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Mariners reinvent strategy to keep Kikuchi fresh

Rookie will serve as an opener, pitching 1 inning every 5th start or so
@gregjohnsmlb
March 24, 2019

SEATTLE -- As some teams experiment with the idea of “openers,” using a reliever to start a game, the Mariners are heading in a slightly different direction. Every team has different paths to getting 27 outs in a game. For the most part, the Mariners will stick with a fairly

SEATTLE -- As some teams experiment with the idea of “openers,” using a reliever to start a game, the Mariners are heading in a slightly different direction.

Every team has different paths to getting 27 outs in a game. For the most part, the Mariners will stick with a fairly traditional approach. They’ll use a normal five-man rotation and lean on their bullpen to handle the late innings, though it’ll take time to formulate the exact roles for that revamped relief crew.

But what the Mariners will do differently than every other Major League team at this point is limit one of their starters, Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, to only pitching one inning every fifth start or so and use those games to likely call up one of their young starting candidates in the Minors like Justus Sheffield or Erik Swanson to follow him and begin getting some exposure to the Majors.

In essence, Kikuchi will be like an “opener” on those particular starts, which will come about once a month during his rookie season in the Majors.

But the idea behind general manager Jerry Dipoto’s plan is based on keeping Kikuchi healthy and limiting his innings in his first season in MLB, as opposed to the normal opener strategy of using a reliever to attack the top of an opposing lineup and allow the normal starter to then come in and potentially get through the lineup twice -- or more -- without having to face the best hitters as many times.

Adaptability is key for Kikuchi in rookie year

Manager Scott Servais, the man who’ll be asked to carry out that plan, acknowledges that it’ll take some discipline to stick to that strategy. If Kikuchi is pitching well, the temptation will be to keep pushing him out for normal starts and give the team the best chance to win.

But the Mariners are taking a longer view of this season, believing Kikuchi’s ultimate value will be greatest if he builds up his workload this year and avoids arm issues that often strike Japanese starters after they move to the U.S. and are asked to pitch more frequently than the typical once-a-week rotations used in Japan.

“I don’t think we want to deviate,” Servais said. “We’ll have to look at this as we get into the end of April and see how he’s holding up and where it’s at. But yes, when you come up with a plan, you have to stay true to it. You can’t get caught up in the, ‘Oh, he’s throwing great. We can’t shut him down now.’ We want to be smart. We’re playing for the long haul.”

Kikuchi looked sharp in his MLB debut Thursday in Tokyo in Seattle’s 5-4, 12-inning victory over the A’s, though his pitch count climbed quickly after four dominant innings and he gave up two runs -- one earned -- in a three-hit fifth inning before being pulled with two outs in that frame.

The Mariners will look to continue building the 27-year-old up, like all their starters, and get him deeper into games. He’s expected to start again in the second game of the upcoming homestand against the Red Sox and stay in turn.

But somewhere down the line, the Mariners will likely promote one of their youngsters from Triple-A Tacoma and have him ready to replace Kikuchi after a one-inning start.

“The whole key with Yusei is to get him through the entire season healthy,” Servais said. “I can’t tell you if it’ll be the fourth start or fifth start or sixth start or seventh start. I don’t know when exactly, but it’s definitely something we want to stay on.”

As for the idea of an opener? The Mariners employed that strategy twice last year against the Astros -- with Nick Vincent starting a 3-2 loss in August due to a late scratch by Mike Leake, and again late in the year with Matt Festa starting what essentially was more of a bullpen game in a 9-0 win at Minute Maid Park.

As the Rays and A’s showed that the idea has merit, the Mariners haven't ruled it out. But with a set five-man rotation of Marco Gonzales, Kikuchi, Leake, Wade LeBlanc and Felix Hernandez, it doesn’t appear to be an option any time soon.

“I’m not opposed to the idea of using an opener,” Servais said. “I don’t necessarily know if it fits with our group right now and the five starters that we’re running out there. In certain situations, if you don’t have starting depth, I understand why teams go to an opener if you don’t have guys.

“We have five guys right now, plus others that are ready to take that step at the big league level. Again, injuries can affect things. We could be looking up at the first of June and have some unfortunate injuries and all the sudden we’re a little thin, and then maybe we’d go to an opener. But nothing in the foreseeable future.”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.