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Mariners interested in star Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi

The Mariners have scouted pitcher Yusei Kikuchi maybe more than any other overseas player in general manager Jerry Dipoto’s tenure with the club.

And all their intel on the star Japanese lefty says he’s worth it.

“He’s very good,” Dipoto told reporters Monday from MLB’s winter meetings in Las Vegas. “His performance speaks for itself. He’s got real stuff and he’s had a lot of success in Japan.”

That’s why Dipoto says he’s pushing to bring the 27-year-old Kikuchi to Seattle next season after he went 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 23 starts and 163 2/3 innings with the Saitama Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s top league.

Over eight seasons in Japan, Kikuchi has a 2.81 ERA. In 2017 he struck out 217 batters in 187 2/3 innings pitched (with a 1.97 ERA). That’s why the Mariners have plenty of competition for his services.

Various scouting reports say Kikuchi might not be a top-of-the-rotation starter, but he can throw four pitches for strikes. His fastball sit between 92-94 mph, though he can reach 98. He has said Clayton Kershaw is his favorite player.

He might not be Shohei Ohtani, but he did attend the same high school as the two-way star who spurned the Mariners for the Angels last offseason.

But the Mariners were buyers last offseason and were trying to make a playoff run. Now they’re taking a step back, which might not be so appealing to Kikuchi.

Dipoto said Kikuchi would still fit into their 2021 plans for postseason contention if he were to sign, but the question is would Kikuchi be interested in biding his time in a rebuild?

“I don’t know what his interest level is in playing in Seattle just yet,” Dipoto said. “But we are interested and he does fit our timeline. By the time we get to our next (playoff) window he’s 29. Right now the players we are centering ourselves around, Mallex Smith will be 26, Mitch (Haniger) 28 and Marco (Gonzales) is 27 this year. That’s the age of that center part of our group and the 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds that surround them makes for an awfully interesting midseason 2020 look.

“And since I don’t think Kikuchi is going to sign a one-year deal, he should be very capable of being a part of what we’re trying to do. Now whether he wants to come here or not I can’t tell you.”

But what Dipoto can also push is Seattle’s market and success with previous Japanese players, including Ichiro (who is still in line to open the season with the Mariners against the Oakland Athletics in Japan), as well as Kazuhiro Sasaki or more recently Hisashi Iwakuma.

“I think what makes us unique among the major league markets is the way our market has taken star players from Japan and really maximized their potential, whether that’s from a marketing perspective or the community,” Dipoto said. “Whether it’s Kaz Sasaki or Ichiro, those players turned into superstars and I think some of that comes from the market. We are heavy in our influence organizationally, whether it’s the Nintendo years or some of those players who are still connected.

“But I don’t know Kikuchi personally, so I don’t know how much of that affects him.”

Trade rumors

It’s looking more and more like Carlos Santana will never put on a Seattle Mariners uniform.

Dipoto told reporters that Monday was probably the most boring first day at MLB’s winter meetings for him as a general manager, then Tuesday he came back and said they’ve been working on some free-agent signings and trade discussions, but nothing that was close or imminent at the time.

But multiple reports had the Mariners shopping Santana, the first baseman they acquired from the Phillies last week along with shortstop J.P. Crawford in exchange for Jean Segura.

The 32-year-old Santana was reportedly in discussions with the Marlins recently. The Rays, Rockies and Indians, Santana’s former team, were also said to ask about Santana. Rockies GM Jeff Bridich told reporters Monday that his team was talking to the Phillies about a trade for the switch-hitter to play first base before the Mariners made a deal.

Any deal would likely mean the Mariners eat some of the two years, $34.5 million Santana is still owed.

The Mariners already have Ryon Healy to play first base, and Daniel Vogelbach is out of minor league options. But it isn’t hard to envision the Mariners waiting for a better offer, keeping Santana on the club and seeing how his offers change around the trade deadline.

MLB investigation

MLB is still investigating the Mariners over accusations of racism and gender discrimination from former director of high performance Lorena Martin, as well as other discrimination claims from two trainers based at their complex in the Dominican Republic that were all directed toward Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and director of player development Andy McKay.

Servais addressed the investigation for the first time on Tuesday in Las Vegas.

“I’ve been in the game a long time,” Servais told reporters. “This will be 31 years as a player, in the front office and working with players and doing a number of different things. My name means a lot to me and the relationships I’ve built. I think that’s all that needs to be said at this point. MLB is doing an investigation. Some of the things that came out I’m very confident the truth will come out.”

Servais and the Mariners have repeatedly denied Martin’s allegations and called them fabricated, but Martin told The News Tribune last month that Servais said to her that don’t see Latino catchers or managers because “they aren’t bright enough. They are dumb.”

Marin also said she wasn’t allowed in some portions of meetings with players in spring training and Servais’ reasoning was because she is a woman.

“I went and told Jerry that I wasn’t allowed to sit with the players,” Martin said. “He asked what Scott told me and I said it was because I’m a woman. He said, ‘Then listen to him. Don’t be there.’”

But she said that wasn’t her only terse encounter with Servais.

Martin said she introduced herself before a meeting to players in spring training and noticed that Dee Gordon and Felix Hernandez were eating fries.

“So I started off with a joke. I was like, ‘I’m Lorena from high performance, I’m here to help you eat better and not eat french fries like you guys are doing,’ ” Martin said. “And everybody laughed. It was a break-the-ice thing.”

She said it didn’t sit well with Servais.

“He said, ‘You know how you introduced yourself yesterday?’ Well, myself and the other coaches were like, ‘Who the (expletive) does she think she is?’” Martin recalled. “I just thought it was nice and funny and got people laughing. He was like, ‘That’s for me to do.’

“I swear to God he told me that: ‘Who the (expletive) do you think you are to make that joke to the players?’”

Servais said on Tuesday that his 35-40 trips to the Dominican Republic he’s made throughout his career should speak for itself.

“I think people who know me and know Scott Servais and how I’m wired understand what’s important to me and that I try to understand where players come from and help them get over the hump and become productive major league players and be good citizens and good people,” Servais said. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in.

“I’ve spent a lot of time there (in the Dominican Republic). But our focus needs to be on 2019 and we’ll let MLB take care of the other stuff.”

TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.

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