The Blue Jays are doing what they can to squeeze some value out of Yusei Kikuchi, but they may have no other choice than to send him back to Buffalo to try and work things out.
After losing his spot in the starting rotation, Kikuchi had a mostly encouraging first relief outing last week against the Yankees. it started off a little shaky, but he settled in to pitch a scoreless inning, and the Blue Jays were hoping that it could be a bit of a building block. If Tuesday’s second relief appearance was any indication, Kikuchi still has plenty of work to do.
The Japanese southpaw came on in relief of Ross Stripling, who was very effective again on Tuesday as he threw 6.0 innings and allowed just one earned run on six hits and a walk. Unfortunately Kikuchi couldn’t continue that momentum against a struggling Red Sox team. What was particularly frustrating was that the 31 year old once against struggled with his command, an issue that’s plagued him throughout the 2022 campaign. After it was all said and done he was fortunate to only give up one earned run, but he walked three Red Sox hitters and hit another, and had to come out of the game after recording just two outs.
Thankfully Kikuchi’s appearance came when the Blue Jays started the half inning with a 9-1 lead, and a strong outing from David Phelps kept the game in their control. However, it was particularly disappointing that they couldn’t even get a full inning out of Kikuchi in a low pressure situation like that.
As the Jays look ahead to the last 41 games of the regular season, they’re going to need to play well just to qualify for the postseason. They’re still 8.0 games behind the AL East-leading Yankees, but they are currently tied for the second Wild Card spot with the Seattle Mariners, just a half game behind the Rays who hold the first Wild Card position. When you consider that Orioles (2.5 behind the Jays), Twins (4.0), White Sox (5.0), and Red Sox (7.0) are still in the thick of things, they can’t take anything for granted.
With that in mind, can the Blue Jays really keep Kikuchi on the roster at this stage? Prior to being moved to the bullpen, it was reported by the Toronto Star’s Mike Wilner that the 2021 All-Star had offered to move to Triple-A to work on his mechanics, and the Jays preferred to try him in the bullpen. They may not want to give up on the idea after one bad outing on Tuesday night, but the rest of the roster could dictate a few of their decisions as well.
Granted, the Blue Jays and the rest of the MLB will see their rosters expand to 28 once the calendar flips to September, so they could try to hold on until that time when they can add more pitching depth. It’s possible that the Jays could bring Zach Pop back to the big leagues, who was optioned to make room for Tim Mayza on Tuesday, or maybe even Julian Merryweather, who is healthy and dominating in Buffalo these days.
it would be different if the Blue Jays didn’t have potentially effective arms ready to join the bullpen stables, but right now it’s hard to justify giving Kikuchi a roster spot when he can’t really even be trusted in the lowest leverage situations you can find. With two years and 20 million remaining on his three-year, 36 million dollar pact he signed last winter (it was front-loaded and he’s making 16 million this season), I can’t imagine they’ll have trouble moving him to the minor leagues. I’m sure he could always wake up with a sore neck tomorrow too, if need be.
By no means am I trying to dunk on the guy here, but the 2022 season feels like a lost one for Kikuchi, even if he’s healthy at the moment. For a Blue Jays team that needs to win every game they can over the last quarter of the season, I’m not sure they can afford to extend any more patience to their likeable lefty. It’s a shame, but sometimes tough decisions have to be made in pursuit of higher goals, and that’s what the 66-55 Blue Jays are looking at these days.