The Yusei Kikuchi Decision: Should he be dangled by the Blue Jays in trade talks?

Would using Kikuchi as trade bait this offseason help the Blue Jays or set them back?

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two
Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two / David Berding/GettyImages
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Amidst all the recent news and fanfare around the greatest baseball player of all time in Shohei Ohtani, the Toronto Blue Jays have a Japanese standout of their own in Yusei Kikuchi.

After signing an economical three-year, $36M deal with the Jays ahead of the 2022 campaign, Kikuchi had a season to forget in his first year with the team. He was nothing like his dominant form in Japan, as he pitched to a gaudy 5.19 ERA and a bloated 1.50 WHIP, giving up 58 earned runs including 23 home runs with 124 strikeouts in 100.2 innings of work. It got so bad that eventually he was demoted to the bullpen in the final two months of the season where he didn’t fare much better.

With a clean slate to start the 2023 season, Kikuchi finally had a breakthrough year with the Jays. This season, he posted his MLB career-best 11 wins, 3.86 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, along with a whopping 181 strikeouts in just 167.2 innings pitched over 32 starts. It was also his only MLB season to date in which he finished with a winning record (11-6). More importantly, there was even a brief period of time in which he was among the best in the league down the stretch when he went 2-1 with a minuscule 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, while holding opponents to a batting average of .213 over six starts following the All-Star break.

So with the mixed bag of results in his first two seasons of his three-year tenure with the ballclub, it now poses the question: should the Blue Jays dangle Kikuchi in potential trade talks? There are certainly both pros and cons to this debate. 

Pros

Let’s start with looking at the benefits of dealing Kikuchi in his final contract year. First of all, by moving him now, it will guarantee that the Jays won’t lose him for nothing to free agency at the end of the upcoming season. It could be quite hurtful to just lose someone of value to free agency, like the situation the team is experiencing right now after six key members from last year’s roster are all now in the free agent market. Secondly, coming off perhaps his best MLB season to date, Kikuchi’s value is at it’s highest it’s ever been right at this moment. As a result, the Jays could take full advantage of that to get the best value on the return to address their needs.

Finally, even with his turnaround season in 2023, there were still some starts where he appeared totally off, showing that a bit of inconsistency still remains in his game. As a result, if his 2024 season ends up being more like his previous years than 2023, then keeping Kikuchi in their rotation and on the roster could do more harm than good in the long run.

Cons

On the contrary, dealing Kikuchi now could backfire against the Jays. As witnessed from his drastic improved performance in 2023, he could be just starting to turn the corner in terms of becoming an effective MLB pitcher after several attempts in making the right adjustments the previous seasons. As a result, he might end up regaining his once-dominant form seen back in Japan and become a front-end of the rotation starter that could fuel the Jays to unprecedented success.

In addition, at just an annual AAV of $12M, there aren't many pitchers around the league that can provide double-digit wins, a sub-four ERA, and a strikeout rate of close to 10 batters per nine innings at that value. With the Jays still serious in contending for 2024, it makes no sense to give up on something that could provide both excellent production and value across the board for the team overall.

The Verdict

It really comes down to this. If the Jays believe one or more of their glaring needs this offseason cannot be suitably resolved by internal means or free agency, then Kikuchi certainly becomes an ideal trade chip to use land the impact player(s) needed for the club - think Max Kepler or Jorge Polanco from the Twins.

However, if they believe that they can address all their current needs without moving a potential player or prospect, then keeping Kikuchi could end up paying huge dividends down the road. More importantly, if he can also build upon his 2023 success, it could even end up leading the team to a potential postseason berth and hopefully a World Series championship.