The Giants will enter 2019 with less starting pitching than depth than you might think and a new front office that might be a little more aggressive on the international front than they have previously. That’s more than enough background to explain why Giants scouts were seen watching the Seibu Lions’ Yusei Kikuchi, at least per this tweet:
Scouts from Yankees, SF Giants, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies, Brewers and Rangers were in hand to watch #SeibuLions lefty Yusei Kikuchi—who is expected to be posted this winter.— Jim Allen (@JballAllen) September 28, 2018
Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area reported on this tweet and gave a bit more background on Kikuchi and his track record. I assume that most of what gets posted to their site that’s Giants related falls outside the realm of idle speculation — they have the ability to fact check anything team-related pretty easily. I say this only to mention that we can assume that the report is correct and the Giants did have scouts there.
After Bobby Evans and co. struck out in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes last offseason, the Giants continued their unremarkable track record when it comes to pursuing posted Japanese players, despite being the debut team for a Japanese player, Masanori Murakami, in MLB history.
Kikuchi turns 28 next June. He’s pitched for the Seibu Lions all nine years of his pro career (though he did split his age-20 year with the Australian League’s Melbourne Aces). He stands out because he can throw 98 mph and his slider has a Randy Johnsonesque bite to it
The downside is that although he’s listed as 6-0, he’s more 5-11. And undersized power-thrower could be the next Tim Lincecum, but with so many innings already on his arm, it’s hard to imagine any team banking on him being a lefty Lincecum; but, this article from the Sporting News reveals something relevant to the Giants’ interests:
His delivery features an arm action in which he hides the ball well until the last moment. Hitters have a hard time picking up the release point and recognizing what’s coming.
That sounds madbumly familiar to these ears.
The other bad news from that Sporting News piece is that he has a history of injuries — specifically shoulder pain. The Lions are likely to post him this season because he’s due to be a free agent after next season, but given age, usage, and injury history, the bidding potential seems unclear.
Still, this article from Dennis Lin of The Athletic (subscription required) written back in March laid out this possibility:
Industry observers believe Kikuchi could command a deal approaching nine figures. Under the newest posting rules, the release fee for a major-league contract with a guaranteed value of $25 million or less will be 20 percent of the total. For a contract between $25,000,001 and $50 million, the release fee will be 20 percent of the first $25 million plus 17.5 percent of the rest. For a contract of $50,000,001 or more, the release fee is 20 percent of the first $25 million plus 17.5 percent of the next $25 million plus 15 percent of the total value in excess of $50 million.
Should Kikuchi receive a $100 million guarantee, his signing team would pay the Lions a release fee of roughly $17 million.
Kikuchi had a breakout 2017 season with 217 strikeouts in 187.2 innings pitched (1.97 ERA, 0.911 WHIP) and 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings. He also lowered his walks per 9 from a three-year average of 4.3 to 2.3. In 2018, he’s pretty much maintained the adjustment that lowered his walk rate (it’s 2.5 as I look at his Baseball Reference page) but the K/9 has fallen back to 8.4 (about in line with his career norms). For reference, Derek Holland leads the Giants in that category this season at 8.91 and Gerrit Cole leads all of baseball at 12.60.
Brian Sabean is still scouting and running the front office, so we can assume he’s directing the scouting here. We don’t know what a new front office will want to do, but given how at least one potential candidate has strong ties to the Japanese leagues and experience with the posting system and that the Giants are flush with cash and can easily compete with the other teams for Kikuchi’s services, it’s not impossible to see the team explore this option.
The Giants need more velocity on their pitching staff and they need interesting and exciting stories to stoke waning fan interest. A left-handed pitcher who throws 98 mph and comes from Japan — that’s a good story to drum up some excitement for a rebuilding team that might not actually want to rebuild.