While the Yankees are preoccupied with this winter’s crop of starting pitchers on the free agent market, owner Hal Steinbrenner recently disclosed that the franchise has also been keeping tabs on a left-hander overseas.
According to multiple reports, the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league are expected to post 27-year-old southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, which would make him eligible to negotiate a contract with any major league club this offseason.
Under new posting rules accepted by both MLB and NPB, the Lions have until December 5 to officially make Kikuchi available through the system, and following that period, he would then be given a 30-day window to agree to terms.
“I saw film on [Kikuchi] during the pro scouting meetings,” Steinbrenner told reporters on Wednesday during the league’s owners meetings in Atlanta. “We talked about that individual… We’ve always been paying attention to that area of the world. Some unbelievably great players come out of there. It won’t be any different this year.”
Prior to this season, Japanese teams were allowed to set a maximum release fee of $20 million for any player. But the current system, which went into effect shortly after two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels last winter, no longer includes that rate. Instead, the release fee paid to NPB teams is contingent upon the guaranteed value of a player’s major league contract. So, for NPB players planning a future career in the United States, the fee would be 20-percent of the first $25 million, followed by 17.5-percent of the next $25 million and 15-percent of any amount over $50 million.
In 23 starts for Seibu this season, Kikuchi finished 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 153 strikeouts over 163.2 innings. He also struck out 23.4-percent of the batters he faced, and the NPB’s average hitter struck out in 18.9-percent of his plate appearances. Two seasons ago, Kikuchi posted a 1.97 ERA across a career-high 26 starts (187.2 innings).
Although Kikuchi’s career numbers in NPB are intriguing (2011-2018: 73-46, 2.77 ERA, 153 starts), his injury history raises some red flags. Kikuchi missed all of 2010 and most of 2013 due to left shoulder pain, and while that issue disappeared for a few seasons (he finally reached the qualified innings threshold in 2016), the injury resurfaced in 2018. Fortunately for Kikuchi, his shoulder stiffness didn’t cause a dip in velocity when he returned from the disabled list.
Earlier this year, MLB.com’s Jon Morosi reported that multiple major league scouts believe Kikuchi’s ceiling is as a No. 2-type rotation arm, since his fastball velocity averages between 92 and 94-mph. That number can go up, however, as Kikuchi hit 98-mph during an outing back in June.
This isn’t the first time that Kikuchi has been discussed as a potential international free agent. As an 18-year-old in 2009, Kikuchi could’ve skipped Japan’s amateur draft for a career in the majors, but he ultimately decided to play ball on native soil, telling reporters, “I’ll try to take on the world once I have become the No. 1 pitcher in Japan.”
According to Kyodo News baseball writer Jim Allen, the Yankees were one of seven major league teams that sent scouts to watch Kikuchi in September.