The Seattle Mariners felt like they just missed landing two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani last offseason. It makes you wonder how 2018 might have ended if Ohtani was wearing a Mariners jersey instead of signing with the Angels and doing things baseball hasn’t seen since Babe Ruth.
Yusei Kikuchi is no Ohtani. But the Mariners reportedly agreed to a deal to sign the 27-year-old left-handed pitcher, who is considered this year’s top target out of Japan, and arguably the top free-agent pitcher available, anywhere.
Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports reported Monday night a deal had been reached and Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported it was a four-year guaranteed deal.
The Mariners had not officially announced the move.
Yahoo Sports first reported that Kikuchi and the Mariners were nearing an agreement Monday night. Other clubs with reported interest had included the Giants, Yankees, Dodgers, Padres and Rangers.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has said for much of this offseason that they’d likely refrain from signing big-name free-agent targets in their efforts to step back in 2019 and contend by 2020 or 2021. But he did express their strong interest in Kikuchi when talking to reporters at MLB’s winter meetings in Las Vegas.
“I don’t think Kikuchi is going to sign a one-year deal, so he should be very capable of being a part of what we’re trying to do,” Dipoto said. “Now, whether he wants to come here or not, I can’t tell you.”
Kikuchi had until 2 p.m. Wednesday to sign with an MLB team or else return to the Seibu Lions for 2019. MLB.com reported that he visited Seattle on Monday.
So what’s all the fuss about?
Kikuchi had a 3.08 ERA with 153 strikeouts in 163 2/3 innings and 23 starts in 2018 for the Seibu Lions. As far as his stuff, he’s been reported to have a 92-94 mph fastball and hard slider.
And 2018 was a drop off from Kikuchi’s 2017 season, when he had a 1.97 ERA over 26 starts, striking out 217 batters in 187 2/3 innings.
Dipoto said the Mariners have scouted him as much as any player in Japan the past few years.
“He’s very good,” Dipoto said. “His performance kind of speaks for itself. He’s got real stuff and he’s had a lot of success in Japan.”
He’d fit right in with the Mariners’ rotation, especially since they already traded ace lefty James Paxton to the Yankees. The rest of their rotation includes Felix Hernandez, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc, while prospects Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, both acquired in the Paxton deal, are expected to get chances to make the Opening Day roster out of spring training.
But if the Mariners can add Kikuchi, they can afford to bring Sheffield and Swanson along much slower. Leake has also been a subject of trade rumors this offseason.
Justin Dunn, a right-hander and former first-round draft pick acquired from the Mets in a deal that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to New York, is expected to start the season with Double-A Arkansas.
Dipoto said he’s counting on Seattle’s history of Japanese players making a successful transition to MLB, specifically with Ichiro Suzuki, Kazahiro Sasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma, to give the Mariners an edge in their pursuit of Kikuchi. Seattle has had at least one Japanese player on its roster every year since 1998 and the Mariners’ majority owner was Japanese-based Nintendo from 1992-2016.
“We’re a great market for any player, really,” Dipoto said. “But specifically a pitcher and specifically a pitcher from Japan because we offer a lot of comforts that I think makes us unique among the major league markets and the way our market has taken the star players from Japan and really maximized their potential, whether that’s from a marketing perspective or the community.
“Whether it’s Kaz Sasaki or Ichiro, those players turned into superstars and I think some of that comes from the market … but I don’t know Kikuchi, personally, so I don’t know how much that affects him.”