Although the postseason recently ended, most MLB teams have spent the last several weeks with nothing to do other than plan for the upcoming offseason. Free agency is here and trades can, of course, go down at any time. Hot stove activity will soon pick up.
On Monday, one very interesting name joined the free agent pool. Per MLB.com, the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball posted ace left-hander Yusei Kikuchi:
The Lions have agreed to make Kikuchi available through the posting system, leaving the 27-year-old free to negotiate a contract with an MLB team.
Kikuchi has been very open about wanting to pitch in the big leagues for years now, and in fact he very nearly came to MLB back in 2009, when he considered signing with a team out of high school rather than going through the NPB draft. NPB eventually persuaded him to stay in Japan, unlike Junichi Tazawa, who did jump to MLB out of high school around the same time.
The 27-year-old Kikuchi is arguably the best pitcher in Japan right now, and no, he is not a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani. He is a pitcher only. Kikuchi threw 163 2/3 innings with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 23 starts this season. Here’s some video of him in action:
Kikuchi joins a free-agent class dominated by left-handed starters. Dallas Keuchel and Patrick Corbin are the best available free agent starters and J.A. Happ might be third best. Kikuchi is at least three years younger than each of those guys, and he could very well come on the most affordable contract.
Here’s everything you need to know about Kkuchi and the posting process heading into the 2018-19 postseason.
How good is Kikuchi?
Very good. As noted, he threw 163 2/3 innings with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts this season. He struck out 23.4 percent of the batters he faced in a league where the average hitter struck out in 18.9 percent of his plate appearances. (The MLB strikeout rate was 22.3 percent in 2018.)
Kikuchi has been in Seibu’s rotation since his age 20 season in 2011 and he spent a few years battling injuries — he missed time with a shoulder problem in May as well — so he didn’t throw as many as 140 innings in a season until 2016. Here are his last three years with the Lions:
For his career, Kikuchi owns a 2.81 ERA with 925 strikeouts in 1,035 1/3 innings with the Lions. He is a three-time All-Star in Japan, though he’s never won the Eiji Sawamura Award, NPB’s equivalent of the Cy Young award.
What’s the scouting report?
Like many Japanese pitchers, Kikuchi has a deep arsenal with multiple breaking balls and a split-finger fastball. Here’s one scouting report from Dennis Lin of The Athletic back in March:
(The) makings of a quality major-league starter are there. Kikuchi’s fastball is consistently in the mid-90s. His curveball, slider and splitter all rate as average or slightly better. “He is a good one,” one scout wrote in a text. “Has not been real durable, but stuff is solid.”
And here’s another scouting report from Jason Coskrey in June:
“Kikuchi has got solid stuff and he’s left-handed, that’s always going to be attractive,” the scout said. “The guys who seem to have had success, have something that distinguishes them. Like (Diamondbacks pitcher Yoshihisa) Hirano has the split. Kikuchi, I’m not sure what it is right now. I like the total package, but I’m not sure what stands apart.”
When Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka came over from Japan, they were all considered potential aces with a chance to dominate big league hitters. Kikuchi is a notch below that. Not a potential ace, but a very good starting pitcher. For what it’s worth, Kikuchi has drawn comparisons to Corbin, who himself broke out as an ace in 2018.
What teams are interested?
It’s a little too early to know which teams have serious interest in Kikuchi — and which teams Kikuchi has interest in, for that matter — but he has been scouted by several clubs in recent weeks.
Any club with serious interest in Kikuchi would’ve been on him all season. They’d have gotten multiple sets of eyes on him rather than send one scout to one or two starts, you know? The Brewers, Dodgers, Giants, Phillies, Rangers, Red Sox, and Yankees were represented at Kikuchi’s most recent start and my guess is pretty much every team is in the league has gotten a look at him this year.
How does the posting process work?
Remember all that stuff about Ohtani possibly not being posted last winter? That’s because MLB and the MLBPA were pushing NPB to renegotiate the terms of the posting system. Under the old system, the player’s team in Japan set a release fee ($20 million maximum) and the player was given 30 days to negotiate a contract with any MLB team. The team that signed him paid the release fee.
The current system, which took effect after Ohtani signed with the Angels last offseason, is similar in that the player gets 30 days to negotiate with any and all MLB teams. The release fee is now a percentage of his contract, however. Here are the release fee rates:
- Contract worth $25 million or less: 20 percent of total guarantee
- Contract worth $25 million and $50 million: $5 million plus 17.5 percent of amount over $25 million
- Contract worth $50 million: $9.375 million plus 15 percent of amount over $50 million
Ohtani was only able to sign a minor league contract last offseason because his age made him subject to MLB’s international spending restrictions. That severely limited his earning potential. (The Angels paid Ohtani a $2.315 million bonus.) That does not apply to Kikuchi. He can sign a guaranteed MLB contract of any size.
Also, under the current system players can only be posted between November 1 and December 5, with the full 30-day negotiating window to follow. That ensures the entire process will not drag out until later in the offseason and hold up the rest of free agency. Tanaka, for example, was not posted until January.
Although Kikuchi does not have the same appeal as Darvish or Tanaka or Ohtani at the time of their postings, he is a very good pitcher, and a 27-year-old left-hander is sure to create a bidding war. Teams unable to afford Keuchel or Corbin could very well turn to Kikuchi as an alternative and bank on the upside.
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