Kikuchi declines option, becomes free agent

Seager's team option declined, enters free agency

November 3rd, 2021

SEATTLE -- In a surprising roster development announced by the Mariners on Wednesday, All-Star starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi has become a free agent.

The Mariners, as expected, declined their four-year, $66 million club option on the veteran left-hander, but Kikuchi, in turn, declined his one-year, $13 million player option, which had long seemed the inevitable avenue he’d take to return for his fourth season in Seattle -- especially given that the dollar amount seems higher than what he’ll earn for 2022 on the open market.

Instead, Kikuchi is now a free agent, along with Kyle Seager, whose one-year, $20 million team option was declined on Wednesday. Five others on expiring contracts also became free agents: starting pitchers Tyler Anderson, James Paxton and Héctor Santiago, and relievers Joe Smith and Sean Doolittle.

Seager was long expected to be gone, especially after his emotional sendoff during the final game of the season. But Kikuchi’s decision removes what would’ve been the Mariners’ highest salary commitment for 2022. Seattle’s front office has publicly said on two occasions since its 90-win season ended one month ago that it will significantly increase payroll this offseason, and with Kikuchi’s salary coming off the books, the club has roughly $70 million in commitments for next season, according to Cots Baseball Contracts.

That all points to the Mariners having plenty of financial flexibility to add higher-cost impact talent from outside the organization via free agency or trades.

Kikuchi is represented by Scott Boras and arrived in Seattle after nine strong seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan. It’s possible that after finishing 2021 on a down note, having lost his rotation spot during the final week, he could be motivated to return to his homeland following three seasons in the Majors.

The 30-year-old was the first prominent free-agent acquisition following the stepback offseason in 2018-19, selecting Seattle over a throng of other interested clubs, including the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. His first two seasons in the Majors were up and down, but he really hit a stride early in ‘21, when he blossomed into the Mariners’ lone All-Star selection. If he does remain in the Majors, that stretch is likely what Boras will sell interested clubs on.

Yet Kikuchi's second half featured many of the issues he experienced in his first two years, when he struggled to consistently throw strikes and put manager Scott Servais in a position of uncertainty on how he would perform on a start-by-start basis. That spiral cost Kikuchi his rotation spot during the final week of the season, when the Mariners were in the postseason hunt and had no margin for error in the standings.

In 15 starts before being selected as an All-Star, Kikuchi had a 3.18 ERA and a .618 OPS against in 93 1/3 innings. In the 14 outings after, he was 1-6 with a 6.22 ERA and a .917 OPS against. For his entire Mariners career, Kikuchi went 15-24 with a 4.97 ERA in 70 starts.

As for Seager, the Mariners created clarity that has long been assumed: that they’ll need a new third baseman for the first time since 2011. The 11-year veteran, who has spent his entire career in Seattle, is now on the open market after one of his stronger seasons, in which he was one of just nine players to hit at least 35 homers and drive in 100 or more RBIs.

And as for the players who departed on expiring contracts, it’s likely that the Mariners will make a run at retaining Anderson, who fortified their rotation after coming over at the Trade Deadline, and to a lesser extent, Paxton, the long-loyal veteran who is recovering from Tommy John surgery.