Yusei Kikuchi’s Mariners Tenure Has Concluded

In Understandable Yet Bummer News, the Mariners declined the option to keep Yusei Kikuchi for another 4 years and $66 million (which was an option built into the original contract). Kikuchi had the right to initiate a player option of 1 year and $13 million, but he declined that as well (effectively saving the Mariners $13 million) so he could become a full-blown free agent.

It’s sad, but you can see why everyone did what they did.

The Mariners couldn’t possibly keep Kikuchi at that salary and duration given what he’s shown on the field through three seasons. He has a 4.97 ERA over 70 starts (with a FIP of 4.93 to show his mediocrity was no fluke). Even by the low standards of the Quality Start (at least 6 innings, with 3 or fewer runs given up), he was sub-par:

  • 2019 – 12 Quality Starts in 32 games
  • 2020 – 3 Quality Starts in 9 games
  • 2021 – 14 Quality Starts in 29 games

You can make the argument that he’s improved every year – 5.46 ERA in 2019, 5.17 ERA in 2020, 4.41 ERA and an All Star Game in 2021 – but within his most recent season he faltered severely down the stretch. Considering he was part of a 90-win Mariners team trying to make the playoffs, it was a bad sign that he lost his starting job down the stretch and didn’t appear in a game after September 23rd. His year took a drastic downturn immediately after he was named to the All Star team, with an egregious cratering in his final month with the team.

There’s just no sugar-coating it. He was a prized free agent we signed from Japan as a 28 year old rookie, and he hasn’t lived up to our hopes or expectations. I don’t think it’s totally his fault, though! That’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone. He became, overnight, one of our highest-paid players, joining an organization desperate to turn its fortunes around. He was to be the leader of this starting rotation, while at the same time moving across the world and dealing with the culture shock therein. And, I believe he also lost his father in that first year, making the transition even more brutal emotionally. So, when people say a lot of Kikuchi’s issues were mental – that he had the stuff, but just couldn’t put it all together – you can kind of see why the mental part would be difficult to overcome.

He’s a lefty who throws in the mid-90s and occasionally touches the high-90s, with a plus-splitter to get guys out. But, he also nibbles too much. Tries to get too perfect. And doesn’t really have that bulldog mentality when runners get on base. So, if he gives up a bloop single or takes a hard-luck walk because the umpire is blind, his problems get compounded by subsequent hitters doing the real damage. This would be especially maddening in the rare occasions when the Mariners’ hitters would give him a comfortable lead, and he’d gag it all away.

Nevertheless, there were a lot of people who expected Kikuchi to accept the player option for $13 million. It would stand to reason; it’s unlikely anyone else is going to give him that kind of scratch on a 1-year deal. You might also think that he’d want to make good – or prove the Mariners wrong – by showing he’s worth the money he was originally signed to.

But, as was noted at the end of the 2021 season – and probably expressed to him through whatever channels – the Mariners were clearly ready to move on. Which means his spot in the rotation was by no means guaranteed. My expectation would’ve been the M’s allowing him to compete, but probably having him settle into a long-relief role, to make occasional spot starts (or to get promoted if injuries cropped up). And, it sounds like Kikuchi wants a legitimate opportunity to earn a starting job.

The cool thing about this is: it saves us that $13 million I mentioned earlier. For a team that currently sits 26th out of 30 MLB teams in payroll for the 2022 season, that is outstanding! None of the teams below us – with hypothetically more money to spend – won anywhere near 90 games, so we’re in a really good spot all around.

There’s no downside here, because there are plenty of starting options available who can give us what Kikuchi gave us – or hopefully better – at a much cheaper price. We’ve yet to see where all of this money is going to be spent, but it’s nice to have it available. This was a bit of good news following the conclusion of the World Series (also HAHA Astros, you bloody cheaters!). Now it’s time to go to work.