The starting pitching market has been red hot of late as teams have been trying to bolster their rotations before the current CBA expires tonight, which is widely expected to lead to a lockout and transaction freeze. One intriguing name that remains available is Yusei Kikuchi. The lefty has attracted the attention of the Blue Jays, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, as well as the Mets, per Andy Martino of SNY.
Kikuchi, 30, is one of the more difficult pitchers to value on the market. After a dominant run in Japan’s NPB over eight seasons, Kikuchi was signed by the Mariners but struggled in his first MLB season in 2019. In 161 2/3 innings that year, his ERA was 5.46, along with a ground ball rate of 44% and meager strikeout rate of 16.1%. In the shortened 2020 campaign, he dropped his ERA only slightly, to 5.17. However, his strikeout rate jumped to 24.2% and his groundball rate to 52%, perhaps indicating that better results were ahead.
For the first few months of 2021, Kikuchi seemed to hit his stride. By July, he was pitching so well that it seemed the Mariners had a tough decision on their hands, as explored by MLBTR’s Steve Adams. At that time, Kikuchi had an ERA of 3.18, strikeout rate of 25.4% and 53.8% grounder rate. It started to seem possible that the club could trigger a four-year option over Kikuchi, that would pay him $66MM for the 2022-2025 seasons. However, Kikuchi faded down the stretch, posting a 6.22 ERA, 23.3 strikeout rate and 10.3 BB% from July 7th onward, getting bumped from the rotation before the season ended. In the end, the Mariners passed on their option, leaving Kikuchi to decide whether or not to trigger a $13MM player option for the 2022 season. Despite his sluggish finish this year, he decided to leave that money on the table and test free agency. MLBTR ranked him 34th among this year’s free agents, predicting a contract of $20MM over two years.
The Blue Jays’ rotation took a couple of hits in recent weeks, as Robbie Ray and Steven Matz departed for the Mariners and Cardinals, respectively. However, they mitigated the damage somewhat by signing Kevin Gausman to slot in next to Jose Berrios, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alek Manoah. Although they have options for the fifth slot, such as Ross Stripling, Nate Pearson and Thomas Hatch, Stripling has often been used as a swingman out of the bullpen, while Pearson and Hatch are still young and dealt with injuries in 2021. Adding Kikuchi could bump those options to the bullpen or the minors and improve the overall depth of the staff.
The Mets have been one of the most active teams in free agency lately, going on a spending spree that included the pickups of Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar. That has pushed the team’s 2022 payroll to a massive $263MM, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource. Prior to Steve Cohen purchasing the team a year ago, the franchise record payroll was $158MM in 2019. To sign Kikuchi, they would likely have to continue pushing their budget to new record-breaking levels. If they are willing to do so, Kikuchi would add an extra safety net to a rotation that is high on talent but which also has injury concerns, as Jacob deGrom and Carlos Carrasco both missed significant time in 2021. Scherzer, deGrom, Carrasco and Taijuan Walker would take up four rotation spots, if healthy, with younger options like Tylor Megill and David Peterson on hand as likely candidates for the backend.