Should the San Diego Padres sign LHP Yusei Kikuchi?
As the 2018-2019 offseason officially begins and general managers from across the league convene this week in Carlsbad, the San Diego Padres have already been connected to nearly every top free agent on the market, outside of Bryce Harper. With a pile of money to spend, numerous needs up and down the roster, and a farm system overflowing with attractive prospects, it is expected to be a busy offseason in southern California this winter.
Starting pitching is sure to be the top priority this winter and will more than likely be acquired via trade with very few top of the rotation arms available in free agency. The Cleveland Indians, Arizona Diamondbacks, and now Seattle Mariners are listening to offers for nearly every player on their current roster and could be potential trading partners with the Padres. Each team has needs that the Padres have (bullpen, outfield, prospects).
As for free agents, numerous national outlets have suggested that the Padres are a great fit for guys like Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Nippon Professional Baseball standout arm, Yusei Kikuchi.
Now represented by Scott Boras, it appears that Kikuchi is indeed going to make his way to the United States after expressing some doubt during the NPB season. An official posting announcement has not been made, yet.
Pros and cons for the San Diego Padres.
The Padres have been connected to Kikuchi since early on in the 2018 regular season and now more and more outlets are predicting the 27-year-old to call San Diego home in 2019. Would this be a good move for AJ Preller to make? Let’s look at both the positive and the negatives here.
Good news first, Yusei Kikuchi has dominated the NPB for the last few seasons and is 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA in 158 career starts spanning eight years. He’s recorded 925 strikeouts in 1,035 innings (8/9 IP) and has a home run rate of just 0.7/9 IP. In fact, Kikuchi doesn’t give up very many hits, period. He has allowed 7.3 hits per nine innings across his career. The last two seasons have been even more impressive, allowing just 5.9 and 6.8 H/9 IP.
How does he do it? With an effective fastball/slider combination and an occasional looping curveball. You can see his entire repertoire in the video below.
With a little Rich Hill-esque hop in his follow through, Kikuchi’s slider is his bread and butter pitch that will be a nightmare for left-handed hitters in the big leagues. The fastball velocity isn’t overpowering but a big velocity difference between his fastball and secondary pitches helps to keep hitters honest throughout his outings.
Most evaluators agree that Kikuchi is a mid-rotation arm for an MLB franchise and MLBTradeRumors projects his contract with the Padres to be for six seasons and $42 million (plus $8 million release fee). With his track record of success, makeup on the mound, and potentially team-friendly contract, the signing could prove to be extremely valuable for a franchise like the Padres, who still believe they will be contenders in 2020.
However, there’s plenty of caution with Yusei Kikuchi.
Based on comments from the organization, Kikuchi fits the mold for the type of pitcher the Padres are looking to add to the roster this offseason. He’s young enough to contribute for at least half a decade and he is extremely affordable, allowing San Diego to make another addition in free agency.
However, there are red flags. The most notable being his injury history. While he has touched 98 mph before, his velocity fell to 91-92 mph this season, more than likely caused by series of shoulder injuries over the past five seasons. There’s also his history of blisters and non-specified injuries (detailed information is harder to come by) that have caused him to miss significant time.
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Kikuchi dominated in 2017, throwing a career-high 187 innings and posting a 1.97 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and a 217/49 K/BB ratio. Six of his 26 starts went the distance, with four of them resulting in a shutout for the Seibu Lions. His 2018 numbers were still impressive, however, his strikeout rate dropped from 10.4/9 IP to 8.4/9 IP. Which leads to another concern, his command. He has two seasons under his belt in which he walked more than four hitters per game.
Should the San Diego Padres sign him?
This is a tough question. Kikuchi is a very good pitcher, there’s no denying that. However, will his success translate well into Major League Baseball? Can his shoulder withstand 150+ major league innings? Can his curveball and/or changeup develop into an effective third pitch? The slider may be impressive, but a fastball/slider combination won’t get you through a major league lineup three times, especially if the fastball is sitting at 91 mph with questionable command.
If the projected contract numbers are close to what it will take to sign Kikuchi, the Padres should go ahead and make the move. With enough teams declaring their desire to move off big pieces this offseason, the odds of a bidding war for the left-hander seem low. Reports out of Japan highlight Kikuchi’s dedication to his craft and the fact that he is a real student of the game, especially the major league game. He doesn’t rely purely on deception and an unorthodox delivery like Kazuhisa Makita, so don’t let that failed experiment scare you away. Final verdict, sign him. Work your magic, Darren Balsley.
Now we wait for him to officially become a free agent.