Between his introductory press conference with the Seattle Mariners and later getting to meet his childhood idol, this isn’t going to be a day Yusei Kikuchi forgets.
For starters, he got to learn Ichiro is a real-life human being and not some made-up one in meeting him for the first time.
“Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend, so I don’t know if he really exists,” Kikuchi said.
Kikuchi, who is a 27-year-old left-handed pitcher from Japan, was so prepared Thursday morning at what is now T-Mobile Park that he even spoke his opening statement and answered local reporters’ questions mostly in English, even if he was short-answered.
“Playing in the big leagues has been a dream of mine since I was 15 years old,” Kikuchi said.
Even his 66-year-old agent, Scott Boras, was impressed.
“I’ve never had a press conference with a Japanese player where he’s come on his own and presented himself to the city and done so in perfect English,” Boras said. “All of us who have been in different countries, we know how difficult that is and it says a lot about his learning aptitude and his commitment and what he wants to do and at what level in the major leagues.”
This was after Kikuchi picked Seattle over plenty of other interested suitors, continuing the Mariners’ long tradition of signing Japanese players. They’ve had at least one Japanese player on their roster since 1996, and the Mariners’ season opener March 20 in Tokyo will include 45-year-old Ichiro, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed.
Both Boras and Dipoto admitted Kikuchi’s contract is one of the more unique ones they’ve worked on. Kikuchi agreed to a three-year, $43 million deal with a player option for a fourth year that would bring the total to $56 million – and that’s the amount the Mariners are dealing with in terms of paying the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball for Kikuchi’s posting fee, Boras said.
But the Mariners have until the third day after the 2021 World Series to decide if they’ll exercise four team options, worth $16.5 million annually for 2022-2025.
So Kikuchi could be with the Mariners three years, four years or seven years depending on how everything shakes out.
Why both sides agreed to this is what might change baseball, Dipoto said.
Kikuchi will be in the mix to start the Mariners’ season-opening series thanks to a repertoire of a mid-90s fastball that has touched 98, Dipoto said, and a hard slider.
But Kikuchi wanted a clear development plan, especially in light of previous Japanese pitchers to transition stateside who were plagued by injuries and surgeries. Think of Yu Darvish, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kyuji Fujikawa or now former-Mariner Hisashi Iwakuma.
Even Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who the Mariners just missed on acquiring last year, recently underwent offseason Tommy John surgery. Kikuchi missed all of the 2010 season with shoulder issues, as well as parts of 2013 and reportedly dealt with some this past season, too.
“There needs to be an adjustment in how we treat the acclimation of the Japanese pitcher to the major leagues,” Boras said. “That kind of thinking on the Mariners’ part was something we wanted to reward.
“There has been a history of Japanese pitchers coming here and being thrust into a situation where not the talent of the pitchers, but the physicality and the durability of the pitchers have been challenged and often has led to surgery. Jerry was just completely open to our concern and mindful of it and sat down and came back to me with a developmental plan that was very impressive and something that would lead to certainly an acclimation to the major leagues for YK, but also something that provides for a better approach adjusting from the six-day and seven-day approach in Japan to the five-day approach here.”
So what does that look like?
Dipoto said they’ll treat Kikuchi like they would any of their prospects and minor leaguers in building their arms for longer seasons. They might not necessarily skip Kikuchi’s turns through the rotation, but he said he’ll make short starts, whether he’s pitching one inning or just throwing 30 pitches, every fifth or sixth turn through the Mariners’ rotation.
It makes more sense for the Mariners considering they’re stepping back in 2019 to develop the myriad prospects and younger players they’ve acquired this offseason while unloading veterans. Kikuchi’s development plan means they can use him with Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, who both were acquired from the Yankees in exchange for James Paxton, or Justin Dunn, who will start the season in Double-A Arkansas but is anticipated to make his major league debut either this year or early next season.
“We think from opening day to the end of the season and taking 30 starts without down time, it’s critical to understand the major league season,” said Dipoto, a former reliever. “But along the way we can create or lessen the inning burden.
“We may find out that this is the future of baseball. We’ve talked about it in many ways before these past three years is how do you distribute your innings amongst a staff? And that’s changed a lot. When I first got into baseball there were guys throwing 300 innings. That’s not smart as it pertains to long-term pitching health.”
Boras said most other clubs interested in Kikuchi were offering seven-year deals, but they were looking for Kikuchi to fill a need right away and were planning for 160-170 innings this coming year, or more, depending on the playoffs.
That’s where Boras said he presented the Mariners with the three-, four-, or seven-year deal Kikuchi accepted.
“It’s saying, look, we’ll put an evaluation period where he can opt out after the third year,” Boras said. “However, you get to keep him for an additional four years if this works out, but at much higher values than the inception cost was. So we tackled that. And basically the reward for taking great care of YK is something that had to be there for the club. I think it’s a very favorable structure for both the player and the club because both of them gave a little bit.”
Dipoto said crafting Kikuchi’s plan wasn’t so onerous since they dealt with something similar in their pursuit of Ohtani.
“Roughly this is an extension of what we discussed last year with Shohei Ohtani,” Dipoto said. “Obviously in his case it was a little different because we were trying to manage how to develop a pitcher and a hitter at the same time, but in this case this one is easy because dating back to my time with the Diamondbacks this is something we’ve done developmentally with our pitching prospects everywhere we’ve been.
“I think it’s smart. You manage innings and you develop pitchers for the long term. You are going to run into bumps and bruises along the way but unless you have a plan on the front end, innings can get out of hand very early and then you’re trying to figure out how to corral them.”
And, the bonus, is Kikuchi said he’s not planning to ask if he can swing a bat like Ohtani, who he faced multiple times in Japan.
“I’ll focus on my pitching,” he said.