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Drayer: Yusei Kikuchi makes sense for Mariners’ plans, and vice versa

“Hi everyone. My name is Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners. I am very happy to be here. Today is a very special day for my family and I. Playing in the big leagues has been a dream of mine since I was 15 years old. Thank you Seibu Lions for letting me go and living my dream. Mariners ownership and Mr. Dipoto and Mr. Servais thank you for this new journey. And to my new teammates I can’t wait to meet you soon. Thank you.”

As the newest Mariner, Yusei Kikuchi, gave his introductory comments to the assembled media at T-Mobile Park Thursday afternoon in English, Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto smiled at the dais. Signed, sealed and delivered was a player that had been prominently featured on hypothetical “step-back rosters,” scribbled on white boards in the offices upstairs – optimistically scribbled.

Mariners GM Dipoto talks Yusei Kikuchi, state of bullpen and more

“When we first started we didn’t know how realistic our opportunity was to land him,” said Dipoto, the Mariners general manager who had expressed interest in Kikuchi from the onset of the offseason.

While Dipoto had made contact with Kikuchi’s agent Scott Boras in early December, he didn’t have a strong feeling that the Mariners would be in the running for the lefty’s services as he left for a family vacation shortly before the holidays. As conversations continued, however, the picture changed.

“I was on the beach and they sucked me out early,” said Dipoto with a smile. “About seven days ago it became pretty obvious we were getting further into this. Once we got down to small print in the contract I said I think I am going to have to fly back to Seattle because this is probably happening. It was probably as excited as I have ever been leaving Hawaii.”

It is hard to know what motivation a free agent has for signing with any particular team. Most often it is money or the desire to play for a contender. Sometimes geography comes into play. When asked why he chose the Mariners, Kikuchi’s answer was simple.

“I feel this team needed me the most and I feel chemistry between us,” he said.

While the complete list of other suitors is unknown, it would be hard to dispute that the Mariners most needed a quality starter. As for the chemistry, a lot comes into play. There were meetings and dinners between the two sides as well as a good visit in Seattle. The step-back plan was no doubt laid out to Kikuchi and Boras, and where the Mariners currently are in that plan was seen as an asset rather than a hindrance, as it fits what Boras saw as Kikuchi’s needs coming into his first Major League season.

“There has been a history of Japanese pitchers who are very, very gifted coming here and being thrust into a situation where the physicality, not the talent of the pitcher, but the physicality and durability have been challenged and often led to surgery,” Boras pointed out. “Jerry was just completely open to our concern, mindful of it. Sat down, came back to me with a developmental plan that was very impressive, something that would lead to an acclimation to the major leagues, but also something that provides for a better approach adjusting from the six-, seven-day approach in Japan to the five-day approach here.”

The step-back year affords the Mariners the opportunity to be careful with Kikuchi, who put up qualifying innings in Japan but did so on a different schedule. Rather than forcing him to come out of the gates and give his all every fifth day in hopes that the team will be playing into October, the Mariners can control his innings with the intent of setting him up for a strong sophomore season in MLB and beyond. The intent is reflected in his contract, which while unique is similar to a deal Boras worked out for Jake Arrieta with the Phillies. Invest in the development now and the Mariners have a shot at a team friendly deal in three years.

“It was more about where Yusei ends up than where he begins,” said Dipoto. “We want to use 2019 to develop the innings in a more appropriate and health-oriented fashion. This is about step 1 in the development that will allow him to achieve his upside as a major league player and we think it is considerable. We think this environment will be beneficial to him.”

What will this look like? Dipoto values the importance of experiencing the length of an MLB season, so to that end Kikuchi’s spot in the rotation will not be skipped on any sort of regular basis. A six-man rotation also does not look to be in the cards. Innings will be managed in a different way.

“We don’t want to disrupt a 30-start season,” said Dipoto. “It’s critical to understanding the major league season. Along the way we can lessen the inning burden by every five or six starts just making it a short start where there is a one-inning or 30-pitch outing.

“I think this is something that is becoming more of a trend in the game as we start to understand what innings do long-term to pitchers.”

The Mariners have experience with this plan as they have utilized it with starters at the minor league level. On the short start days for Kikuchi, Dipoto said that they could use more bullpen pitchers or look to Triple-A for a young, near-ready starter such as Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson or perhaps later in the season Justin Dunn. The benefit would be twofold with Kikuchi staying in rotation on regular routine while having his innings controlled and the younger player getting important experience at the major league level.

“Our goal is to go into the season and develop Yusei Kikuchi along with a lot of other young players,” said Dipoto. “We are going to try and win as many games as we can but our focus is coming out in 2020 with a group of talented players who are ready to go compete at a higher level, he among them.”

For his part, Kikuchi is coming to the US prepared. It’s been his dream to play in the major leagues since he was 15 years old, and from studying the English language (he did not ask for help from his interpreter until 17 minutes into the press conference) to working out in Japan with an MLB baseball, it appears he will hit the ground running.

Dipoto could not be more thrilled he will do so in a Mariners uniform.

“I don’t know if ours was the richest or longest contract (offer), but I believe that the combination of the city ballpark, events people and the way we planned on developing him was a good fit,” he said. “From an age, character and talent standpoint we don’t think this fit could have been any better for us.”

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