Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi agreed to a deal with the Seattle Mariners late Monday night, delivering a New Year’s surprise for a team that has traded a number of foundational pieces already this winter, league sources familiar with the deal told ESPN.
The 27-year-old Kikuchi was among the best free-agent pitchers left on the market and drew widespread interest before selecting the Mariners. Kikuchi must have a signed deal by Wednesday, when the window for his posting by the Seibu Lions runs out. The deal guarantees Kikuchi four years.
In eight seasons with Seibu, Kikuchi posted a 2.77 ERA and struck out 903 in 1,010⅔ innings pitched. He was at his best in 2017, when he threw four shutouts en route to a 1.97 ERA and runner-up finish for the Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young. With a fastball in the low 90s that ticks up to 95 and an above-average slider, Kikuchi followed in 2018 with a solid, if not as spectacular, season.
The Mariners were sold nevertheless, inviting Kikuchi to Seattle to finish the deal as the clock ticked toward midnight ET. It wasn’t the sort of move consistent with their previous rejiggering this offseason, and yet general manager Jerry Dipoto has stated a desire to compete again by 2021, according to sources, and a deal with Kikuchi will place him in Seattle in that window.
Over the winter, Dipoto has traded away ace James Paxton, star closer Edwin Diaz, second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Jean Segura, catcher Mike Zunino and reliever Alex Colome for a mixture of prospects and salary relief. Seattle continues to shop designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, sources said, in hopes of finding a team that will absorb at least some of the $25 million Seattle owes him. He arrived in a contract-swap deal that sent Carlos Santana — who had come back in the Segura deal — to the Cleveland Indians.
Kikuchi will join — and possibly head — a rotation that includes Marco Gonzales and Mike Leake, the latter of whom they have tried unsuccessfully to trade, sources said. A number of options exist for the last two spots, should the Mariners go with a traditional rotation, including Felix Hernandez, Wade LeBlanc, Roenis Elias and Justus Sheffield, the main return they received from New York in the trade that sent Paxton to the Yankees.
With Kikuchi headed to Seattle, the free-agent pitching crop has thinned significantly. The best option is considered left-hander Dallas Keuchel, with a drop to Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez. Among the top right-handed starters available: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz and Jeremy Hellickson.