In 2009, Kikuchi was spurring interest in the United States
That is decision a young Japanese amateur does not take lightly. If Yusei, or any amateur, pulls out of the draft, he would face a three-year suspension from Japanese baseball if he washes out in the United States and returns home. That rule was put in place in the wake of Junichi Tazawa bypassing the draft to sign with the Red Sox in the winter before the 2009 season. One thing to keep in mind: There is no precedent for an 18-year-old Japanese high school kid signing with an MLB team. But late in October, Yusei decided to remain in his native country.
Kikuchi gained stardom and hype because of two excellent appearances at the Koshien high school tournament.
Yusei is very smart. He doesn't watch TV and reads about 10 books per month. He is also very conscientious.
Jan 1, 2019: The 27-year-old Kikuchi was one of the prime free-agent starters available this offseason, and he had to sign with an MLB team by a deadline or he would've had to return to the Seibu Lions, his team in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball League, for the 2019 season. Under the new Japanese posting system, the Mariners will pay his former club a release fee that will be a percentage of his contract.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has traded away a number of prominent veterans this offseason while reworking his roster with younger prospects in taking aim toward a push in 2020-21, but he's expressed strong interest in signing Kikuchi and making him part of that future wave.
Dipoto sees Kikuchi as being of similar age and remaining team control as All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger, newly acquired center fielder Mallex Smith and fellow left-handed starter Marco Gonzales, who are part of the new core he's looking to build around after adding a number of young prospects via trades this offseason.
Kikuchi didn't want to come to MLB until he dominated Japan:
As an 18-year-old in 2009, Kikuchi could have skipped out on Japan's amateur draft to come to the United States, but decided to stay in Japan because he wanted to dominate there first. "I'll try to take on the world once I have become the No. 1 pitcher in Japan," he said at the time.
And Kikuchi has dominated Japan, especially recently. He posted his finest season in 2017 as a 26-year-old, pitching 187 2/3 innings with a 1.97 ERA. He struck out over a batter per inning for the first time in his professional career and lowered what had previously been a somewhat troublesome walk rate. He followed that up in 2018 with a 3.08 ERA over 163 2/3 innings, while maintaining the improved walk rate of the previous season.
Jan 3, 2019: Yusei Kikuchi introduced himself to Mariners fans for the first time at an introductory press conference at T-Mobile Park. And the Japanese lefthander did so, impressively, while answering questions in English. It speaks volumes about Kikuchi's confidence and long-term planning that he's been studying English since his high school days in Japan, wanting to be able to express himself directly to the media and fans in America once he got his shot to pitch in Major League Baseball.
That opportunity began in earnest once Kikuchi signed off on a unique contract that could keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons, depending on whether the Mariners extend a four-year option after the 2021 season. "I've had the dream to play Major League Baseball since I was 15," Kikuchi said. "I have studied English ever since then."
The 27-year-old later apologized for not being able to give longer answers in English, but he expounded on that in his native language to Japanese reporters. "Being here on the biggest stage of baseball in the world, it's a global stage and I wanted to ingrain myself with that and be available to everyone, and speak directly with everyone," he said through interpreter Shawn Novak. "So I worked hard. That was an important thing for me to do going forward. From high school, when I had the goal and dream of playing in the big leagues, I wanted to be able to communicate directly from the heart to the fans over here in English by myself."
One of Kikuchi's first orders of business after speaking with reporters was to meet Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in person for the first time. Kikuchi said the first professional game he attended as a teenager in Japan, he saw Ichiro playing for the Orix Blue Wave in 2000. The chance to be a teammate of Ichiro this coming spring looms large in Kikuchi's mind. According to general manager Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners remain firm with their plan to let Ichiro compete for a roster spot this spring at age 45. As long as he stays healthy, Ichiro will be one of three extra players the club is allowed to carry for the two-game Opening Series in Tokyo against the A's on March 20-21.
It's unlikely Ichiro will remain on the active roster once the club is required to cut down to 25 players for the remainder of the regular season, though Dipoto didn't rule it out. But however long Ichiro is on the club, Kikuchi plans to enjoy it. "Mr. Ichiro is kind of a person in the sky, a legend. I don't know if he really exists," Kikuchi said. "So the first step is to be able to meet and talk to him. When I do have the opportunity to step on the field with him, it will be a great memory for me that I'll cherish forever."
Kikuchi will step into a long tradition of Japanese players with the Mariners, who have had at least one Japanese player on their roster every year since 1998, including Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, and Mac Suzuki In 2017, Kikuchi got advice from Iwakuma on a change he was making in his delivery, and now he could step into his role in the Mariners' rotation going forward, figuring to land a prominent spot as a power lefty in a group that also will initially include Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc
Kikuchi will step into a long tradition of Japanese players with the Mariners, who have had at least one Japanese player on their roster every year since 1998, including Ichiro, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Norichika Aoki, Munenori Kawasaki, and Mac Suzuki.
In 2017, Kikuchi got advice from Iwakuma on a change he was making in his delivery, and now he could step into his role in the Mariners' rotation going forward, figuring to land a prominent spot as a power lefty in a group that also will initially include Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc. In addition youngsters Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn and others are waiting in the wings.
A year ago, the Mariners pushed hard to land Shohei Ohtani, who instead signed with the Angels. Now, Seattle has landed Kikuchi, who attended the same high school as Ohtani, though is three years older. Kikuchi will have a chance now to compete against Ohtani regularly in the coming seasons in American League West battles. "I'm looking forward to challenging him many times," Kikuchi said.
But one thing Kikuchi won't attempt to do is follow in Ohtani's footsteps as a two-way player. "I'm going to focus on my pitching," he said with a smile. (G Johns - MLB.com - Jan 3, 2019)
Feb 9, 2019: When Spring Training opens for the Mariners, as pitchers and catchers report for physicals, there'll be plenty of buzz around the numerous newcomers getting their introductions. But the one guy at the center of much of the attention figures to be Yusei Kikuchi, the newest Japanese sensation to sign with Seattle. Kikuchi arrived from Japan and has been working out in preparation for the start of camp, which begins with the first official workout on Feb 12, 2019.
General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are eager to get their eyes on the 27-year-old lefty, who signed a contract in January that will keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons
General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are eager to get their eyes on the 27-year-old lefty, who signed a contract in January that will keep him in Seattle for anywhere from three to seven seasons. If all goes to plan, Kikuchi will open the season in the Mariners' rotation and figures to be a strong candidate to pitch one of the team's first two regular-season games in Tokyo against the A's on March 20 or 21.
But the Mariners' brass won't be the only ones tracking Kikuchi's progress, as about 20-25 Japanese journalists are expected in camp on a daily basis to chronicle his story, as well as what may be the final Spring Training for 45-year-old outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Kikuchi had the opportunity to meet his boyhood idol when he was in Seattle for an introductory press conference following his signing and now is eager to take the playing field with Ichiro once full-squad workouts begin.
"It's not an easy feeling to explain, but I'm looking forward to it," Kikuchi said earlier this offseason. "I distinctly remember the first game I went to in Japan was in Ichiro's last season with the Orix BlueWave. I remember that game very well. I'd just started playing baseball and I went only knowing about Ichiro. "I was very anxious to watch him play in person. It was a while back, but I still remember the aura Ichiro had on the field and how exciting it was to watch him play in person. Since then, I've read any book there is about Mr. Ichiro, any articles about his work study and I'm looking forward to playing with him."
The Mariners have had a Japanese player on their Major League roster every season for the past 21 years and Kikuchi now will carry on a tradition that began in 1996 when Mac Suzuki became just the third Japanese player to compete in MLB; he pitched one game in relief in 1996, as a 21-year-old. Suzuki was called up again in 1998-99 for 22 more outings, including nine starts, and he's been followed by closer Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000-03), Ichiro (2001-12 and 2018), reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa (2002-05), reliever Masao Kida (2004-05), catcher Kenji Johjima (2006-09), infielder Munenori Kawasaki (2012), outfielder Norichika Aoki (2016) and starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (2012-17).
Kikuchi, who will take on the same No. 18 jersey previously worn by Iwakuma, is well aware of those who went before him. "Of course," he said. "I want to continue that success."
The Mariners are interested in more than just having another Japanese player on their roster
The Mariners are interested in more than just having another Japanese player on their roster. They are intrigued by Kikuchi's mid-90s fastball and quality slider combo, as well as his interest in analytics and lifelong goal to make a name for himself in MLB. "I'd like to grow with the team and succeed," Kikuchi said. "Getting here was not the goal. It's to succeed here and play well here. I'm just going to focus on working hard and producing for the team."
While much of the Mariners' offseason was spent looking to the future and unloading long-term contracts in order to gain younger prospects and payroll flexibility, they saw a chance to add Kikuchi now as a free agent who can grow with the young nucleus and help anchor the rotation going forward.
"We feel this is a perfect marriage between a player, the city, the comfort for he and his family here, the stage we are in our development and where he is in his development," Dipoto said
"We feel this is a perfect marriage between a player, the city, the comfort for he and his family here, the stage we are in our development and where he is in his development," Dipoto said. "He's a very talented guy." (G Johns - MLB.com - Feb 9, 2019)
Jan. 1, 2019: A rebuilding Mariners team added a strong piece to its pitching rotation as Japanese standout Yusei Kikuchi agreed to a four-year deal. The unique deal is for $43 million over an initial three years, with a $13 million player option for 2022.
But the option can potentially be replaced by an additional four-year, $66 million extension by the club that would convert the deal to seven years total.