SEATTLE -- Yusei Kikuchi introduced himself to Mariners fans for the first time on Thursday at an introductory press conference at T-Mobile Park. And the Japanese left-hander did so, impressively, while answering questions in English.It speaks volumes about Kikuchi's confidence and long-term planning that he's been studying English since his
SEATTLE -- Yusei Kikuchi introduced himself to Mariners fans for the first time on Thursday at an introductory press conference at T-Mobile Park. And the Japanese left-hander did so, impressively, while answering questions in English.
It speaks volumes about Kikuchi's confidence and long-term planning that he's been studying English since his high school days in Japan, wanting to be able to express himself directly to the media and fans in America once he got his shot to pitch in Major League Baseball.
That opportunity began in earnest once Kikuchi signed off on a unique contract that could keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons, depending on whether the Mariners extend a four-year option after the 2021 season.
"I've had the dream to play Major League Baseball since I was 15," Kikuchi said. "I have studied English ever since then."
The 27-year-old later apologized for not being able to give longer answers in English, but he expounded on that in his native language to Japanese reporters.
"Being here on the biggest stage of baseball in the world, it's a global stage and I wanted to ingrain myself with that and be available to everyone, and speak directly with everyone," he said through interpreter Shawn Novak. "So I worked hard. That was an important thing for me to do going forward. From high school, when I had the goal and dream of playing in the big leagues, I wanted to be able to communicate directly from the heart to the fans over here in English by myself."
One of Kikuchi's first orders of business after speaking with reporters was to meet Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in person for the first time. Kikuchi said the first professional game he attended as a teenager in Japan, he saw Ichiro playing for the Orix Blue Wave in 2000.
The chance to be a teammate of Ichiro this coming spring looms large in Kikuchi's mind. According to general manager Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners remain firm with their plan to let Ichiro compete for a roster spot this spring at age 45. As long as he stays healthy, Ichiro will be one of three extra players the club is allowed to carry for the two-game Opening Series in Tokyo against the A's on March 20-21.
• Kikuchi unsure whether Ichiro is real or 'a person in the sky'
It's unlikely Ichiro will remain on the active roster once the club is required to cut down to 25 players for the remainder of the regular season, though Dipoto didn't rule it out. But however long Ichiro is on the club, Kikuchi plans to enjoy it.
"Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don't know if he really exists," Kikuchi said. "So the first step is to be able to meet and talk to him. When I do have the opportunity to step on the field with him, it will be a great memory for me that I'll cherish forever."
Kikuchi will step into a long tradition of Japanese players with the Mariners, who have had at least one Japanese player on their roster every year since 1998, including Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki and Mac Suzuki.
Kikuchi got advice from Iwakuma in 2017 on a change he was making in his delivery, and now he could step into his role in the Mariners' rotation going forward, figuring to land a prominent spot as a power lefty in a group that also will initially include Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc. In addition youngsters Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn and others are waiting in the wings.
A year ago, the Mariners pushed hard to land Shohei Ohtani, who instead signed with the Angels. Now, Seattle has landed Kikuchi, who attended the same high school as Ohtani, though is three years older.
Kikuchi will have a chance now to compete against Ohtani regularly in the coming seasons in American League West battles.
"I'm looking forward to challenging him many times," Kikuchi said.
But one thing Kikuchi won't attempt to do is follow in Ohtani's footsteps as a two-way player.
"I'm going to focus on my pitching," he said with a smile.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.