The countdown is on. Sure, everyone is focused on the arrival of 2019, but there's another clock tick-tocking its way down to zero -- the deadline for star Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi to land a Major League Baseball contract.The lefty, who is represented by Scott Boras after being posted on
The countdown is on. Sure, everyone is focused on the arrival of 2019, but there's another clock tick-tocking its way down to zero -- the deadline for star Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi to land a Major League Baseball contract.
The lefty, who is represented by Scott Boras after being posted on Dec. 3, has until Wednesday at 5 p.m. ET to sign a deal but could do it as early as Monday, a source told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand. In other words, while most people will be spending the next few days celebrating the end of 2018 and rejoicing in the start of the new year, the 27-year-old and his agent will have to put their pursuit of a contract as priority No. 1.
The risk for Kikuchi, and any MLB club interested in inking him, is that he would have to return to the Seibu Lions -- his team in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball -- if no agreement is reached during the 30-day negotiating period. Kikuchi would be ineligible to be posted again until next offseason, according to the rules of the current posting system. The Lions also stand to gain financially, earning a release fee based on Kikuchi's contract, starting at 20 percent of the total guaranteed value of the deal up to the first $25 million, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any amount north of $50 million.
Thus, no free agent is under more pressure to get a deal done in the very immediate future than Kikuchi, especially since he is among the very best starting pitchers available in an open market that currently is topped by Dallas Keuchel.
Kikuchi has pitched for Seibu since 2011 as a 20-year-old, but he's become one of Japan's top pitchers after coming into his own in 2013. Over the past six seasons, the southpaw has compiled 875 innings with a 2.65 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP and an 8.5 K/9 rate.
That resume, along with Kikuchi's age and repertoire -- he features a mid-90s fastball and a whiff-inducing slider, as well as a curveball and changeup -- make for enticing and intriguing free agent, one who many think will translate to a solid mid-rotation starter in MLB. Kikuchi does not come without risks, however, including left shoulder issues that have cropped up at times and the general uncertainty surrounding a pitcher who isn't yet established in The Show.
That said, if Kikuchi inks with an MLB club, he could be the latest in a long line of in-their-prime Japanese stars, particularly pitchers -- including Shohei Ohtani, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish -- who have had resounding success after crossing the Pacific Ocean to test their abilities against the best competition in the world.
So where might Kikuchi sign? The rumor mill surrounding him has been quiet of late, perhaps in part because of the holiday season and the fact that the two biggest names in free agency -- Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- remain on the board. But the prevailing thought is that Kikuchi prefers clubs on the West Coast, which would position him closer to his homeland.
Here's a rundown of teams that have been linked to and/or could be good fits for Kikuchi.
It's already been an active offseason for Seattle, which is undergoing a roster restructuring under general manager Jerry Dipoto, who has traded away big names like Robinson Cano, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz and Jean Segura with an aim on returning to contention around 2020. That timeline could work well with Kikuchi, since he'll still be in his prime. Plus, the Mariners have arguably the best history of helping Japanese stars transition to the United States and find MLB success; just ask Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Hisashi Iwakuma. They've expressed serious interest, as MLB.com's Greg Johns reported in mid-December, so don't rule them out.
Along with the Mariners, San Francisco is the team that has been connected most solidly to Kikuchi, according to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi. The Giants have been relatively quiet so far this winter as president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is settling into both a new role and new franchise after serving as Dodgers GM the past four years. The Giants may look to stabilize their rotation, as MLB.com's Maria Guardado writes, which raises the question: Could landing Kikuchi be Zaidi's first big-time transaction with the Giants, and possibly help soften the blow should he wind up trading longtime star left-hander Madison Bumgarner at some point?
San Diego continues to make it known that it's seeking a starter capable of pitching at or near the front of the rotation. The Padres have pursued Mets star Noah Syndergaard and fellow righty Corey Kluber of the Indians, but nothing has come from the trade path yet. Armed with a talent-rich farm system on the verge of bearing fruit in The Show within the next year or two, GM A.J. Preller might decide it's time to pony up and pay for an in-his-prime arm like Kikuchi to help lead that young wave.
As a team that's constantly been on the lookout for rotation options and depth, the Angels could be a great fit. Remember, it was just a year ago that they made a huge splash by securing Ohtani -- Japan's biggest name as a superstar two-way player -- and then helped him blossom into a star who went on to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award. On one hand, the Halos already have addressed their rotation by signing Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill. On the other? Both of those right-handers inked only one-year deals, which shouldn't preclude GM Billy Eppler from making a play for Kikuchi, especially since Ohtani will be unavailable to pitch next season while he recovers from Tommy John surgery.
On the surface, L.A. might not look like a match. After all, the Dodgers' rotation is overflowing as is, with Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Thomas Stripling and Julio Urias. Of course, if Andrew Friedman has made one thing abundantly clear in his time as Dodgers president of baseball operations, it's that he values roster depth and flexibility. It's not hard to imagine L.A. finding a way to fit Kikuchi into the mix in some role that allows all of the club's arms to both get plenty of action and plenty of rest. Not to mention, the Dodgers did just trade lefty Alex Wood to the Reds and have been one of the better franchises when it comes to incorporating foreign-born stars like Maeda (Japan) and Ryu (Korea), as well as since-traded Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig and former pitcher Hideo Nomo, whose arrival in 1995 paved the way for countless Japanese players since.
*Jason Catania is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayCat11.*