Seattle Mariners

Hold off the rebuild, Mariners sign touted Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi

In this Sept. 28, 2018, photo, Japan’s Seibu Lions Yusei Kikuchi pitches during a match in Tokorozawa, northwest of Tokyo. The Seattle Mariners have signed Kikuchi to a four-year deal on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 after word first surfaced of an agreement late on New Years Eve. Kikuchi was one of the few starter options remaining on the market and will be joining a team with a long history of success with Japanese players. (Takahiko Kanbara/Kyodo News via AP)
In this Sept. 28, 2018, photo, Japan’s Seibu Lions Yusei Kikuchi pitches during a match in Tokorozawa, northwest of Tokyo. The Seattle Mariners have signed Kikuchi to a four-year deal on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019 after word first surfaced of an agreement late on New Years Eve. Kikuchi was one of the few starter options remaining on the market and will be joining a team with a long history of success with Japanese players. (Takahiko Kanbara/Kyodo News via AP) AP

The Mariners starting pitcher in their first game of the 2019 season in Japan?

It might be their newly signed left-handed Japanese pitcher. On Wednesday the Mariners announced they’ve signed Yusei Kikuchi, saying he agreed to a four-year contract.

Kikuchi was considered among the best starting pitchers available this offseason and certainly the most trumpeted from Japan, where the 27-year-old went 69-45 with a 2.69 ERA over seven seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League.

“Yusei’s combination of character, talent, experience and relative age made him a primary target in our roster building plans,” Mariners general manager Dipoto said in a statement. “He is an exciting young pitcher with the ability to impact the Mariners, both in the present and future.”

A press conference with Kikuchi is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at what is, as of Jan. 1, T-Mobile Park, even if the Safeco Field signage still remains.

He can help, in part at least, replace James Paxton in the rotation after the Mariners’ ace was traded to the New York Yankees for prospects Justsus Sheffield, another lefty, right-hander Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams.

Kikuchi’s best season was in 2017, when he was the runner up for the Sawamura Award, which is the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. He led the Pacific League with a 1.97 ERA and had 16 wins in 26 starts that season. He regressed in 2018, but still went 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts in 163 2/3 innings.

His scouting report includes a fastball that tops out at 95 mph and a hard slider that might be his best pitch.

This continues the Mariners’ legacy of signing some of the top players out of Japan, including the now-45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki, who is expected to be on the Mariners’ expanded roster when they open the season in Japan against the Athletics in March.

Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports reported that the deal with Kikuchi is really for three years and $43 million, but the Mariners could choose to extend Kikuchi’s contract to seven years with a $109 million overall contract value. If the Mariners don’t give Kikuchi the extra four years, he can take a fourth-year player option that would pay him $13 million, per the report. But his tenure in Seattle could end after three years if both sides elect for that route.

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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