The Mariners’ original signing of Yusei Kikuchi provided the left-hander with one of the more unconventional option scenarios in recent memory. The team can exercise a four-year, $66MM extension option after the current season, and if the Mariners turn down that effective extension clause, he’ll have a one-year, $13MM player option for the 2022 season.
It looked like an intriguing dilemma for the Mariners midway through the season, when Kikuchi had made the All-Star team and was in the midst of what looked like a breakout campaign. However, the left-hander faded down the stretch to the extent that it now looks likelier that the Mariners will decline their portion of the option. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports that if the Mariners indeed decline to pick up the additional four years of Kikuchi, the pitcher plans to exercise his portion of the deal, setting him up for a fourth season in Seattle and a $13MM salary.
Back in early July, I took a lengthy look at the situation at what was perhaps the peak point of Kikuchi’s season. At the time, he carried a 3.18 ERA with a 25.4 percent strikeout rate, an 8.5 percent walk rate and a career-high 53.8 percent grounder rate. Kikuchi’s average fastball jumped immensely from 2019 in his second and third big league seasons, and he was missing bats more than ever with career-best command. He’d held opponents to three or fewer runs in 13 of 15 starts and rattled off a 2.33 ERA over his past 11 starts — averaging 6 1/3 frames per outing along the way.
Things almost immediately took a turn for the worse, as Kikuchi yielded a combined 12 runs over his next two starts and never fully regained his footing. There were still some strong starts mixed in along the way, including seven shutout frames against the Astros on Aug. 31, but Kikuchi pitched to a collective 6.22 ERA over his final 14 outings. His strikeout rate dipped slightly (23.3 percent), his walk rate rose (10.3 percent) and his ground-ball rate plummeted from that 53.8 percent mark all the way down to 41.7 percent. Unsurprisingly, the huge uptick on balls hit in the air against Kikuchi prompted his home-run rate to spike as well (1.70 HR/9 in those final 14 starts).
The end result doesn’t necessarily look that bad on paper. Kikuchi totaled 157 innings and notched a 4.41 ERA with a roughly average strikeout rate, a worse-than-average walk rate and an above-average ground-ball rate. Taken in its entirety, it was a respectable overall season. And if Kikuchi had flipped things around, starting with those ugly 14 starts before more or less dominating in his final 15, we’d be viewing the option decision quite differently even though the end results would look exactly the same.
There’s a case to be made that perhaps Kikuchi could exceed that $13MM he’s guaranteed on the player option by declining and seeking a multi-year deal at a lower annual rate. We’ve seen plenty of two-year contracts in the $16-20MM range for veteran arms with comparable bottom-line numbers and less-impressive combinations of strikeout rate and ground-ball tendencies. That said, he likely wouldn’t exceed that $13MM salary by much, so it’s not a huge surprise that on the heels of a dismal second half, he’d lock that salary in and hope to position himself for a stronger trip to the market in the 2022-23 offseason.
Looking to the Mariners’ payroll, they may not consider paying Kikuchi $13MM next year to be ideal, but it’s hardly a backbreaker. The only guaranteed contracts on the books are Marco Gonzales ($5.5MM), Ken Giles ($5MM in what will be his return season from 2020 Tommy John surgery), Chris Flexen ($2.75MM) and Evan White ($1.4MM). They hold a $20MM club option on Kyle Seager that Divish and others have suggested is likely to be bought out, and the Mariners will also pay $3.75MM to the Mets under the previous Robinson Cano trade. They’ll be looking at arbitration raises for Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford, Paul Sewald and Diego Castillo, among others, but Haniger’s $3.01MM salary from 2021 is the highest starting point for any of those raises. None should break the bank.
Seattle only opened the 2021 season with a payroll in the $74MM range, but from 2017-19 the M’s averaged an Opening Day payroll of roughly $152.9MM. Recently promoted president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has already said that ownership has authorized him to increase payroll next year, and with such a light slate of commitments on the books, a returning Kikuchi at $13MM shouldn’t prove too much of a detriment.