The Toronto Blue Jays made their first post-lockout splash Saturday afternoon, finalizing a deal with free agent starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. After three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, the 30-year-old accepted the three-year, $36 million contract just a few days after the league and players’ association reached their new collective bargaining agreement.
Kikuchi joins the Blue Jays coming off an inconsistent 2021. He showed some of the best pitching of his career in the first half, finishing with a 3.48 ERA (including 1.90 in June) and an invitation to his first All-Star game. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off after that. He finished the year with a middling 4.41 ERA in only 157 innings. He was at his worst during the Mariners’ September playoff push — after seven strong scoreless innings on August 31, he failed to make another quality start, averaging just over three innings across his final four appearances.
The Blue Jays will certainly be hoping that Kikuchi can return to the improvements he showcased earlier in the year, and there’s reason to believe he can. The foundation of his repertoire is a hard four-seam fastball which averaged over 95 miles per hour in 2021. That velocity appeared out of nowhere in 2020, when he began throwing the pitch three mph faster than he had the year before. The retention of that increased speed is a good sign moving forward, but it’s not yet clear that he can maintain it over a full season. His ineffective September was at least partially caused by a fastball that only registered 94.3 mph, down from a mid-season peak of 96.1. His velocity in his first regular season start should serve as a litmus test moving forward.
However, Kikuchi will also be exchanging the pitcher-friendly confines of Seattle’s Safeco Field for the more offensively-inclined Rogers Centre in Toronto. He’ll also be facing the lineups of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays 19 times a year instead of the Rangers, Athletics and Trout-less Angels.
Regardless, the addition of Kikuchi solidifies Toronto’s staff as one of the deepest in the league. He will join a rotation loaded with recent accolades, featuring Kevin Gausman (2021 All-Star), José Berríos (2018 and 2019 All-Star), and Hyun Jin Ryu (top-3 Cy Young in 2019 and 2020). Kikuchi will likely slot in the fifth spot behind young righty Alek Manoah, who will be looking to build on a strong rookie campaign in 2021.
Toronto concluded last season with a disappointing fourth place finish and missed the playoffs (despite winning 91 games). As it stands now, their depth at SP represents a considerable advantage over their AL East foes — if they’re to fully capitalize on that, Kikuchi will need to return to peak form.
(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)