How Mariners could approach Kikuchi's spot

September 25th, 2021

OAKLAND -- Has made his final start of the 2021 season?

After three tough innings that his offense bounced back from on Thursday against the A’s, the left-hander’s spot in the rotation could be in jeopardy, given that the club is two games back of the second American League Wild Card spot with just nine games to play. His next turn would be Tuesday against Oakland at T-Mobile Park, so the Mariners have this weekend’s series in Anaheim to make a decision.

“We won't get out [ahead] of ourselves,” manager Scott Servais said. “We’ve got work to do over in Anaheim and see how that series goes over there. And like I said all along, we need help. We need some other teams to lose that are up in front of us right now. But we're doing what we can do, focusing on our games and winning our games and if we get to that point, we'll talk about it, look at it. But nothing to talk about right now.”

Since he was selected to his first All-Star game as the Mariners’ lone representative back on July 4, Kikuchi has spiraled.

Before ASG selection: 15 GS, 6-3, 93 1/3 IP, 3.18 ERA, .618 OPS, 25.4 K%, 8.5 BB%

After: 13 GS, 1-6, 63 2/3 IP, 6.22 ERA, .914 OPS, 23.0 K%, 10.2 BB%

Every game is crucial at this point, especially with the chance to snap a 20-year postseason drought, so giving Kikuchi another start would come with some pause, given his struggles. With that in mind, here are some options that the Mariners have for Tuesday:

Call up and start Matt Brash

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said in a text message on Friday that the club is considering all its pitching options for the final week -- and that No. 10 prospect Matt Brash is among those in play. The right-hander was promoted to Triple-A Tacoma before Friday’s series opener against the Angels.

Brash, who has taken as big of a leap as any arm in Seattle’s pitching-loaded pipeline, hasn’t thrown in a live game since Sept. 16, when he completed 5 2/3 innings for Double-A Arkansas, whose season ended on Sunday. Brash made 10 starts each for Arkansas and High-A Everett this season, compiling a combined 2.31 ERA in 97 1/3 innings.

What jumped off the page were his 142 strikeouts for a whopping rate of 35.1%. Overall, he held hitters to a .180/.285/.257 (.542 OPS) slash line. And his highlight of the season came earlier this month, when he helped lead Arkansas to a combined no-hitter with six innings.

It’s possible that the Mariners could consider Brash for a bullpen role, too, though he is stretched out and has been on a starter’s schedule all season, which they might not want to tinker with. Left-hander Brandon Williamson, the club’s No. 7 prospect who also had a solid year, has returned home for the offseason and isn’t being considered.

Dipoto’s message on Brash came after his weekly radio hit with 710 ESPN Seattle on Sept. 9, when he suggested that they were considering Brash for a possible postseason roster in what sounded like a joking tone. And while the Mariners have to be considering the stakes and pressure for a 23-year-old to make his big league debut in the thick of a playoff race, it appears that Brash’s possible callup could be very real.

Start Justus Sheffield

Sheffield isn’t stretched out like he was when he was while in the rotation earlier this season, but his starting experience would make him the favorite if Seattle opts to bypass Kikuchi. Since moving to the bullpen upon returning from a two-month IL stint, Sheffield has given up six runs in five outings, and opposing hitters are batting .333/.407/.500 (.907 OPS).

Sheffield could give the Mariners a few innings, but this option would likely necessitate having all bullpen hands on deck. That would put some pressure on Monday’s starter -- in line to be Chris Flexen, who went seven innings this week in Oakland -- to pitch deep.

Start Kikuchi on a leash

It’s possible the Mariners will give the ball to Kikuchi after all. But if he starts, it’ll be on a very short leash. Kikuchi had four walks in just three innings on Thursday, two of them coming around to score.

Command has been a huge part of his issues in the second half, over which he’s shown signs of some of the issues he had in his first year, where he’d nibble around the plate rather than attack. His fastball velocity, which was among the highest among lefty starters, has been up and down, and he’s lacked his secondary pitches at times, which has led to him getting hit hard. It’s not one particular issue that has sunk him on any given night, and there have been occasional flashes where he’s looked like his old self.

But Kikuchi’s unpredictability has put the Mariners in a predicament, and even he is cognizant of that.

"I'm not going to be caught up worrying about that,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I haven't been told anything as of yet, but I would respect whatever decision they make because of the situation the team is in."