The Toronto Blue Jays circled Kevin Gausman for a few years before finally inking the starter. Could they return to another former interest to fill the final rotation spot?
After attempting to land Yusei Kikuchi when he first came to Major League Baseball, the Jays have again been in contact with the free agent lefty in recent days, per Jon Heyman. Kikuchi is weighing three-year offers, per Heyman, but with minutes to go before a lockout, it's unclear where or when he'll sign.
We've discussed the Blue Jays rumored interest in Kikuchi before and I've suggested him as a potential Toronto fit earlier this offseason, but is he a worthwhile investment for the rotation?
Kikuchi posted his best season in North America last year, earning an All-Star appearance and finishing the year with a 4.41 ERA. He opted out of his contract with the Mariners with a year at $13 million left, and there's lots of reasons he's a natural Toronto fit.
He presents a dependable option to take pressure of a Nate Pearson at the back of the rotation and he could come at a low enough AAV to make an impact addition in the infield. In 2021 he performed against the AL East, posting a 3.89 ERA against the four squads Toronto plays most.
There are, too, reasonable concerns. After rocking a mid-threes ERA before the All-Star break, Kikuchi posted a 5.98 ERA in the second half and opponents hit .300 against him.
Kikuchi's 95-MPH fastball saw some decrease in spin rates in the second half, and a quick glance at his Baseball Savant page tells you he was near the bottom of the league in average exit velocity, xSLG, barrel rate, and HardHit%.
However, throwing mid-90s from the left side is not a common starting weapon in Major League Baseball, and Kikuchi's heater still remained one of his best pitches in 2021. Where he got burned was his cutter, against which opponents posted a 156 wRC+ last year and swung through the pitch just 9% of the time.
The rest of Kikuchi's four-seamer, slider, splitter repertoire generated opponent wRC+'s below 115, but he threw his worst pitch—the cutter—more than any other weapon. The slider plays well and his splitter is one of the better fourth pitches in baseball but struggles with a primary pitch signal the need for major adjustments.
One thing Kikuchi has without tweaks is durability—something Toronto GM Ross Atkins has identified in both their rotation signings earlier this winter. In his two full seasons in MLB, Kikuchi has started 29 or more games and pitched at least 155 innings. The Blue Jays are looking to fill out the bottom of their rotation—with upside galore in Gausman, José Berríos, Alek Manoah, and Hyun Jin Ryu—so a reliable start every fifth day could be all they need.
Kikuchi has flashed the potential to be much more than an SP5, but the second-half struggles in 2021 are an unavoidable red flag. The Jays have successfully gambled on hard-throwing lefties with caution signs before in Robbie Ray and Steven Matz, but those were short-term fliers. Kikuchi's money and term could come with more risk, but maybe the Blue Jays have another southpaw dice role in them?
H/T Jon Heyman