This past offseason the Blue Jays signed free agent Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year deal worth $36 million. The move was met with some varying opinions from the Jays fan base and the structure of the deal sees the former Mariners starter earn $16 million this year followed by two $10 million seasons.
The move was to help shore up the pitching staff after Steven Matz left the team via free agency, as the Blue Jays had a hole at the back of the rotation. Nate Pearson was coming off an injury-plagued campaign last year and other internal options were risky like Thomas Hatch or Casey Lawerence. Kikuchi struggled in the latter half of the 2021 campaign but turned in an All-Star-worthy season in the first half with the Mariners, authoring a 3.18 ERA through 15 games before finishing the year over one point higher at 4.41.
Fast forward to the end of June and the offseason signing is starting to shape up to be one that Jays fans might start having Tanner Roark like flashbacks. Through 14 starts, Kikuchi is pitching to a 5.08 ERA and has allowed 32 earned runs and 13 home runs through 56.2 innings. The southpaw is struggling with his command and keeps putting himself in rough counts with his 5.6 BB/9 and opposing hitters own a .252 batting average as well as barreling his offerings, as he sits below the fifth percentile on numerous pitching categories while also allowing an average exit velocity of 92.2 MPH when the ball is put in play.
Struggling to pitch deep into games and allowing numerous walks per outing, what should the Blue Jays do with southpaw Yusei Kikuchi?
While it is too early in the deal to do anything drastic like designating him for assignment (as much as fans may want that to happen), with the Jays looking to contend this season, having him and his struggles on the mound is going to cause some problems in a stacked AL East division. The Blue Jays currently have a 95.5% chance of making the playoffs via the Wild Card due to a surging Yankees squad running away with the division but anything can happen as the season wears on.
So far this year, Kikuchi just hasn’t looked sharp on the mound and if this trend continues, one has to wonder if the Jays will have to look at alternative options in the rotation. Whether that is internal with the likes of Hatch, Lawerence, or Max Castillo, or if the Blue Jays pursue a trade for a starter (preferably Frankie Montas or Luis Castillo), with both Kikuchi and Jose Berrios struggling on the mound, something may have to be done in order to keep the Jays in games and continue being competitive in the AL East, as I wouldn’t say Berrios is immune to a potential move to the bullpen if he continues to trend the way he currently is.
Is it the best use of the contract money to have Kikuchi in the bullpen to finish out the year? Obviously not, but in this same breath, his elevated ERA and ability to pitch deep into ballgames is just not going to cut it. Even manager Charlie Montoyo acknowledged his most recent performance in Milwaukee, “I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for him. He hasn’t pitched well.” While his next start is scheduled for this Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays, Montoyo confirmed that the club hasn’t really discussed moving the starter to a relief role at this time, “we haven’t gone there.”
The end result for Kikuchi?
If I was a betting man, I would think the next start or two will be the determining factor for his role for the rest of the year. I imagine the Blue Jays coaching staff will work with Kikuchi and continue to tinkering with his gameplan to get that ERA down and command the zone to pitch deeper into games, but with both him and Berrios struggling, it might be time to either consider skipping one of their starts or spreading them out to not tax the bullpen as much, should either pitcher continue to struggle. Berrios is at least throwing strikes while Kikuchi just can’t find the strike zone, making a move to the bullpen an easier decision for the former Mariner compared to Berrios.
One thing is for certain: the way Yusei Kikuchi is pitching right now is concerning when looking ahead to the rest of the season. While a move may not happen tomorrow or in the near future, if Kikuchi continues to miss the strike zone and struggles to pitch deep into games over his next few starts, a move to the pen might be needed to right the ship.