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Cincinnati Reds free agent target: Yusei Kikuchi

The NPB ace is posted and ready to make the jump. Should the Reds consider a contract?

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Melbourne Aces v Brisbane Bandits Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images

The Reds will, allegedly, “get the pitching” this offseason, as team owner Bob Castellini has stressed since the moment that David Bell had been named manager of the club. It’s the beginning of December, and the Reds have yet to “get the pitching,” though the Winter Meetings are typically where the moves get made. Those Winter Meetings begin in Las Vegas next week.

Earlier this week, a move was made that added even more the pitching to the free agent market, should the Reds choose to pursue it, though it’s not necessarily a name that will need to get done by the end of next week.

On Monday, the Seibu Lions officially posted left handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, paving his way to pitch in the Major Leagues in 2019.

Kikuchi is a 27 year old (former) ace of the Lions. By far, his best season for the Lions came in 2017, where he pitched 187.2 innings of 1.97 ERA ball, with a 0.911 WHIP and robust 4.43 SO/W. He struck out 217 batters while walking only 49. Had he made the leap in 2017, it would’ve been quite the bidding war.

And that’s not to say that there won’t be a bidding war. Teams have until January 2 to get their terms submitted, so it’s not particularly pressing. But the biggest question about Kickuchi doesn’t necessarily surround his talent or stuff, but durability. The aforementioned 187.2 innings was quite a bit more than he’s ever been able to pitch in a season. In 2018, he reached 163.2, which otherwise would’ve been his career high by about 20 innings.

To compound the issue, Kickuchi dealt with shoulder fatigue and stiffness as early as this past May, and his numbers suffered for it, which is enough to give any MLB team pause.

I say his numbers suffered; they didn’t suffer all that badly. In the 163.2 IP in 2018, Yusei pitched to a 3.08 ERA with a 1.033 WHIP. The strikeouts regressed, from 10.4 K/9 in 2017 to 8.4 in 2018 (though that number is still higher than his full career average). His BB/9 remained a low 2.5. He wasn’t erratic... he was just more hittable. How much of that was natural regression and how much of that was due to the shoulder (and how much of the injury is correctable) is the real question.

The stuff is as solid as you would expect. Kickuchi’s fastball consistently sits in the mid-90s, and he’s a typical top-rate Japanese pitching prospect in that he has plenty of breaking pitches that all play and are all honed. Each of the slider, curve, and splitter rate as “average or better.” As a lefty, that’s going to be super tasty for MLB general managers when considering a contract offer.

Where this gets interesting for the Reds is the contract. While Kikuchi isn’t considered to be a future ace the way Yu Darvish was, not to mention the uber-two-way star Shohei Ohtani is predicted to be, he’s certainly very good. He also very much qualifies as getting the pitching. Patrick Corbin just received six years, $140 million from the Washington Nationals. That sets the market, and while the Reds are apparently “all up on” Dallas Keuchel, even at his predicted four years and $80 million from, that’s a hefty price to pay even if it’s one the Reds should be considering.

On the other hand, while there are plenty of questions surrounding Kickuchi’s durability and the uncertainty about how he’ll translate from the NPB, he’s a pitcher on the right side of 30 (by quite a bit) and figures to cost nearly half as much (not accounting for the release fees, which are friendlier to MLB clubs now).

Kickuchi’s ceiling seems to be more of a number two in a rotation rather than the potential ace of some of his predecessors. So maybe he “only” settles into a three or a four. But, at 31, how much longer do teams figure Dallas Keuchel is more than that? Or JA Happ? Or even Patrick Corbin?

There are plenty of questions to be answered about Yusei Kikuchi, but at the lower price and the potential upside, if the Reds are going to get the pitching, this is a signing they should seriously consider exploring.