Nothing spurs interest and action quite like a deadline. It’s why we love Game Sevens. It’s why we love July 31. It’s why we’re almost always let down by the winter meetings — the end doesn’t actually mean a single thing. When good players are available on the offseason market, some sort of deadline does exist, because teams and players generally want to be settled in time for opening day. But we don’t know when Bryce Harper is going to sign. We don’t know when Manny Machado is going to sign. We did know when Yusei Kikuchi was going to sign. Yusei Kikuchi had a deadline.
Kikuchi was posted in early December, and by the rules of the new MLB/NPB agreement, he had a 30-day window to make a decision. The end of the window was going to be…today, January 2, so we’ve known for a while Kikuchi would pick a team around the turn of the calendar. (Deadlines also allow humans to procrastinate.) Word first started spreading late on the east coast’s New Year’s Eve. Kikuchi is going to pitch for the Mariners. The Japanese lefty hopes to be a fit for the Mariners’ aggressive and optimistic rebuilding timeline.
I wrote about Kikuchi a month and a half ago, and I won’t use this article to repeat that analysis at length. If you want to know more about Kikuchi’s recent numbers in context, click on that link and read. A consensus has formed that Kikuchi profiles as a mid-rotation starter, and I don’t see a good reason to disagree. He’s not altogether too different from Kenta Maeda and Miles Mikolas, who’ve succeeded after transitioning from Japan. Unlike Maeda and Mikolas, Kikuchi is a southpaw, and he’ll turn 28 in the middle of June. With his low-90s fastball, reliable slider, and slow curve, he pitches in a style similar to Patrick Corbin.
Given Kikuchi’s profile, it might seem somewhat surprising that he elected to sign with a team taking a deliberate step back from contention. But not only do the Mariners swear they’re eyeing 2020 and 2021 — they’ve had at least one Japanese player on the roster every year since 1998, and they offer an appealing blend of money, need, and market. Beyond that, Kikuchi right now might be thinking less about joining a winner, and more about proving his own ability against the highest level of competition. He’ll get the chance to do that in Seattle, and besides, the Mariners might’ve dangled the largest contract. We should talk about the structure of the contract, because it’s pretty interesting.
Kikuchi is getting four years guaranteed, worth a total of $56 million. But the fourth year is a player option, worth $13 million. You can think of it as an opt-out clause. Kikuchi could elect to hit free agency after three years and $43 million. Yet there’s another twist — the Mariners could elect to extend Kikuchi for an extra four years and $66 million, wiping out the player option. So in the end, Kikuchi might’ve been signed for three years and $43 million, for four years and $56 million, or for seven years and $109 million.
It’s reminiscent of the contract Jake Arrieta signed last year with the Phillies. Arrieta effectively has a 2020 player option worth $20 million, but the Phillies can void it by agreeing to extend Arrieta for an additional two years and $40 million. So in the end, Arrieta might’ve been signed for two years, for three years, or for five years. Opt-outs or player options have gotten pretty familiar, but the twist offers some team protection.
Opt-out clauses are appealing and valuable for players because they allow the players to hit free agency if they think they can earn more than they already had left. But take a case like Kikuchi’s. After 2021, there will be decisions to make. If he’s ineffective or injured, the Mariners won’t pick up the extension, and Kikuchi will stick around for another year and $13 million. But if Kikuchi is very effective and healthy, the Mariners will pick up the extension, and the player option won’t mean anything. The player option would be used if Kikuchi projected to make more than $13 million, but less than $66 million (this is a simplification, ignoring all the other factors). The protection for the Mariners comes in the event that Kikuchi is outstanding. If he’s more like a No. 1 or a No. 2, the Mariners won’t lose him if they don’t want.
We haven’t seen many of these contracts, so we don’t know how they’ll play out. Chances are, Arrieta’s contract with the Phillies will end up at three years and $75 million, and Kikuchi’s contract with the Mariners will end up at four years and $56 million. Remember that, on top of that, the Mariners are also responsible for paying a posting fee, just north of $10 million. So, in order to land Yusei Kikuchi, the Mariners have guaranteed about $66 million. Last offseason, in order to land Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals guaranteed $15.5 million, which is less than a quarter of Kikuchi’s amount. Here’s a table comparing Mikolas and Kikuchi’s final seasons in Japan:
Here’s a table comparing Mikolas and Kikuchi’s final three seasons in Japan:
Kikuchi’s coming over younger by a year and ten months, and that matters. But while Mikolas had a shoulder problem in 2016, Kikuchi had his own shoulder problem in 2018, and he’d had other shoulder issues before. Mikolas was coming off a stronger most recent season. I’d guess there are two main factors at play here. One, in part because of Mikolas, teams might now trust pitching success in Japan a little bit more. And two, Kikuchi is coming to pitch in the majors for the first time, while Mikolas had previously pitched in the majors and been unsuccessful. I’d guess there was a bias there, where Mikolas was penalized for pitching poorly before making real improvements in another league. The Cardinals wound up with a great deal. For the Mariners, this deal has less upside, but it does have more years of control, and besides, you can’t hold everything to the Mikolas contract standard. Teams are still figuring out how much to make of players who excel overseas.
I’m sure it also doesn’t hurt that Kikuchi is open-minded and curious about modern analytical techniques. Unlike the majority of players active in Japan, Kikuchi would study himself, using information from TrackMan and other sources. He’s tried to refine the movement on his pitches, and he’s dived into the numbers and video to make sure his mechanics are around where he’s wanted them to be. Kikuchi has anticipated this move for a number of years, and he’s prepared himself for more than just the language. He should fit with how a ballclub works in 2019, and perhaps he and the Mariners will study Corbin to see if there might be certain lessons to apply to Kikuchi’s repertoire in an effort to make him even better.
At the end of the day, Kikuchi’s pitching fate might well be determined by the fate of his shoulder. This might turn out to be less about how well he pitches, and more about how often he pitches. It’s not a good thing that Kikuchi fought shoulder discomfort in 2018; it is a good thing that he came back from that discomfort to pitch pretty well. Almost by definition, the Mariners probably offered the biggest contract. And so almost by definition, the Mariners have priced in the lowest risk. Other teams might’ve been scared off to a greater degree. The Mariners see a pitcher who can help them today and tomorrow. It’s not the normal kind of move for a club stepping back from the playoff race, but then, there’s a difference between reloading and tanking. The 2019 Mariners probably won’t be very good, but it should at least be possible to envision a brighter future. It’s been a long time since the Mariners could say that.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.