Blue Jays reach 3-year deal with lefty Kikuchi

March 14th, 2022

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The Blue Jays signed a three-year, $36 million deal with starting pitcher  on Monday, giving Toronto one of the deepest rotations in baseball.

The addition of Kikuchi is the Blue Jays’ first major move since the lockout lifted on Thursday, but the front office did plenty of heavy lifting earlier this offseason. In November, José Berríos signed a seven-year, $131 million extension, followed closely by free agent Kevin Gausman signing a five-year, $110 million deal.

Kikuchi will also join Hyun Jin Ryu, who’s entering the third year of a four-year, $80 million contract, and Alek Manoah, the breakout star of the ’21 rotation. From one through five, this gives the Blue Jays exceptional depth while they maintain a wealth of options beyond. A group of Ross Stripling, Thomas Hatch, Bowden Francis, Nate Pearson, Zach Logue and others will also be available.

Kikuchi signed with the Mariners prior to the 2019 season after pitching for parts of nine seasons with the Seibu Lions of the Japan Pacific League, where he owned a career record of 73-46 with a 2.77 ERA over 1,010 2/3 innings. The Japanese left-hander pitched to a 5.46 ERA with Seattle in ’19, though, striking out just 116 batters over 161 2/3 innings.

After the shortened 2020 season (5.17 ERA), Kikuchi put together a stronger ’21 campaign for the Mariners, earning an All-Star nod with a 4.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts over 157 innings. Following the season, the Mariners declined their unique four-year, $66 million club option on Kikuchi, and Kikuchi also declined the one-year, $13 million player option he held for ’22, making him a free agent.

This wasn’t the obvious move at the time for Kikuchi, given his 4.97 ERA across three years in MLB, but the 30-year-old has landed a favorable deal now in Toronto. Much like the Gausman signing was a move to replace Robbie Ray, who’s now with Kikuchi’s old club in Seattle, this move helps to replace the departed Steven Matz, who signed with St. Louis. This may not do much to raise the ceiling of the Blue Jays’ rotation, but stabilizing the floor could be very valuable to a club expected to compete for a postseason spot after falling just short ’21 at 91-71.

Freeing up that additional pitching depth group for versatile roles will also be key, especially early in the season. With a shortened Spring Training coming out of the lockout, some pitchers will be further along than others, while a tighter schedule with added doubleheaders to reach the full 162 games will test rotations. Whether the Blue Jays insert a No. 6 starter at times to give the other five a breather or deploy more “bulk” roles from their bullpen, there will be work for capable multi-inning arms.

The Blue Jays, who liked Kikuchi coming out of Japan, are clearly betting on a level of upside that doesn’t jump out from his numbers to date. This will be an interesting project for pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann after Kikuchi’s fastball velocity jumped up to an average of 95.1 mph in ’21, well above his previous norms. He splits that fastball and a 91 mph cutter nearly evenly as primary pitches, following that with a low-80s slider and mid-80s changeup.

Toronto’s next priority is expected to be the infield, where there’s room to add either a second baseman or a third baseman. Replacing Marcus Semien will not be easy after he finished third in AL MVP voting last season on a one-year, $18 million contract that already ranks as one of the best signings in club history, but the Blue Jays still have room to be aggressive. With payroll still available and prospects to work with should they choose the trade route, the Blue Jays aren’t likely done making headlines.