Yusei Kikuchi is setting himself up for a major payday this offseason

The bank account of the Blue Jays southpaw is about to get a lot bigger if he keeps pitching like an ace
Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays
Minnesota Twins v Toronto Blue Jays / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages

Yusei Kikuchi and the Toronto Blue Jays have fit like a glove over the last year. The Blue Jays have needed every ounce of his dominant pitching and the player has reciprocated his love toward the team and city. While he may have never held that infamous “sushi party” in luring Shohei Ohtani to Toronto, Kikuchi can probably order whatever he wants in Canada. As free agency beckons for the Japanese native, there are questions about where he will call home for the rest of his career. It remains to be seen whether Toronto can pony up for such an expenditure or if they would be better off trading him.

Kikuchi signed as a free agent in early 2022 for three years and $36M ($12M AAV). In his last year with Seattle, he pulled off quite the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine by pitching spectacularly in the first half en-route to All-Star honors but fading badly down the stretch. During his first taste in Toronto, he struggled as the ERA rose by almost a whole point and his ERA+ fell from 93 (seven percent below league average) to 74 (26 percent below league average). Especially noticeable for any follower of the Blue Jays was his alarming lack of command. In walking a career high 5.2 batters per nine innings, the Kikuchi starts in 2022 (pre-pitch clock) caused many fans to start snoozing. He and Jose Berrios each hit their low points in a Jays uniform that season.

In 2023, Kikuchi made big strides that have resulted in quite the career turnaround. He set career highs in wins, ERA and strikeouts. In tying his career high with 32 starts, he more than made up for a disappointing first run with the club. Holding opponents to a batting average of .213 following the All-Star Break, he pitched like one of the best pitchers in the sport. Unfortunately, the moment that may stick out the most was the final game in which he came out of the bullpen to relieve a dominant Jose Berrios. For most objective fans, though, this was the absolute best-case scenario for a pitcher still in his prime.

In 2024 at age 32, the left-hander has picked up right where he left off.  Through 9 starts, he is 2-3, with a clean 2.60 ERA and 148 ERA+. Having logged 52 innings pitched and 55 strikeouts, Kikuchi is pitching well enough to keep his team in games. As evidenced by the win-loss record, his team simply hasn’t given him a lot of run support.  

His last two losses were classic examples of this phenomenon. At the Rogers Centre against a scorching hot Minnesota team, he pitched eight innings of two-run baseball, yielding a couple hits in the first inning and serving up a bomb to Jays killer Carlos Santana in the fifth inning. In the next half-inning, Toronto had a chance with nobody out and two runners in scoring position. You guessed it... they couldn’t come up with a big hit.  It was a similar song and dance in the Dodgers start in which the offense could do nothing against ace Tyler Glasnow.

On the mound, Kikuchi has switched things up a bit with his repertoire. In 2022, he threw his curveball less than 1% of the time. The number was almost 20x higher the following year. Combined with a slider that contained a little more velocity and a stout four-seam fastball, Kikuchi was making a comeback. As mentioned earlier, the improved walk and home run rates have seemed to spark the best in Kikuchi.

Where would the Blue Jays be without Kikuchi this season? Jays fan are shuddering to think given the up-and-down nature of Kevin Gausman’s season and the injuries/inconsistency of everyone else. Amazingly enough, some observers were seriously entertaining the idea of trading the southpaw this winter. That would have been a no-brainer if one could easily bank on the incumbent starters duplicating the level of success that they achieved last year.  As we are learning in 2024, getting that amazing run of production from the starting pitchers has proven to be easier said than done.

If the Blue Jays continue to struggle and remain trapped in this inconsistent purgatory of the present moment, then the club may have to seriously consider trading him in order to get something back in return. His value may never be higher, and it could be a smart way to recoup a lot of value while not diving headfirst into a rebuild. At the same time, it feels like he is a strong leader in a clubhouse that is searching for a leadership voice. If Toronto decides to wait it out and hold onto him, they can expect to pay a pretty penny especially because of his durability. In a sport awash in pitcher injuries, this is an individual who has proven to be sturdier than most. It will be fascinating to see Kikuchi on a market with other aces like Max Fried and Walker Buehler.