Yusei Kukuchi Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi has been the best starting pitcher on the Seattle Mariners this season, which presents the Mariners with an unexpected opportunity if the team chose to pursue it. Trade Kikuchi now to capitalize on his recent success.

As preposterous as trading Kikuchi may seem to you, consider this. GM Jerry Dipoto is an aggressive and innovative deal-maker and starting pitchers, particularly good ones, are always in high demand at the deadline. Dealing the left-hander could potentially fetch Dipoto’s club an intriguing return. With this in mind, let’s discuss factors certain to make Kikuchi appealing to potential buyers.

Recent Performance

Kikuchi’s struggles during his first two MLB seasons are well chronicled. In 2019, inconsistent command and fastball velocity were challenges he couldn’t overcome. Last year, the 30-year-old made mechanical changes that increased his velocity and advanced metrics suggested he was performing better. Yet, his actual results fell short of expectations.

Then came 2021.

Initially, this season looked like more of the same from Kikuchi. In his first four starts, he allowed 15 runs, including five home runs, and had a 5.70 ERA. Even worse, his saber-stats weren’t nearly as favorable as they were in 2020.

Fortunately, for Kikuchi and the Mariners, he reversed course in his fifth outing. The native of Japan threw seven shutout innings against the Astros on April 29 and has been on a roll ever since. He’s averaged 6.3 innings in his last nine starts, while holding opponents to a .173 AVG and posting a .253 ERA.

Yusei Kikuchi Since April 29
* Ranking among 78 pitchers facing 200+ batters

Kikuchi’s .289 xwOBA since April 29 aligns with last year (.283), which suggests his recent excellence isn’t a fluke and may be sustainable.

Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing. League-average xwOBA this season = .319. 

Essentially, Kikuchi has been one of the best starters in MLB since late-April. A team craving a top-shelf arm for the upcoming postseason and possibly beyond would absolutely have interest in acquiring the southpaw.

Big Decisions In The Fall

Any conversation regarding Kikuchi’s future with the Mariners or in a potential trade scenario must include his unconventional contract. After this season, Seattle can exercise a four-year option to retain Kikuchi at an annual salary of $16.5 million. At that point, the team would also owe the Seibu Lions of Japan $7.95 million.

If the Mariners pass, Kikuchi can either exercise a $13 million player option for 2022 or become a free agent. While it’s plausible the veteran could choose to spend next season with Seattle, it seems more likely he’d test free agency to capitalize on his recent success. Especially after the team failed to make a long-term commitment to him.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the decision on both the team and player options must be resolved no later than five days after of the 2021 World Series concludes.

Money Matters

Basically, a team acquiring Kikuchi would have two choices. Let him walk as a free agent, assuming he doesn’t exercise his option for next year. Or, pay him $16.5 million annually through 2025 – his age-34 season. Considering the current starting pitcher market, $16.5 million is a reasonable price for a player of Kikuchi’s ilk.

Per Spotrac, Gerrit Cole ($36 million) has the highest average salary among MLB starters. Kikuchi is currently grossing $14.3 million, which ranks twenty-third.

Pitchers with a salary similar to Yusei Kikuchi’s
Johnny Cueto – $21.7 million
Yu Darvish – $21 million
Hyun Jin Ryu – $20 million
Marcus Stroman – $18.9 million
Kevin Gausman – $18.9 million
Dallas Keuchel – $18.5 million
Nathan Eovaldi – $17 million
Miles Mikolas – $17 million
Lance McCullers – $17 million
Madison Bumgarner – $17 million
Charlie Morton – $15 million
Yusei Kikuchi – $14.3 million
Alex Cobb – $14.3 million
Kyle Hendricks – $13.9 million
Danny Duffy – $13 million
Carlos Carrasco – $11.8 million

Kikuchi’s $16.5 million annual salary during the four-year extension would be fair market value compared to what his peers are currently receiving.

Yeah, But…

While it’s fun to toss around trade scenarios, there’s an inherent flaw with dealing Kikuchi in the next five weeks just to recoup some semblance of value. He represents something that’s in short demand across MLB – controllable, premium starting pitching.

The Mariners need Kikuchi as much as contenders do – maybe more.

Remember, fans have been led to believe the Mariners intend on making a good-faith effort during the upcoming offseason to build a more competitive roster in 2022. How would dealing Kikuchi this summer help further that cause?

It wouldn’t.

In a way, how the Mariners handle Kikuchi’s contract will shed light on how ownership intends on approaching next year from a financial perspective.

Realistically, the only motivation the Mariners could possibly have to trade Kikuchi this season would be to avoid the four-year option and the $74 million financial commitment attached to it. Taking such a short-sighted view would be unwise.

Even if Kikuchi is only average or slightly better for the rest of this season, the Mariners can ill-afford to part ways with their best pitcher over a reasonable amount money. To do so would suggest that ownership isn’t motivated to fully fund Dipoto’s efforts to build a sustainable contender in Seattle.

After missing the postseason for two decades, that approach is unacceptable.

My Oh My…

Got a take on what you just read? Talk about it here!

Image courtesy of Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire
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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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