Blue Jays make first major post-lockout move by signing Yusei Kikuchi

Shi Davidi and Hazel Mae discuss the Blue Jays' newest signing in Yusei Kikuchi, how he fits in the rotation, why Toronto has prioritized pitching early this offseason, and what position they will target next in free agency.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – As a striking afternoon sun in piercing blue skies cleared the pounding rains and tornado-watch ceiling of a lost morning, the Toronto Blue Jays’ primary progress came not on their practice fields but off them.

A $36-million, three-year agreement reached with Yusei Kikuchi, according to an industry source, is their first major move since baseball emerged from the gloom of a 99-day lockout and further bolsters a pitching staff among the deepest in baseball.

Now, rather than being in perpetual scramble mode to cover the night’s nine innings, Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker will instead be tasked with finding suitable opportunities for all the deserving arms. They have upper-tier talent, swingman depth for the bullpen and minor-league fallbacks in Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Francis Bowden and Zach Logue.

They’re built for both the looming grind and its inevitable attrition.

They’re also far from done – an infielder, relief help beyond Friday night’s agreement with lefty Andrew Vasquez, perhaps a left-handed hitting outfielder are remaining pursuits – as they continue to be described as active in the just reopened free-agent market.

All of it is refreshing after the lockout’s acrimony and it’s been a wild transition from the anger of despair of Wednesday’s breakdown to the elation of Thursday’s settlement and the ensuing resumption of business. The large group of Blue Jays players who live in and around the Dunedin area reported to the Player Development Complex the next morning, while those scattered elsewhere hurriedly made arrangements for their arrival.

Stripling, the club’s player-union rep, was among them, saying that between negotiations, work outs and personal planning, “the last 10 days have been about as mentally gruelling as anything I’ve been part of.”

“I love that I was part of it because it’s history and it is amazing and now I know some of these guys better than I ever would have,” Stripling said of his fellow union members that helped negotiate the collective bargaining agreement. “But glad to have it behind us now. We can just go be competitors on the baseball field instead of on Zoom calls.”

None of it was certain to happen, as the unions 30 player-reps and eight subcommittee members debated the final proposal from Major League Baseball for some 2½ hours. Before submitting the Blue Jays’ vote, Striping said he “was texting everyone I could get a hold off on to get their opinion.”

“We were yes unanimously across the board, didn’t get one no,” he said during an interview before the Kikuchi agreement. “And that was our vote.”

After finishing one game shy of the post-season during a nomadic three-home-city 2021 and then extending Berrios and adding Gausman and reliever Yimi Garcia before the lockout, the Blue Jays were clearly among the teams with the most to look forward to.

Kikuchi’s pending addition only adds to that.

The former Seibu Lions star turned down a $13 million player option from the Seattle Mariners earlier this winter after the club declined its $66-million, four-year option, despite an all-star season in which he faded down the stretch.

The Blue Jays were interested in him when he first came over from Japan, and now he in essence fills the spot vacated by Steven Matz, who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals for $44 million over four years.

While Kikuchi posted an ERA of 4.41 with a WHIP of 1.318 and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings over 157 innings last season, and has pitched 4.97 ERA over 70 starts in the majors, he’s the type of subtle-tinker job starter the Blue Jays have had success with in recent years.

Pitch usage is one place to start.

Opponents last year batted just .176 and slugged .282 against a splitter that produced a 39.6 whiff rate. But it was his least used pitch, thrown 627 times fewer than his worst offering, a mediocre cutter that batters hit .276 and slugged .476 against, underperforming the expected numbers off the pitch.

Kikuchi’s whiff rates on both his fastball (30.3), which averaged 95.1 m.p.h., and slider (31.2) are encouraging enough to believe that some usage changes could generate far better results, akin to the tweaks that helped straighten out Matz.

One former teammate of Kikuchi said when he pitched primarily with his fastball and splitter, wrinkling in his slider and cutter, he was dominant, and that he needed to make that adjustment consistently.

That’s now for the Blue Jays to help him sort through, the way they did for AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray and Matz last year. After the months of labour rancour that followed 2021, it’s the type of baseball conversation befitting skies cleared after a storm.

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