Yusei Kikuchi was about 9 years old when he went to his first professional baseball game to watch the Orix Blue Wave.
He was eager to see his idol, Ichiro, up close and in person. Of course, Ichiro would sign with the Mariners the next year, so Kikuchi wanted to witness his farewell tour in Japan.
Kikuchi never imagined he’d one day be playing alongside Ichiro and in the running to start one of the first two games for the Mariners, in Tokyo where Seattle has a two-game series March 20-21 against the Athletics.
“I was very anxious to watch (Ichiro) play in person,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter about attending that game 18 years ago. “I went there only knowing of Ichiro and I still remember the aura that Ichiro had on the field, how exciting it was to watch Ichiro play in person.
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“Since then I’ve read any book there is about Mr. Ichiro, any articles about Mr. Ichiro and his play style and work ethic. It’s something I really study and I’m looking forward to being able to work with him – and I have a lot of questions I want to ask him.”
By the Mariners, there’s excitement about Kikuchi’s first year in the United States. The 27-year-old left-hander, like Ichiro before him, made the jump to Seattle this offseason as one of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto’s many moves.
“We’ve done a lot of things in our time here in Seattle in trades and roster shifting and constructing, but (signing Kikuchi) has been the most enjoyable because it was unexpected and a lot of fun,” Dipoto said. “We got the chance to add one of the premier pitchers in the world and a pitcher has had a great deal of success in NPB and the international stage.
“Now we get a chance to bring him to T-Mobile Park and Seattle where we think the fit is just about as good as it can be. From age, character and talent standpoints we don’t think this fit could have been any better for us.”
That being said, let’s do a quick status update on the Mariners’ starting rotation as the team began spring training on Monday in Peoria, Arizona:
Their ace pitcher from last year, James Paxton, is now with the New York Yankees.
Their ace pitcher of the previous 13 years, Felix Hernandez, was so poor in 2018 that he was briefly demoted to the bullpen before returning to the rotation out of necessity.
Yet, even considering those the Mariners’ projected 2019 rotation has considerable potential and far more depth than at this point a year ago.
Kikuchi will be at the top of their rotation, but so will Marco Gonzales. At this point last year few knew if Gonzales would even be on their roster because he was out of minor-league options, and now he might be their Opening Day starter.
Then there’s the youth infusion the Mariners added to their farm system, which was maybe the most thin in baseball in terms of starting-pitching prospects. It cost them Paxton, Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, but the Mariners farm cupboards are no longer barren.
“I feel like we’re in a similar place as we were a year ago, with even more upside,” Dipoto said. “With Yusei Kikuchi, with Justus Sheffield, with Justin Dunn, with Erik Swanson, it gives us a lot of fun upside in our rotation – and we all know about Marco Gonzales. And, frankly, we know a lot about Wade LeBlanc and how he would handle a full season of starts.
“So the starting rotation, we’re very comfortable and in a very good space.”
The only sure pieces last year at this point were Paxton, Hernandez and right-hander Mike Leake.
Then they signed LeBlanc in the final week of spring training to be in their bullpen, and Gonzales had emerged in spring training and solidified his spot in the bottom of the rotation.
The Mariners’ starting staff was thought to be their biggest question mark. It turned into probably their greatest strength.
Gonzales won 13 games, Paxton won 11, Leake won 10 and LeBlanc vaulted into the rotation when Erasmo Ramirez had the first of his two trips to the disabled list. LeBlanc would finish with the best ERA on the staff (3.72), just ahead of Paxton (3.76).
Leake pitched the most innings (185 2/3) with the most starts (31) for the Mariners and had the lowest walk rate of a staff that had the fewest total walks allowed in baseball.
“Our pitching far exceeded expectations,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Where we were a year ago, every one of you guys (media and fans) was wondering why we didn’t go sign a big-time free-agent starting pitcher. We didn’t think we needed it. We were right.”
But Servais also knows they got a lot more out of some of their pitchers than even they expected, particularly the 34-year-old LeBlanc.
Even early in LeBlanc’s career with the Padres, he never started 27 games in a single season before 2018. He drew frequent comparisons to former Mariners lefty Jamie Moyer – even from his manager.
“There’s a guy named Jamie Moyer who pitched for a long time and people didn’t think that was sustainable, either, because he didn’t blow you away with his fastball,” Servais said during the season. “It’s a feel to pitch.”
That earned LeBlanc a contract extension midseason, so he’s signed through 2019 with club options through 2022. It’s the first time in years he had a contract beyond a one-year deal – and he was maybe the most feel-good story of the 2018 Mariners.
“Man, to be honest, I thought my career was over after Japan,” LeBlanc said of his 2015 season in NPB. One of his teammates there, coincidentally, was Kikuchi.
“I was always kind of a nobody, but there you’re really a nobody because you kind of fall off the map. I was hanging on to the map by a thread.”
How LeBlanc can build off 2018 in 2019 is a watchpoint this spring.
But he’s set in the Mariners’ rotation plans. It figures to be some order of Gonzales, Kikuchi, Leake, LeBlanc and Hernandez, with Sheffield and Swanson, who were both acquired from the Yankees in the November Paxton trade, waiting next in line.
And how Kikuchi adjusts is another thing to monitor. The Mariners already laid out plans to bring him along slowly, meaning Sheffield and Swanson should get plenty of looks as spot starters or in long-relief roles to bring them along, too.
Then there’s of course, how the Mariners handle Hernandez in the final year of his contract – a season after he posted a 5.55 ERA and went 8-14 over 28 starts and one relief appearance.
Dipoto did emphasize that there’s no way Hernandez is their next closer.
“I don’t want to put the kibosh on that any more than to say that’s chatter at the water cooler,” Dipoto said.
He also emphasized that, while their five-man rotation appears set, they fully intend on developing their prospects as they see fit.
“Right now, the commitment is to those five,” Dipoto said. “It’s up to Scott what order they pitch, and we’ll take it from there. But we won’t let anything stand in the way of developing the young players when it’s their time.
“If you look at our roster today with YK and Mike Leake, Marco, Felix, Wade LeBlanc and Roenis Elias and then what we think is a wave of players who are coming led by Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson being the next closest – we’re excited about that group. And we think over the course of a 1,500-inning season there is plenty to be moved around.”
WHO’S IN CAMP? (9 on 40-man roster)
Left-handed pitcher, 6-foot-1, 199 pounds. Age 26
Why all the confidence in Gonzales? He went 9-2 with a 2.61 ERA from the end of May until August and walked just 16 batters in 12 starts. Among AL starters, Gonzales was tied with Dallas Keuchel for ninth-best WAR (3.6, Fangraphs) in 2018.
LHP, 5-11, 197. Age 30
Quietly thrived in the Mariners’ long-relief role in his return to the organization. Went 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA in 51 innings pitched, including four starts, after the Mariners re-acquired him from the Red Sox. Had a 2.02 ERA as a reliever, which is where he will likely start the season.
RHP, 6-3, 225. Age 32
The Mariners will give their all-time strikeouts leader another shot to contribute to their rotation in the final year of his seven-year, $175 million contract. But it won’t last long if there’s more of the same from 2018, when he went 8-14 with a career-high 5.55 ERA in 28 starts.
LHP, 6-0, 200. Age 27
Maybe the Mariners’ biggest offseason prize. Will likely start one of the Mariners’ opening games in Tokyo at the top of their rotation. He features a mid-90s fastball and a hard slider. Could be in Seattle for three, four or seven years depending on the unique contract he signed.
RHP, 5-11, 170. Age 31
Had the second-highest ERA (4.36) of his career, but also was Mariners’ most reliable pitcher, taking 31 starts and pitching 185 2/3 innings. Only Leake and Greg Maddux have gone at least seven consecutive seasons with at least 30 starts and 50 of fewer walks in the live-ball era.
LHP, 6-3, 205. Age 34
It’s been a long time since LeBlanc had a contract that secured his place on a club for more than one season. There’s a reason he was compared to Jamie Moyer last year. Led Mariners’ starters with a 3.72 ERA over 27 starts and 32 total appearances.
LHP, 5-11, 215. Age 21
Lost amid the flurry of the Mariners’ trades in November was their acquisition of Sanchez from the Braves for cash considerations. He was a previous Jerry Dipoto pickup, when he was the Angels’ top international signee in 2013. High strikeout rate, but also high walk rate.
LHP, 6-0, 200. Age 22
Has a fastball that reminds some of James Paxton’s, who the Mariners traded to the Yankees to acquire Sheffield. But some pundits have wondered if the Yankees’ former top prospect has a frame won’t hold as well in the rotation as it would in a bullpen role.
RHP, 6-3, 220. Age 25
Sneaky pickup in the Paxton deal. Swanson went from Single-A to Triple-A in 2018, posting a 2.81 ERA over 22 starts and 139 strikeouts in 121 2/3 innings. Will likely be in the Mariners’ mix at multiple points throughout the 2019 season. Fastball has touched 98 mph.
Nabil Crismatt (RHP, 6-1, 200) – Fastball won’t overwhelm, but has a solid changeup, slider and control. Mariners signed him as a minor-league free agent from the Mets.
Justin Dunn (RHP, 6-2, 185) – Will start season in Double-A, but former first-round pick was a key piece of deal that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets. Mariners hope he’s in the big leagues by this year or next.
Tommy Milone (LHP, 6-1, 215) – The 31-year-old started four games for the Nationals last year and Mariners plan to use him as a veteran option as a spot starter or in long-relief.
Max Povse (RHP, 6-8, 185) – Recently DFA’d and outrighted to Triple-A Tacoma. Towering former third-round pick struggled with the Rainiers over eight starts in 2018 before he was demoted to Double-A and then missed rest of the season with a shoulder strain.