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Cubs free agent target: Yusei Kikuchi

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Here’s an under-the-radar guy who could be useful.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Yusei Kikuchi came to the Seattle Mariners from NPB’s Seibu Lions, where he had posted a 2.85 ERA and 1.180 WHIP in nine seasons covering 1,168⅓ innings.

Kikuchi struggled through two mediocre seasons in 2019 and 2020 and then had a very good first half in 2021: 3.48 ERA, 1.088 WHIP in 16 starts. It was good enough to get him an All-Star nod — he was, in fact, the Mariners’ lone All-Star representative this year.

Then his second half was just bad. His ERA ballooned to 5.98 in 13 starts and his WHIP jumped to 1.705. It got so bad that the Mariners, fighting for a playoff spot that they ultimately failed to get, removed Kikuchi from the rotation in late September.

Kikuchi had an unusual MLB contract:

... the unique deal is for $43 million over an initial three years, with a $13 million player option for 2022. But the option can potentially be replaced by an additional four-year, $66 million extension by the club that would convert the deal to seven years total.

Coming off the bad second half, the Mariners turned down the four-year extension, and then Kikuchi turned town his $13 million player option, making him a free agent. The ostensible reason is that the Mariners wouldn’t guarantee him a rotation spot for 2022.

The question here is: Should the Cubs do that?

The folks at MLB Trade Rumors think so. All three of their prognosticators in their annual Top 50 Free Agents article had his destination as the Cubs:

Kikuchi, a 30-year-old southpaw, averaged 95.2 miles per hour on his fastball this year – second only to Carlos Rodon among free agents. After an excellent July 1st start at Toronto, things were looking up. Kikuchi owned a 3.18 ERA, 25.4 K%, and and 8.5 BB% in 15 starts, and he had been selected to his first All-Star Game.

Though it didn’t immediately manifest in his results, Kikuchi lost 197 RPM on his four-seam fastball after June 12th. He also lost about one mile per hour on his fastball after July 1st, possibly the result of wearing down. From July 7th forward, Kikuchi posted a 6.22 ERA, 23.3 K%, and 10.3 BB%, with 1.7 home runs allowed per nine innings. By the end of the season, he’d been booted from the Mariners’ rotation. The Mariners made the easy choice to decline his four-year, $66MM option, but Kikuchi surprised some by declining his one-year, $13MM option. But not guaranteed a rotation spot in Seattle and with at least some prospect of a multiyear deal, Kikuchi’s decision makes sense.

Despite his solid start to the season and top-notch velocity from the left side, Kikuchi isn’t quite the appealing upside play you might imagine. His Statcast numbers show that when batters hit the ball against Kikuchi this year, they absolutely hammered it. The 91.9 mile per hour average exit velocity against him was the worst in baseball, and 47% of the balls hit against him were 95 and up (second worst in the game). As such, the fact that Kikuchi allowed more than a fifth of his flyballs to leave the yard can’t be waved away as a fluke. Some starting pitchers, such as Robbie Ray this year, are able to succeed despite allowing hard contact. But it’s hardly a positive, and Kikuchi does allow his share of walks as well. He’s still an interesting project, but a total reboot will be required. The Blue Jays, Tigers, Twins, Angels, Rangers, Mets, Nationals, Cubs, and Giants could be candidates.

That sounds good at the beginning... then, not so much. “Wearing down,” as noted in the MLBTR quote, seems the likely culprit for Kikuchi’s bad second half. Could the Cubs do the “total reboot” suggested in the MLBTR article?

Maybe. Kikuchi is just 30, he’s lefthanded, and the velocity is intriguing if he can come back 100 percent at the beginning of the 2021 season.

The Cubs have not had good luck with NPB players. You all know about the Kosuke Fukudome debacle (and OMG, Fukudome was still playing in NPB in 2021, 10 years after the Cubs traded him to Cleveland), and Kyuji Fujikawa and Tsuyoshi Wada didn’t do much in blue pinstripes.

But maybe the Cubs could be the place for a reclamation project like Kikuchi. The MLBTR article suggests two years, $20 million could get it done, and I concur.

What say you?

Poll

Yusei Kikuchi...

This poll is closed

  • 18%
    ... the Cubs should sign him to a contract like the one mentioned in the article
    (112 votes)
  • 1%
    ... the Cubs should sign him, but it will take more in years or dollars or both
    (10 votes)
  • 77%
    ... the Cubs should not sign him
    (463 votes)
  • 2%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (15 votes)
600 votes total Vote Now