It’s Now Or Never For Yusei Kikuchi & The Mariners

It’s hard to say Yusei Kikuchi hasn’t been a disappointment. Now, obviously, I believe we all had too-high expectations for him in coming over from Japan as a 28 year old; I think a lot of people unfairly thought he would light the American League on fire from Day One. This is a guy who had a lot of success in Japan, and while I won’t sit here and denigrate the talent level they have over there, we’re still talking about a significant leap when it comes to MLB. On top of being in a foreign country, speaking or learning a new language, the culture shock, losing his father, and the weight of expectations of a contract that would pay him $43 million over his first three seasons, it’s more than enough to hamper one’s transition.

But, he’s 8-15 with a 5.39 ERA over two seasons. If you squint, you can see marginal improvement in a plague-shortened 2020 season over 2019, but from a results standpoint, it’s hard to make that argument.

Clearly he wants to be great. It’s been reported that he over-tinkered with his delivery in his first season, and the organization tried to tamp that down last year to moderate success. But, regardless, we have yet to see him perform at a level anywhere close to earning the money he’s making.

And now here we are, in 2021. He’s set to earn $15 million. He has two seasons under his belt. It’s time for him to put it all together.

Kikuchi’s contract is unique. The Mariners have the option – at the end of this season – of locking him in for another 4 years and $66 million (an average of $16.5 million per). That’s a bargain if he becomes a quality starter; but it’s obviously a vast over-pay if he continues pitching the way he has to date. On the flipside, Kikuchi has a player option – again, at the end of this season – of locking in a $13 million guaranteed 2022 season. Presumably, if the Mariners aren’t interested in the 4-year extension, that means Kikuchi’s 2021 will have been pretty bad; should that be the case, it’s a safe bet that Kikuchi would want an opportunity to turn things around next year.

The ideal scenario for the Mariners is: Kikuchi kicks ass in 2021. He figures it all out, and makes good on all the work he’s put into his Major League career. We get a quality #2 or #3 starter out of the deal for the next four years and everyone is happy. But, the more he slips up – even if he continues to show glimpses of progress – the more difficult it’s going to be for the Mariners to justify that extension, especially when we’ve got a crop of starting pitchers in the minors who will soon be ready to advance to the highest level.

This is why sports can be so intriguing, though. Seasons like this. If I had to guess, I’d predict more of the same for Kikuchi. Either that or an injury that severely affects his performance and availability. BUT, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Kikuchi performs well. It’s definitely one of the storylines I’m most looking forward to as we ramp up into baseball season.

So much has to go right for the Mariners to get to a championship level. Kikuchi is just one small piece. But, he’s not an insignificant one. We’ve seen in recent years the Mariners have success with developing their pitchers. Marco Gonzales is obviously the best example, but we’ve squeezed quality seasons out of Wade LeBlanc, Justus Sheffield, Mike Leake, and we even turned James Paxton into an ace-like performer when he’s healthy. There’s no reason why we couldn’t make Yusei Kikuchi one of our next success stories.

I’m hoping for the best. I think he – and the Mariners – deserve it.

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