Mariners left-hander Yusei Kikuchi has told the team that he is declining his $13MM player option for the 2022 season, according to The Athletic’s Corey Brock (Twitter link). The southpaw will now enter the free agent market after three seasons in Seattle.
As per the unusual structure of Kikuchi’s contract, the Mariners had until Friday to decide whether or not to exercise four years’ worth of $16.5MM club options for the lefty covering the 2022-25 seasons — effectively, a four-year/$66MM extension. If the Mariners declined to pick up those options, Kikuchi could then opt into the 2022 season via his $13MM player option.
Today’s news indicates that the M’s have indeed passed on those four option years, which isn’t a shock considering the inconsistent nature of Kikuchi’s 2021 season. However, earlier reports suggested that Kikuchi would exercise his player option, making his decision to hit the open market something of a surprise.
2021 was the best of Kikuchi’s three MLB campaigns, as he posted a 4.41 ERA, 48.4% grounder rate, and an above-average 24.5% strikeout rate over 157 innings for Seattle. The underlying Statcast metrics weren’t nearly as solid, as Kikuchi’s hard contact numbers were among the worst of any pitcher in the league, and this issue eventually caught up to Kikuchi as the season went on. After posting a 3.48 ERA over 98 1/3 IP in the first half and earning a spot on the AL All-Star team, Kikuchi’s ERA blew up to 5.98 over 58 2/3 frames in the second half.
While not the best platform season for a free agent, Kikuchi and his representatives at The Boras Corporation must think that the 30-year-old can land a solid multi-year deal on the open market. It isn’t a far-out argument, considering that teams are always in need of starting pitching. All it takes is one suitor to see some untapped potential in Kikuchi, or perhaps he could be seen as a change-of-scenery candidate. The left-hander has a 4.97 ERA over his 365 2/3 innings in Major League Baseball, yet with some flashes of better performance (i.e. the first half of 2021, and how Kikuchi’s peripherals in 2020 generally outperformed his real-world numbers).
Other factors could also be at play, beyond just Kikuchi’s desire to land a larger contract. Speculatively, a return to Japan might not be out of the question, if Kikuchi wished to once again pitch in Nippon Professional Baseball. Kikuchi was one of NPB’s top pitchers before making the jump to North America, and he would likely find no shortage of interest from the Seibu Lions (his old team) or another Japanese team if he returned to his home country.
From the Mariners’ perspective, they now have a hole in the rotation to fill, though Kikuchi projected as a third starter at best considering how his 2021 season ended. The M’s were already expected to be targeting starting pitching this winter, and they now have an extra $13MM to work with in their offseason pursuits. Seattle has less than $57MM committed to their 2022 payroll, and GM Jerry Dipoto has said that ownership has okayed the front office to increase spending following the team’s 90-win season.