Yusei Kikuchi Is MLB's Latest International Mystery Man Up for Grabs

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterDecember 7, 2018

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 17:  Yusei Kikuchi pitcher for the Aces in action during the Australian Baseball League match between the Melbourne Aces and the Brisbane Bandits at Melbourne Showgrounds on November 17, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)
Hamish Blair/Getty Images

The fastball comes in regularly at 92-94 mph, and sometimes it can creep up to 96 or perhaps even 98. There's a big-time slider, too, and enough of a curveball and changeup that scouts write up Yusei Kikuchi as a four-pitch pitcher.

"A true power left-hander," one American League scout said this week.

"At least a third starter," said another AL scout who has watched Kikuchi pitch multiple times. "If it all comes together, a highly respected No. 2. Will be one of the better left-handed starters in the big leagues."

Not every scout agrees, but you could say that about just about every pitcher on this winter's free-agent market, which Kikuchi joined when his Japanese team went through the posting process this week. Not every scout would commit to Patrick Corbin's future, either, and he just got $140 million from the Washington Nationals.

Teams still searching for a starter can no longer dream of Corbin, or of James Paxton, who was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees. Nathan Eovaldi is staying with the Boston Red Sox after agreeing to a reported four-year, $67.5 million deal Thursday. Pitchers like Dallas Keuchel and J.A. Happ remain on the free-agent market, and the Cleveland Indians will talk about trading one of their starters, but there are still more teams with needs than there are available starters.

Kikuchi should fit right in, and he should end up as a good option for someone. His Japanese team, the Seibu Lions, posted him this week, making him available between now and Jan. 3 to any team willing to pay the price. Jon Heyman of Fancred reported last week that the market was "strong," with at least four West Coast teams believed to be showing interest. The Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and New York Yankees have also been linked with Kikuchi.

It's easy to see why.

Some scouts see Kikuchi as having the versatility to help a team out of the bullpen in the postseason, the way Kenta Maeda has with the Dodgers.
Some scouts see Kikuchi as having the versatility to help a team out of the bullpen in the postseason, the way Kenta Maeda has with the Dodgers.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Kikuchi is 27 years old, four years older than Shohei Ohtani was when he moved from Japan last winter but still young compared to other free agents. He's a year younger than Eovaldi, two years younger than Corbin, more than eight years younger than Happ.

With Scott Boras as his agent, it's probably a mistake to think he'll be a bargain (and unlike with Ohtani, there are no limits on what a team can spend).

Kikuchi is different. He didn't grow up in upstate New York and he hasn't pitched 172 games in the major leagues, as Corbin did and has. He hasn't pitched on a major league schedule and he hasn't faced major league hitters.

But he did have a 1.97 ERA with the Lions in 2017, with more than a strikeout an inning and fewer baserunners than innings pitched (he had a 3.08 ERA in 2018). He's been good enough for long enough that at least four big league teams tried to sign him right out of his Japanese high school back in 2009, and he's bold enough that he seriously considered accepting one of their offers.

Japanese kids don't do that, and in the end, Kikuchi didn't, either. But it says something about his competitive drive that he even considered it.

He took the more standard route of first pitching professionally in Japan, but along the way, there were signs he always had his eye on a move to America. He worked in the weight room to improve the velocity on his fastball. He made offseason trips to California, familiarizing himself with American culture in between workouts with Brian Wolfe, a Seibu teammate. He went to pitch for a while in the winter league in Australia, again showing an ability to adjust.

"I've had this target in mind ever since the first winter after I entered high school,” Kikuchi said recently, according to a Sports Nippon report translated and relayed by Jim Allen of Kyodo News.

Kikuchi attended the same Japanese high school as Shohei Ohtani, but he'll arrive in the major leagues with much less hype.
Kikuchi attended the same Japanese high school as Shohei Ohtani, but he'll arrive in the major leagues with much less hype.Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

Some scouts believe he'll have less of an issue adjusting to the major leagues than some other Japanese pitchers have. And some see him providing versatility, as someone who could be effective out of the bullpen.

Starters get more money than relievers, in general, so Kikuchi will almost certainly sign this month with a team that believes he can start. But maybe he can be what Kenta Maeda has been the last couple of seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers: a pitcher who works primarily as a starter in the regular season but transitions to the bullpen for October.

First, he has to pick a team. The posting system allows any of the 30 major league teams to negotiate with him in the 30-day window that opened Dec. 5. Once he agrees to a contract, the signing team will also be responsible for a release fee that will be paid to the Seibu Lions. That fee ranges from 15-20 percent, depending on the size of the deal and would also cover any bonuses he receives.

While Kikuchi hasn't had any major surgeries, a signing team will also need to be convinced of his health. He missed some time early in the 2018 season with what was described as a degradation of his left shoulder, but scouts who work in Japan point out that teams there are much more cautious bringing players back from injury. In any case, Kikuchi returned and appeared healthy to scouts who watched him late in the season.

The other question will be the adjustment period once Kikuchi signs. While some scouts said his normal routine suggests he'll adapt quickly, one Japanese baseball executive cautioned that a signing team would need to be patient with him.

"He was always cited here as having some of the best potential of any left-handed pitcher," the executive said. "And then it took him six years to win double-digit games. I hope this doesn't turn into a repeat of Kei Igawa."

Igawa, a left-hander who had success in Japan, came to the major leagues at 27 when the Yankees spent $46 million (salary and posting fee) for a five-year deal. Igawa had a 6.66 ERA in just 16 major league games in 2007-08 and spent the next three-plus seasons in the minor leagues before returning to Japan and playing through 2014.

And even though many Japanese pitchers since then have enjoyed major league success—seven pitched in the big leagues in 2018, per Baseball Reference's play index, and 24 have pitched in the majors in the last 10 years (not counting position players Nori Aoki and Ichiro Suzuki)—the memories of those who failed remain.

Most scouts surveyed by Bleacher Report believe Kikuchi will be one who succeeds. But the feeling isn't universal.

"He's just fair," said one National League scout who watched Kikuchi in 2018. "Not as good as others who have come over and failed."

He's not as good as Ohtani, even though the two attended the same high school (Kikuchi was three years ahead). He's not as good as Clayton Kershaw, even though Kikuchi so admires the Dodgers' left-hander that he tries to catch every Kershaw start on television.

He may be as good as Kazuhisa Ishii, who had four decent but not great seasons with the Dodgers from 2002-05 and was Kikuchi's favorite pitcher to watch before Kershaw.

He may be better than that. He may really turn into one of the best left-handed starters in the major leagues, as one of the scouts contacted by Bleacher Report projected. On a winter market where starting pitchers seem to be in great demand, some team is going to take that chance.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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