The lockout continues. After yet another late night of hyped up, optimistic discussions and another morning of disappointment, MLB canceled another two series, ensuring Opening Day can come no earlier than April 14. 184 games have been struck, the sides don’t appear very close together, and there’s not a lot to make anyone feel romantic about baseball recently.
While Shack and I have an article forthcoming about some myths regarding the economics of baseball, I thought I’d take a step away from labor negotiations for today and shine a spotlight on a potential free agent the Nationals could target once the season gets underway. While I’m not confident that’ll be anytime soon, it’s far more exciting to speculate on the absolutely wild free agency period we’ll get whenever the lockout ends (Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant? Yeah, they all still gotta sign somewhere) than to dwell on the sense of hopelessness when it comes to labor discussions.
Which brings me to southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, current free agent, former starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. Matt first flagged him on Half Street High Heat in his November 27, 2021 article about a few under-the-radar free agents. Three months later, Kikuchi remains a free agent, with the latest rumor mill showing that the Yankees and the Mets indicated interest in adding him to their rotation.
It’s not difficult to see why multiple teams are interested in courting him: Kikuchi had a fabulous first half of the season in 2021, with a 3.48 ERA and 1.088 WHIP in his first 16 starts. He was the only Mariner selected to the All-Star game. However, his white-hot start collapsed after the break: he had a 5.98 ERA in the second half in 58.2 IP (higher, for reference, than Corbin’s full season ERA of 5.82, and we knew how terrifying that was), and he ended the season with an overall ERA of 4.41 and a WHIP of 1.318. Kikuchi only pitched three innings in three of his last four starts of the season.
The Mariners declined Kikuchi’s club option on November 3, 2021, and he elected free agency shortly thereafter. The Nationals may be an effective, mutually beneficial landing spot for him. Various sites project him at an ERA of between 4.13 and 4.56 for the season—all numbers, I think, we can live with given the current ineffectiveness of our starting rotation. There’s also the possibility he again gets hot at the beginning of the season, delivers some stellar performances before the All Star break, and can get traded for high-value prospects at the deadline. This would be the most welcome outcome, given the Nats’ continued need to build up its farm system, but the longer the lockout continues, the less comfortable I feel relying on excellent, one-off performances from unexpected places, given the disruption to the training schedule.
There’s also the matter of contract., and how that might fit into the Nationals’ plans should they make a move. MLB Trade Rumors estimated he would receive a two-year, $20 million contract, which I could envision going higher should more teams express interest (the Blue Jays also expressed interest back in December, but there has obviously been no movement since then). However, with that prediction in hand, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the Nationals making a move should they choose to spend. Currently, the Nats have approximately $80 million to work with before hitting the competitive balance tax (at $210 million). With that $80 million, they may need to address the most critical weak spots of the current lineup—at 3B and LF, respectively—before they go to a starting pitcher, given how much money is currently tied up in pitching (the less said about the Corbin and Strasburg deals, the better). But they also could decide to offer Kikuchi a cheap one or two year deal, something under $20M total that wouldn’t break the bank.
Say they decide to go in on Kikuchi and add him to the roster. That would give Davey Martinez another person in his back pocket to go to should things go south for anyone currently projected for the rotation, whether due to injury or poor performance. Let’s run them down: We all want Strasburg to be back in peak form, pitching the way we know he can. But is there really any guarantee of that? Imagine (god forbid) he gets hurt again. Enter Kikuchi. Patrick Corbin—well, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, not with the contract he has, but perhaps adding Kikuchi to the staff could soften the blow. Josiah Gray is hoping for a breakout season, and we’re all thrilled to watch him thrive, but there will still be growing pains that Kikuchi may be able to counterbalance. Josh Rogers is unproven talent, Sean Nolin is gone, Jefrey Rodriguez is back in the minors (and has been spotted at the early minor league camp in Florida), and Joe Ross is also coming back from injury. Everyone is, in one way or another, coming into the season with their difficulties, and Kikuchi may be a good answer to at least one of them.
I’m not suggesting Kikuchi will be our ace—far from it, given his numbers and the difficulty he had over the second half of last season. But adding him to the Nationals’ starting rotation may be able to soften the blow that is inevitably coming, providing some innings for the team while it continues an arduous rebuild. The Nationals have been linked to very few names throughout this off-season, with no large, flashy signings (unless you count César Hernández, which I, unfortunately, do not). A Kikuchi signing may also have the added impact of getting fans excited about possibility for the season, if only for the prospect of seeing someone new on the field as opposed to seeing a superstar. And right now, with the continued labor strife and a potential 60-win season on the horizon (or less, given how many games have been canceled…), that morale booster may be needed more than ever.