contract’s first $25MM, 17.5 percent of the next $25MM and 15 percent of anything on top of that. In other words, the Mariners are effectively agreeing to pay the Lions as much as $10.275MM on top of Kikuchi’s guarantee. If the four-year option/extension is picked up in 2022, they’d pay the Lions a total of $19.725MM in addition to the full $109MM guaranteed to Kikuchi.
The connection between Kikuchi and the M’s has long been obvious, particularly since the organization has made no secret of its interest. Though the Seattle club has made clear it’s taking a step back from competitiveness, it hopes to bounce back to contention by 2020 or 2021. That has been a driving factor in Seattle’s acquisition of young, controllable players such as Mallex Smith, Omar Narvaez, Domingo Santana, J.P. Crawford and Justus Sheffield.
The still-youthful Kikuchi seems to fit that timeline. It’s also hard to ignore the simple geographical match. Seattle and other west coast clubs are more convenient locales for Japanese players; the M’s have previously enjoyed positive stints from players such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hisashi Iwakuma and were selected as a finalist for Shohei Ohtani’s services last winter as well.
The addition of Kikuchi will give the Mariners’ rotation some upside to line up alongside young southpaw Marco Gonzales and veteran hurlers Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc. Bringing Kikuchi into the fold will give the Mariners the luxury of being able to ease Sheffield and/or righty Erik Swanson (acquired alongside Sheffield in the James Paxton swap with the Yankees) into the mix rather than forcing one or both into the rotation out of necessity. Of course, that complexion could still change over the course of the offseason; the Mariners are reportedly still exploring the market for Leake and other veterans.
Over the past four seasons, Kikuchi has worked to a pristine 2.58 ERA with averages of 8.9 strikeouts, 3.1 walks and 0.68 home runs per nine innings pitched. He’s said to have a fastball in the low to mid 90s and multiple average-or-better secondary offerings to pair with that heater. Though the M’s are committing a fairly substantial sum to a pitcher who is largely a wildcard, if Kikuchi is able to find success at the MLB level, that contract could quickly become a bargain. And while that $56MM guarantee is fairly hefty for a player who has yet to throw a pitch in the Majors, it’s more along the lines of the contract a mid-rotation starter would expect to receive on the open market here. If Kikuchi can prove himself as a quality big league arm, it’s quite possible that there’ll even be surplus value on the deal.
The Kikuchi signing is somewhat of a rarity among non-contending clubs these days: a move designed to improve the team for the upcoming season even as it looks to retool/rebuild its organization for the long haul. In an era of tanking teams that are motivated by a collective bargaining agreement that heavily incentivizes losing, few teams make this type of investment early in the rebuilding (or, to use GM Jerry Dipoto’s term, “re-imagining”) process. But the acquisition of Kikuchi and the focus on MLB-ready or near-MLB assets in the majority of the growing web of trades Dipoto has made this winter do all speak to the fact that, as opposed to the arduous multi-year rebuilds on which so many other organizations have embarked, the Mariners hope to be competitive far sooner than later.
Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports first reported that the two sides were nearing a deal (Twitter link). Fancred’s Jon Heyman tweeted that the two sides had reached an agreement. MLB Network’s Jon Morosi reported the length of the contract (via Twitter), and Heyman added further details on the contract structure (also via Twitter).