SEATTLE -- While many fans wondered why the Mariners would pursue big-time Japanese free agent Yusei Kikuchi after unloading many of their former standouts this offseason, or why the 27-year-old lefty would cast his lot with a rebuilding club, it turns out Seattle's step-back posture actually played into what Kikuchi and agent Scott Boras see as a perfect landing spot.
Boras said most teams pursuing Kikuchi wanted to throw him straight into the fire in terms of needing a starter who would rack up big innings, but the Mariners offered a developmental plan that will limit his initial workload and help him transition from Japanese baseball, where pitchers typically only start once a week.
• Kikuchi excited for opportunity with Mariners
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto sold Boras on the club's willingness to slow play Kikuchi's leap into the Majors, knowing numerous Japanese pitchers have run into health and production issues after their initial seasons in Major League Baseball.
"You get a lot of that two-year burst and then there's a big drawback because we have not developed innings the appropriate way," Dipoto said.
The Mariners plan to pitch Kikuchi as part of a normal five-man rotation, but they will only use him for an inning or so about every fifth or sixth start.
"He's pitched 160-180 innings over the last couple years in Japan, so we're not going to get super conservative," Dipoto said. "But we do feel over the course of 30-32 starts of a season, if every sixth start we back off -- so roughly once a month -- we make that more of a bullpen day where he throws a nice healthy bullpen between, stays on turn and prepares as a normal start, and then goes out and throws a one inning or 30-pitch start, it gives him a nice little breather without breaking turn or taking him away from his routine."
Boras noted that one of his former clients, Daisuke Matsuzaka, came to MLB at age 26 and had two outstanding seasons for the Red Sox before running into arm issues. Shohei Ohtani needed elbow surgery in 2018 after debuting at age 23 with the Angels. Numerous other Japanese starters have seen similar problems.
"These guys are in their early to mid-20s and we're just seeing the Tommy Johns rack up," Boras said. "We're also seeing a performance level where the players with the greatest durability were the guys coming over at 30 or 31. So I really felt with a player of this ability, we had the opportunity to restructure a new format to acclimate him to this environment."
Dipoto let Boras know his team was highly interested in Kikuchi at the Winter Meetings in December, but the GM said it became clear about a week ago that having a progressive development plan could be the difference-maker.
"Jerry being a former pitcher, we raised this and talked about the data, and said let's do something that will help you long term and help the player to acclimate to a five-day program with rest stops maybe in the fifth or sixth start and limit innings," Boras said. "Jerry was all for it."
Dipoto said that program is frequently used in the Minor Leagues as pitchers adjust to their initial forays into professional ball and he believes it could be a growing trend in MLB, where teams are using more "openers" and limiting innings in various ways to keep arms fresh.
For the Mariners, being careful with Kikuchi fits perfectly with their expectation that 2019 will be primarily about getting experience for a new young nucleus of players that should peak together in 2020 and '21.
"Our goal is to go into this season and develop YK along with a lot of the other young players," Dipoto said. "We're going to try to win as many games as we can, but our focus is coming out in 2020 with a group of talented players who are ready to go compete at a much higher level, he among them."
The Mariners could use Kikuchi's shorter starts to call up one of their new young prospects like Justus Sheffield or Erik Swanson to get them Major League experience this coming season while limiting their own initial workload, or they could keep one of those youngsters in the bullpen as a long man capable of building innings and experience that way.
Boras presented a unique contract that will allow the Mariners to benefit in the long run if Kikuchi develops into a top-end starter and stays healthy. The first three years of the deal are guaranteed for a total of $43 million. The Mariners then have the option of extending him for another four years at $66 million. If they decline, Kikuchi can either accept a one-year, $13 million player option for 2022 or become a free agent.
Seattle also must pay a $10.3 million posting fee to the Seibu Lions based on a percentage of the first four guaranteed years of Kikuchi's contract, though the Mariners will not owe anything more should they extend their own four-year option.