Yusei Kikuchi
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Japanese southpaw Yusei Kikuchi has not been linked to the New York Yankees. Nonetheless, he should be and watch out.

Josh Benjamin

Yusei Kikuchi’s name is not one heard in general baseball conversations. The 27-year-old lefty has spent his entire career with the Seibu Lions, going 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA in eight seasons.

Well, baseball fans, get ready to talk about Kikuchi the same way you would the DH rule, or last night’s The Walking DeadThe Japan Times is reporting Kikuchi will be posted by Seibu on Dec. 3. This means every MLB team, including the New York Yankees, will be allowed to negotiate with him.

New York has not been publicly linked to Kikuchi this offseason, but mark my words. Management should look at him, and hard. Even after trading for James Paxton, the Yankees still need pitching help. Moreover, they could be in a position to add an arm no MLB bat has ever seen.

The Yankees need to take some notes on Yusei Kikuchi and will be cheating themselves if they don’t.

The posting system

To understand why the Yankees should pursue Yusei Kikuchi, we must first understand the means in which they would acquire him. Enter the posting system, MLB’s and Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) joint agreement on exchanging of talent. You think the New York Stock Exchange is competitive? Just watch what happens when NPB posts a top player.

So, it used to be when a top Japanese player hit free agency and wanted to head to MLB, his team would “post” him. This led to a bidding war between a small handful of teams. The highest bid was then accepted, and the winning team had a 30-day window to negotiate a contract with the player. If no deal was reached, the player returned to Japan and the winning bid, or posting fee, was returned to the team. The Boston Red Sox did this with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka before the 2007 season, paying a posting fee of $51.1 million and signing him to a $52 million deal.

The Yankees also took advantage of this season when they signed Masahiro Tanaka, though posting fees at that point were capped at $20 million. Fast forward to today, and things have changed even more. Rather than a posting fee, NPB teams receive a percentage of a posted player’s MLB contract. This number varies, depending on the deal’s total value.

This is the main reason why New York should pursue Yusei Kikuchi. Signing lefty Patrick Corbin as a free agent is a good idea, sure, but he’ll surely command well north of $100 million. The argument can even be made he deserves closer to $200 million, but that’s another conversation. One way or another, Kikuchi deserves equal attention.

Pros

The best thing about Kikuchi, besides his pitching skills, is he’s young. He turns 28 in June and, save for some shoulder issues here and there, has been generally healthy. On top of that, he wants to play in the United States. He even tried to come straight to MLB out of high school back in 2009 but stayed in Japan. Now, to not only make his dream come true but do so with the world famous New York Yankees? There’s no need to explain the significance.

As a pitcher, Kikuchi’s stuff isn’t overly fancy. He’s primarily a fastball/slider guy, with some breaking pitches mixed in. His fastball velocity, however, has been clocked at 98 mph. Even with the Yankees having their pitchers throw fastballs less, that velocity can’t be taught.

But what stands out most for Kikuchi isn’t his ERA or his NPB career WHIP of 1.17. In 1,035.1 career NPB innings, he has allowed just 75 home runs. Granted, 32 of them are from the last two years, and Fangraphs doesn’t have deeper metrics available. Despite that, it’s encouraging he isn’t susceptible to the longball given he primarily relies on two pitches.

In hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, that could be an incredible asset.

Cons

As was mentioned earlier, Yusei Kikuchi has had some shoulder troubles. That’s always worrisome to hear about a pitcher. Shoulders are tricky and tough to fix. It also doesn’t help Kikuchi throws as hard as he does and is on the smaller side. He is only 6’0″, 194 pounds. If the Yankees do pursue him, no medical stone can be left unturned.

Another thing to consider is someone every New York fan thinks of whenever a Japanese pitcher is posted: Kei Igawa. Like Kikuchi, Igawa was a left-hander who flew under the radar. He went 86-60 with a 3.14 ERA in nine years with the Hanshin Tigers. New York paid a $26 million posting fee to Hanshin before giving Igawa a five-year, $20 million deal.

To say things didn’t work out is an understatement. It’s calling Mickey Mantle a “pretty good” hitter when he’s really one of the best power hitters of all time. It’s describing the Millenium Falcon as a “solid” ship when it’s really one of the best in the galaxy.

Igawa was an absolute disaster in pinstripes, going 2-4 with a 6.66 ERA in just 16 MLB appearances. Inconsistent mechanics left him banished to the minors for a majority of his deal, and he returned to Japan once it expired.

Things are different now and the Yankees won’t pursue Yusei Kikuchi unless the numbers say it makes sense. Still, even if he does come to the Bronx, that anxiety is always going to be in the back of fans’ minds.

Final thoughts

Yusei Kikuchi does indeed come with a lot of risks. His shoulder could indeed be an issue and teams should be cautious about it. But the upside is just too great. He was an excellent pitcher in Japan and nothing suggests that wouldn’t be the case in MLB.

The New York Yankees need to assume those risks. The pitching rotation needs the help and Kikuchi could be something of an ace in the hole. No MLB hitter has ever faced him, so New York would have an advantage at the start of the season.

Throw in Kikuchi potentially being available at a bargain, not to mention the new posting fee rules, and the match makes even more sense.

The Yankees have enjoyed success with Japanese pitchers before. Yusei Kikuchi can easily be the next chapter.


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