Kikuchi has high expectations for MLB debut

Lefty eager to carry on Mariners' tradition of successful Japanese players

February 9th, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Spring Training opens for the Mariners on Monday, as pitchers and catchers report for physicals, there'll be plenty of buzz around the numerous newcomers getting their introductions. But the one guy at the center of much of the attention figures to be Yusei Kikuchi, the newest Japanese sensation to sign with Seattle.

Kikuchi arrived from Japan on Sunday and has been working out this week in preparation for the start of camp, which begins with the first official workout on Tuesday. General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are eager to get their eyes on the 27-year-old lefty, who signed a contract in January that will keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons.

If all goes to plan, Kikuchi will open the season in the Mariners' rotation and figures to be a strong candidate to pitch one of the team's first two regular-season games in Tokyo against the A's on March 20 or 21.

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But the Mariners' brass won't be the only ones tracking Kikuchi's progress, as about 20-25 Japanese journalists are expected in camp on a daily basis to chronicle his story, as well as what may be the final Spring Training for 45-year-old outfielder .

Kikuchi had the opportunity to meet his boyhood idol when he was in Seattle for an introductory press conference following his signing and now is eager to take the playing field with Ichiro once full-squad workouts begin on Feb. 16.

"It's not an easy feeling to explain, but I'm looking forward to it," Kikuchi said earlier this offseason. "I distinctly remember the first game I went to in Japan was in Ichiro's last season with the Orix BlueWave. I remember that game very well. I'd just started playing baseball and I went only knowing about Ichiro.

"I was very anxious to watch him play in person. It was a while back, but I still remember the aura Ichiro had on the field and how exciting it was to watch him play in person. Since then, I've read any book there is about Mr. Ichiro, any articles about his work study and I'm looking forward to playing with him."

The Mariners have had a Japanese player on their Major League roster every season for the past 21 years and Kikuchi now will carry on a tradition that began in 1996 when Mac Suzuki became just the third Japanese player to compete in MLB; he pitched one game in relief in 1996, as a 21-year-old.

Suzuki was called up again in 1998-99 for 22 more outings, including nine starts, and he's been followed by closer Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000-03), Ichiro (2001-12 and 2018), reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa (2002-05), reliever Masao Kida (2004-05), catcher Kenji Johjima (2006-09), infielder (2012), outfielder (2016) and starting pitcher (2012-17).

Kikuchi, who will take on the same No. 18 jersey previously worn by Iwakuma, is well aware of those who went before him.

"Of course," he said. "I want to continue that success."

The Mariners are interested in more than just having another Japanese player on their roster. They are intrigued by Kikuchi's mid-90s fastball and quality slider combo, as well as his interest in analytics and lifelong goal to make a name for himself in MLB.

"I'd like to grow with the team and succeed," Kikuchi said. "Getting here was not the goal. It's to succeed here and play well here. I'm just going to focus on working hard and producing for the team."

While much of the Mariners' offseason was spent looking to the future and unloading long-term contracts in order to gain younger prospects and payroll flexibility, they saw a chance to add Kikuchi now as a free agent who can grow with the young nucleus and help anchor the rotation going forward.

"We feel this is a perfect marriage between a player, the city, the comfort for he and his family here, the stage we are in our development and where he is in his development," Dipoto said. "He's a very talented guy."