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Milwaukee Brewers Free Agent Targets: Yusei Kikuchi

Yusei Kikuchi has been officially posted by the Seibu Lions, and yesterday the 30-day negotiating window for his services began. Because he is not a traditional free agent, he won’t command nearly as much money as, say, the $140 mil that Patrick Corbin just received, meaning that just about every team in the big leagues could afford to offer him a contract this winter without much too trouble. Not only that, but Kikuchi offers a blend of youth and upside that is unique on this year’s market, so there is naturally widespread interest in his services.

Hopefully, the Milwaukee Brewers are one of the teams in on the bidding.

Kikuchi debuted in NBP as a 20 year old way back in 2011, and during his eight seasons as a professional he has established himself as one of the premier pitchers in Japan. He is the owner of a 2.81 ERA across 1,035.1 innings with 8.0 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. Batters have long struggled to square him up, averaging just 7.3 H/9 and 0.7 HR/9, and Kikcuhi has yielded only a 1.177 WHIP for his career. His best season came in 2017 when he worked career-highs with 26 starts and 187.2 innings, turning in a 1.97 ERA, 217 strikeouts against only 49 walks, and a mere 122 hits allowed.

At an even 6 feet tall and weighing 194 lbs, Kikuchi isn’t the most physically imposing figure when he stands on the mound. He lets his stuff do the talking. The left-handed hurler uses a slight hesitation in his delivery to disrupt timing and releases the ball from a high three-quarters, nearly over-the-top arm slot. He has reached back for as much as 98 MPH on his fastball – a velocity record for NPB left-handers – but more regularly sits in the 91-93 MPH range with some natural cutting action. His top secondary offering is a wipe-out, mid-to-upper-80s slider that darts down-and-in to right-handed hitters. Last season, Kikuchi threw either his fastball or slider more than 83% of the time.

Rounding out the southpaw’s arsenal are a curveball and a changeup. It’s a slow curve, coming in around the low-to-mid 70s. The big breaker works best when Kikuchi is able to keep it down in the strike zone, but it can get a bit loopy on occasion, making it easier for batters to recognize out of his hand. Kikuchi seldomly throws his change, and though it is reported to have good movement and velocity separation from his fastball, his ability to locate the pitch is inconsistent.

Kikuchi isn’t without his warts, chief among them concerns about his health. He has previously battled blister issues and a core problem, and has twice dealt with shoulder issues during his career. He first missed time with a shoulder problem in 2013 (when he was limited to 17 starts), and was forced to cope with left shoulder soreness during his most recent season in 2018. He lost a little less than a mile-per-hour off his fastball this past year while dealing with the injury (averaging 91.5 MPH, down from 92.3 MPH) and his numbers backed up a little bit from his outstanding 2017, as he posted a 3.08 ERA with 8.4 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 in 163.2 innings for Seibu.

Kikuchi’s delivery is considered to be high-effort by scouts, which may add to the concerns about his durability. He has battled through some bouts of wildness as a professional and though his walk rates have been strong the past two seasons, his command is considered to be only average. Some believe that Kikuchi also needs to further develop and refine either his curve or change to give him a stronger third offering against batters, or he may struggle to navigate MLB lineups for a third time and could be relegated to bullpen duty.

Fortunately for Milwaukee, the way they use their starters should help mitigate some of the overarching concerns regarding a potential Yusei Kikuchi signing. Few, if any, teams ask for less from their “initial out-getters,” with Craig Counsell typically turning things over to his dominant bullpen after the starter navigates through five innings or 20-22 batters faced. Milwaukee certainly wouldn’t ask Kikuchi to be workhorse, lessening the stress on his arm and shoulder over the course of a long season. Facing a lineup only two times through would also help diminish the need for Kikuchi to improve his third pitch, though the org does have a strong track record under the current regime of helping pitchers add or enhance new pitches (Jeffress splitter, Miley cutter, Guerra curveball, etc). The loss of Derek Johnson as pitching coach shouldn’t change that fact, assuming that we can trust what the players have been saying about the way new pitching coach Chris Hook utilizes and teaches the information he’s relayed from the front office.

The newer posting process that was agreed upon by MLB and NPB last winter makes Kikuchi a lot more accessible to every team in the league; rather than old blind bidding with no maximum or the later $20 mil maximum posting fee, now any organization can freely negotiate with Kikuchi, and the team he ends up signing with is required to pay only a percentage of his eventual contract to his former NPB club as a sort of transfer fee. MLB Trade Rumors predicts that Kikuchi will ultimately sign for six years and $42 mil total, while Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs forecasts a four-year, $40 mil deal. In both cases, the total outlay after the fee paid to the Seibu Lions would come in around $50 mil.

It isn’t often that a pitcher billed as an MLB-ready, potential mid-rotation starter with the upside of a #2 hits the open market in what should be the prime years of his career, as Kikuchi has this winter at age 27. Fangraphs recently compared him rather favorably to two recent NBP imports – Kenta Maeda and Miles Mikolas – who have been quite successful since coming stateside. That combination of relative youth and tangible upside, along with the incredibly reasonable contract that Kikuchi is predicted to receive, presents a rare opportunity for the Milwaukee Brewers and every other team in baseball this offseason. Kikuchi would be an extremely compelling fit within Milwaukee’s run prevention system, and it was reported back in late September that Slingin’ David Stearns and company were interested in his services.

Hopefully that report was more than just the club doing their due diligence. Perhaps in the coming days and weeks we’ll hear more about the possibility of Kikuchi suiting up for the Menomonee Valley Nine in 2019.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference

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