The Toronto Blue Jays made a big splash before the lockout, signing Kevin Gausman to help lead their rotation alongside the newly extended Jose Berrios. Two of the other three rotation spots seemed set as well, with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alek Manoah slotting in at #3 and #4. The only rotation slot up for debate was the fifth starter spot.
The Jays had a couple of options. They could go with someone like Ross Stripling who struggled last season (4.80 ERA in 18 starts.) They could go with the highly touted Nate Pearson who has struggled at the big league level and hasn’t shown that he could stay healthy. Or, they could look elsewhere.
The Blue Jays made the decision to look elsewhere to round out their rotation, as they signed left-hander Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year $36 million dollar deal. I believe the Jays made the right decision to look elsewhere to fill that spot but made the wrong choice on the arm.
The signing of Yusei Kikuchi was the first mistake the Blue Jays have made in what has been a very successful offseason thus far.
Kikuchi has been underwhelming to say the very least at the big league level. He is 15-24 with a 4.97 ERA in his first three big-league seasons. What is important to note is Kikuchi has gotten better in each season. He went from posting an ERA of 5.46 his rookie year to 5.17 in 2020. He then pitched to a 4.46 ERA this past season, which included an All-Star appearance with the Mariners.
Kikuchi has been wildly inconsistent, to say the least. He has games where he looks dominant and some games when he looks lost. This season alone he had five outings of at least seven innings pitched with one run or fewer allowed. He also had six starts allowing five or more runs. He went 6-4 with a 3.48 ERA in the first half and seemed to be finally living up to what Seattle was hoping for when they signed him. In the second half, he went 1-5 with a 5.98 ERA. He went from an All-Star to be borderline unusable.
Is Kikuchi an upgrade over Ross Stripling? I think so. But is he worth a three-year guarantee? I’d say no. The 30-year old just hasn’t done much to sway me as of now. He does have good stuff which helped him strike out 9.3 per 9. However, he walks too many (3.6 BB/9) and allows too many home runs (1.5 HR/9). I can only reasonably think these numbers get worse in the American League East.
Kikuchi gave up a ton of hard contact last season. He was in the first percentile in average exit velocity according to Baseball Savant. He was also in the third percentile in hard-hit percentage and the eighth percentile in barrel percentage. His fly ball percentage spiked from 16.5% in 2020 to 22% in 2021. He is going to have to get that down if he wants success, as the hard-hit fly balls are likely going to result in a lot of damage in the American League East.
Kikuchi has shown what his floor and ceiling are. The Blue Jays are taking a risk that I believe is a bit unnecessary. You don’t need a fifth starter to have an all-star ceiling when the other four starters are very capable. At his best, he can be an all-star. He can give you seven shutout innings with double-digit strikeouts. But with that being said, he’s not a usable starter at his worst.
The Blue Jays have high-end starters in Berrios and Gausman and potentially Manoah too. They already have a solid veteran in Ryu. I think the Jays should have either signed someone who’s capable of giving a consistent five-inning outing every fifth day or trade for a more proven arm. It doesn’t really make sense to me seeing them give an unproven commodity like Kikuchi a three-year deal when he’s already 30 years old.
Pete Walker proved me wrong before with Robbie Ray, maybe he has something up his sleeve with Kikuchi as well. But until it happens, I believe the Jays could have and should have done better.