As Blue Jays keep thriving, questions loom over Kikuchi's role

July 16th, 2023

TORONTO -- There are some interesting weeks ahead for , who’s becoming the biggest variable in the Blue Jays’ rotation.

Yes, a bigger variable than the former ace with a scar on his elbow who hasn’t thrown an MLB pitch in 13 1/2 months. Yes, bigger than the Opening Day starter who was jettisoned to the furthest corner of the Minor Leagues mid-season, only to return a week ago.

Sunday afternoon’s 7-5 win to sweep the D-backs showed us two versions of Kikuchi: the 2022 and '23 models. Kikuchi threw more balls than strikes for two innings, rarely hitting the targets catcher  held up for him and getting into trouble when a throwing error and a wild pitch allowed the D-backs to put two runs on the board at Rogers Centre.

But then came the in-game adjustment. That was the missing link in 2022.

“I felt a little bit off for the first couple of innings,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “I felt a little off-balance. After the second inning, I regrouped and relaxed. I attacked the hitters after that.”

Kikuchi looked like the impressive lefty we’ve seen all season the rest of the way, the one who has exceeded nearly all expectations and helped hold the Blue Jays’ rotation together when was away from the club. The left-hander ended his day with 4 2/3 innings and two runs (one earned) on 89 pitches (47 strikes).

Manager John Schneider highlighted Kikuchi’s slider as the in-game adjustment, adding that “efficiency” is the key for him in the coming weeks.

“We target pitch counts, where we are in the order and things like that,” Schneider said. “Teams stack up righties against him, and with the way we’re built and the options we do have [in the bullpen], sometimes it’s an early hook like today. When he’s efficient, getting quick outs and all of his pitches are working, I think that’s when you see him going deeper in games.”

The realities of the Blue Jays’ rotation will soon change, though. ’s recovery from Tommy John surgery has gone brilliantly up to this point, and with five scoreless innings on 66 pitches Saturday night with Triple-A Buffalo, Ryu may be a couple of weeks away from making his much-anticipated return to the big leagues.

’s left side discomfort generated a scare earlier this week, too, but with his MRI coming back clean, the Blue Jays see that as little more than a “day to day” issue.

That all adds up to six healthy starters sooner rather than later.

If that’s the case -- and the “if” is in big, bold, red text -- the Blue Jays will have some decisions to make. The first move, according to Schneider, would be to get everyone “back to neutral” in terms of workload, particularly Gausman and , who have carried more than their share so far.

“You can kind of work backwards from where we were a month and a half ago,” Schneider said. “If you have six healthy guys that are performing well, you can use that to your advantage a time or two through the rotation and give your guys a breather. You go from one extreme to the other, where it’s a good problem to have.”

Toronto has a stretch of 17 games in 17 days beginning July 28, and another long stretch from late August into September. This feels like a situation in which the club could roll out a six-man rotation, but only briefly and strategically.

These things tend to take care of themselves, of course. The Blue Jays have been one of MLB’s most fortunate clubs when it comes to injuries, which has saved them from feeling the weakness of their rotation depth, but this is a long season.

Kikuchi should be the more natural fit in a bullpen or swingman role if all six starters are healthy and performing. He struck out 33 batters over 18 1/3 relief innings a season ago, but he doesn’t offer much by way of dominant splits.

Of the 100 ways this could shake out, that’s just one, but it’s a good problem for the Blue Jays to suddenly have in both their rotation and bullpen, where there’s no shortage of options.

Kikuchi’s job, for now, is either to be part of the five-man solution or to make the eventual decision to move away from a six-man rotation difficult. He’s coming off three rough outings (11 ER over 14 IP), but he’s done a good job of stopping the bad times from sticking in 2023.

Kikuchi has helped get Toronto to this point, though, and regardless of how the pitching staff is structured, he’ll be part of what’s become a rallying cry for the Blue Jays lately: “Our best baseball is ahead of us.”