LAS VEGAS - General manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday that the Nationals are doing their “due diligence” on Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who could be the first player to benefit from new posting rules agreed upon by Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball.
“We’ve monitored him, we’ve scouted him,” Rizzo said during his afternoon briefing with reporters during the Winter Meetings at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. “We’ve done our due diligence on him and he’s another one of the starting pitching market that we’ll monitor.”
Kikuchi, 27, could be an interesting addition to the Nationals starting rotation, especially at a reasonable salary like the six-year, $42 million contract that MLBTradeRumors.com predicts he will land. Having already netted lefty Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million on the free agent market, Rizzo is insisting he is seeking ways to improve the starting five.
“You can never have enough starting pitching and you never have enough depth,” Rizzo said. “It takes six, seven starters to get through a season and we’re always on the lookout for that.”
An industry source indicated the Nationals are kicking the tires on Kukuchi, though he wasn’t sure how deep their interest was.
This will be the first year of the new posting rules enacted between MLB and NPB, which replace the free-for-all of winters past where teams had to pony up big bucks just to win the right to negotiate exclusively with a Japanese player. Last season’s marquee import, pitcher-outfielder Shohei Ohtani, was subject to international signing bonus rules and could not receive a bonus of more than $3.5 million.
All postings of NPB players must be made between Nov. 1 and Dec. 5, with a 30-day negotiating window to follow. However, unlike in the past, multiple teams can negotiate with a player at the same time (as opposed to the team that bids to win that opportunity). The fee paid to an NPB club is contingent on the guaranteed contract value he receives from an MLB team. NLP teams will receive 20 percent of the first $25 million, 17.5 percent of the next $25 million and 15 percent of any contract beyond $50 million.
Rizzo thinks the new posting rules make the process more beneficial to the player.
“I think ... it’s better or the player,” he said. “The rules aid the player because the player gets more of the money instead of the Japanese team.”
The Saitama Seibu Lions posted Kikuchi on Dec. 3. His 30-day negotiating period began Dec. 4 and his agent, Scott Boras, is meeting with interested clubs at the Winter Meetings.
Kikuchi is considered one of the best pitchers in Japan, and is just reaching his peak performance years. He went 14-4 with a 3.08 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 23 starts, striking out 153 and walking 45 in 163 2/3 innings. In eight seasons - all with Seibu, save for five starts with Melbourne of the Australian Baseball League in 2011 - Kikuchi is 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 925 strikeouts in 1,035 1/3 innings covering 163 games (158 starts).
He missed time last season with a left shoulder problem and has battled injuries earlier in his career. Kikuchi has never pitched more than 187 2/3 innings he logged in 2017, and some starters coming out of Japan have experienced difficulties adjusting to American baseball, where they are required to pitch every five days and are expected to go deeper into games.
Kikuchi possesses a fastball that sits between 92-95 mph, sometimes touching 98 mph, and a plus slider. He also throws a change and a curveball.
More than a dozen teams have been linked to Kukuchi, and while the Nationals have not traditionally been a major player in the Japanese market, there are reasons to believe they could have serious interest in him. Both Rizzo and the Lerner family have a longstanding positive relationship with Boras, who has easily facilitated multiple contracts with both ownership and the front office.
The Nationals did not enter the free-for-all for righty Yu Darvish in the winter of 2011-12, though Rizzo and others in the organization had scouted him extensively. They did prepare a presentation last offseason - as did almost every major league team - to try to lure Ohtani in response to a questionnaire by his representation. The Nationals answered questions about player development, medical practices and player performances; described facilities at all levels of the organization; explained the culture of the nation’s capital; and talked about how the two-way player would fit into the Nationals and the city.
Rizzo has never courted and signed a Japanese player during his tenure as Nationals GM, though the Nationals continue to scout the Pacific Rim for talent. Many players from Japan prefer to play in West Coast cities with vibrant Japanese communities and cultural centers. The proximity of the West Coast to their homeland also is often a deciding factor in choosing a team in the United States.