The Blue Jays are signing left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, per Jon Heyman of MLB Network. It’s a three-year, $36MM contract. (Twitter links) The deal is frontloaded, by Bob Nightengale of USA Todaywith Kikuchi earning a salary of $16MM in 2022, followed by $10MM in each of 2023 and 2024.
Starting pitching has been a hot commodity this offseason, with most of the top names signing before the lockout. Now that the transactions freeze has thawed, the market has picked up right where it left off. The top two free agent hurlers that lingered on the market through the lockout, Clayton Kershaw and Carlos Rodon, signed on the first full day after the lockout ended. That left Kikuchi and Zack Greinke as the only healthy starters remaining from MLBTR’s list of Top 50 Free Agents. With the Jays scooping up Kikuchi, that leaves Greinke as the last man standing.
Kikuchi has been one of the most difficult pitchers to evaluate since coming over from Japan prior to the 2019 season. In his first MLB season, he made 32 starts for the Mariners, throwing 161 2/3 innings with an ERA of 5.46 and a strikeout rate of just 16.1%. In the shortened 2020 campaign, he made nine starts still had a high ERA of 5.11, but made huge strides in the strikeout department, bumping his rate up to 24.2%.
2021 was a tale of two seasons for Kikuchi, as the first half his season was excellent. At the start of July, MLBTR’s Steve Adams wrote about Kikuchi’s season around the midway point, when Kikuchi had made 15 starts and was sitting on an ERA of 3.18, strikeout rate of 25.4%, walk rate of 8.5% and ground-ball rate of 53.8%. But things went completely in the opposite direction in the second half of the season, as Kikuchi threw 63 2/3 innings from that point on, with a 6.22 ERA, 23.3% strikeout rate, 10.3% walk rate and 41.7% ground-ball rate .
As part of the unusual structure of Kikuchi’s contract, at the end of the season, the Mariners then had to decide whether or not to execute a series of four one-year options valued at $16.5MM each, effectively a four-year, $66MM extension that would cover the 2022-25 seasons. After they declined, then Kikuchi could have selected a one-year, $13MM player option for the 2022. Though it seemed there was a chance he would accept that deal after his poor performance down the stretch, he ultimately declined and tested the free agent market. That has now proven to be a wise decision, as he has earned himself a new contract at that exact rate but three times as long.
The Blue Jays were evidently encouraged enough by Kikuchi’s strengths to overlook his weaknesses, much like they were with Robbie Ray and Steven Matz. Although those two pitchers had serious flaws on their respective resumes, they both went on to have excellent campaigns with the Jays in 2021, with Ray earning the American League Cy Young award. Although Ray and Matz will both be wearing new uniforms this year, Kikuchi is still going to be joining a strong rotation. The club also added Kevin Gausman prior to the lockout, joining Jose Berrios, Hyun Jin Ryu and Alek Manoah.
More to come.