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Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto on Yusei Kikuchi, state of bullpen and more

The Mariners signed Yusei Kikuchi to a four-year contract on Wednesday. (Kyodo News via AP)

With most of the big moves the Mariners have made this offseason, the headlines have been a lot more about who has been going rather than coming to Seattle.

Not so with Yusei Kikuchi.

Drayer: Mariners get LHP Yusei Kikuchi, so how does he fit?

A 27-year-old left-handed starting pitcher from Japan, Kikuchi joins the Mariners after a strong eight-year tenure with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Saitama Seibu Lions that included three All-Star nominations. And while he fits perfectly into Seattle’s plan to step back in 2019 and return to contention a year or two later, general manager Jerry Dipoto is optimistic the southpaw can succeed right away in the majors.

“We’re excited, this is a pretty polished upside-type pitcher,” Dipoto told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave and Moore after the Mariners announced Kikuchi’s four-year contract Wednesday. “He has been one of the premier pitchers in the Nippon professional league in Japan over these past seven or so seasons, three-time All-Star in Japan, including the last two where he’s been exceptionally good. Mid-90s fastball with what we think is an out-pitch slider, he’s got a nice slow curveball that he throws for strikes and a splitter that he gets chases with. He’s polished, really good human being, very ready to make the transition to MLB and really fits the window with what we’re trying to do with our roster build.”

And why does Dipoto think Kikuchi’s game will translate in the MLB?

“His strikeout rate is we believe sustainable, his pitch quality from a raw data standpoint – spin rates and such – compares favorably with the upper-echelon pitchers in our league, and he’s been a pretty good strike-thrower these past couple years and has really refined his command,” Dipoto said. “We’re really excited to see what he can do with a little room to work in Major League Baseball.”

Here are a few more things Dipoto discussed in his interview with Danny, Dave and Moore.

Any thought to Félix Hernández as closer?

“I don’t think about it much at all,” Dipoto said to Jim Moore’s question. “I think Félix is in the right place. He’s always been a starting pitcher, he’s accomplished so much as a starting pitcher, and right now his greatest strength is his feel for the ball, his feel to spin, his feel to change it up. And to use all those weapons appropriately, I think you have to mix your pitches. When you come in out of the bullpen, it’s more breathe fire, do it quickly, 20 pitches or less. … Using all of his weapons and mixing them over the course of five, six, seven innings I think will bring out the best of what he has more so than pitching in a bullpen role.”

The status of the back end of the bullpen

“We’ve got Anthony Swarzak, who’s a year removed from being really good over the course of the 2017 season – did not have a good season last year and we’re hopeful that he’ll bounce back. We were very encouraged by what we saw from Shawn Armstrong at the end of last season. And truth be told, I’m guessing that our closer doesn’t yet play for the Mariners. We have been engaged in conversation with some free agents, we have kicked the tires on some guys that we feel like could be factors, but somebody or multiple somebodies have yet to enter the fray and join guys like Shawn and Swarzak and compete for that ninth inning. But right now we’re not gonna sweat it too much. We’re just gonna let that develop.”

The new center fielder

Asked about Mallex Smith, the first acquisition of the Mariners’ busy offseason, Dipoto shared a touching story about a player he has traded for twice but has yet to play a game in a Mariners uniform.

“This guy is pure energy. Such a joy to talk to on the telephone. I think shortly after I went into the hospital,” said Dipoto, who notably made a trade from a hospital bed last month, “he was one of the first guys to send a text, saying that he’s now been with the Mariners twice, he has actually yet to meet me, he’d like me to hang on for long enough to do that.

“He’s a great guy, he really works hard, he’s made himself into a very good big league player and I think when you take a look at what Mallex Smith did last year at this level, it really jumps out. It’s the stolen bases, it’s the on-base, it’s the positional versatility, and you don’t have to squint to see this guy was close to a .300 hitter with a .360 on-base and the second-leading base stealer in the league. It’s an exciting young player with an exciting personality, and I’ve heard him described by multiple people now as perhaps the most positive teammate they’ve ever encountered, so we’re excited to have him.”

You can hear the full interview with Dipoto embedded in this post or download the podcast at this link.

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