The offseason has only just started in earnest, but the top of the pitching market is already being thinned out. After a long but ultimately fruitless dalliance with the best pitcher on the market, Patrick Corbin, and after watching Nathan Eovaldi return to the Red Sox, the Yankees have reportedly turned their gaze elsewhere for free agent pitching.
J.A. Happ is the most obvious target, and Dallas Keuchel has been mentioned as well. One of the more intriguing ideas, however, has been the prospect of signing Japanese star Yusei Kikuchi. The Seibu Lions just posted Kikuchi, and he is eligible to sign with MLB teams at any point until January 5th.
Kikuchi is one of the better arms to come over from Japan in recent years. The left-hander tossed 163.1 innings last year with a 3.08 ERA, striking out 153 and walking 45. The year prior was perhaps Kikuchi’s finest, as he posted a 1.97 ERA with 217 strikeouts in 187.2 innings. Kikuchi has totaled over 1000 career innings in Japan, maintaining a 2.80 ERA, an 8.0 K/9 rate, and 3.3 BB/9 rate.
The scouting report on Kikuchi is solid as well. He reportedly sits around 92-93 mph on his fastball, while mixing in a slider, a slow curve, and a changeup. According to FanGraphs’ reports, both of Kikuchi’s breaking balls profile as plus secondary offerings. The total package hints at the potential for a frontline pitcher, with a reasonable median outcome as a mid-rotation starter.
Of course, projecting an overseas star can be a fraught exercise. There’s always question as to how exactly a player’s performance in a foreign league will translate to MLB, the top league in the world. To try to get a feel for how players transition from baseball in Japan to the U.S., we can take a look at how recent players of Kikuchi’s caliber did after crossing the Pacific.
The highest-profile starting pitchers to come across recently have been Miles Mikolas and Kenta Maeda (leaving aside two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani, as he doesn’t make for a good comp for anyone). Maeda might be Kikuchi’s best comp available. Maeda made the switch at age-28, posting slightly better run prevention numbers (a 2.34 ERA in his final two seasons in Japan) than Kikuchi, but with lower strikeout figures.
Maeda signed a strange, incentive-laden eight-year contract with the Dodgers prior to 2016, and has mostly been successful. In three seasons in MLB, Maeda has posted a better than average ERA while spiking his strikeout rate to nearly 10 K/9. He stands as proof of concept that good pitchers in Japan can come over and have productive major-league careers.
Mikolas, too, has established himself as a major contributor. Mikolas actually came up in the Padres system before heading to Japan. He ran a 2.25 ERA in 187 innings in 2017 in his last season there, then signed with the Cardinals for the 2018 season. Mikolas was a steal for St. Louis, running a 2.83 ERA in over 200 innings in his first campaign back in the states.
The fact that a couple players with similar performance to Kikuchi in Japan have played well in MLB doesn’t guarantee Kikcuhi’s success. It does at least prove it is more than feasible for Kikuchi to excel in MLB, something the Yankees can especially take to heart given their own Masahiro Tanaka’s quality play over the past five seasons.
Also of note is Kikuchi’s age. Kikuchi won’t turn 28 until next June, making him an excellent fit for the Yankees’ timeline. The Yankees’ window of contention is wide-open right now, and it should remain so for the next few years. Kikuchi is right in the middle of his prime, and very well may have multiple productive seasons left in him. He would slot right in with the rest of the Yankees’ core of talented young players.
If the Yankees were to sign Kikuchi, they would pay a fee as a percentage of the total guarantee to the Seibu Lions. The fee would be equal to 20% of the first $25 million guaranteed, 17.5% of the next $25 million, and 15% of anything after that. MLBTradeRumors forecasted six years, $42 million for Kikuchi, while FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel predicted four years, $40 million. A $40 million deal for Kikuchi, for example, would incur a $7.625 million release fee.
A roughly $50 million investment in a prime-age starting pitcher sounds like an enticing possibility for the Yankees. Missing out on Corbin was frustrating, and targeting a veteran like Happ might be a safer way to pivot. Kikuchi comes with more risk, but brings considerable upside as a young pitcher that could be had for years to come. He should be on the Yankees’ radar as the winter progresses.