Person of Interest: Recently posted Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi

Yusei Kikuchi delivers a pitch. (Kyodo News via AP)

At 8:00 a.m. ET Tuesday morning, the Seibu Lions of Nippon Professional Baseball posted Yusei Kikuchi, a Japanese left-hander who will likely be retiring MLB hitters as soon as 2019.

Kikuchi is just the latest talented player to leave Japan’s top league for MLB via the posting system, with the most recent and famous example being two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani.

Though not as widely heralded as Ohtani or Yu Darvish, Kikuchi will be on many teams’ radars as an intriguing alternative to top-tier free agent arms such as Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel and Nathan Eovaldi.

Here’s a little more on what Kikuchi can offer teams and what his market looks like as his posting period gets started.

Name: Yusei Kikuchi
Position: Pitcher
Throws: Left
Bats: Left
Age: 27
Height: 6’0” | Weight: 194 lbs.
Nationality: Japanese

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Posting information

With his posting period officially open, Kikuchi will have until 5:00 p.m. ET on Jan. 2 to sign a contract with a big-league club. Otherwise he will remain with the Lions.

Under the posting system, Japanese teams that post players to MLB will receive a fee based upon an agreed percentage of the signed contract’s value, including bonuses and incentives.

The way the fee breaks down is as follows:

• 20 per cent of the first $25 million
• 17.5 per cent of the next $25 million
• 15 per cent of any amount above $50 million

This system is a departure from the old way which was essentially a blind bid with a maximum posting fee of $20 million. Kikuchi will be the first case under this new percentage-based system that gives all 30 teams an equal opportunity to negotiate over a 30-day span after the player gets posted.

Serviceable, but not spectacular

Though Kikuchi doesn’t have nearly as much fanfare as an Ohtani or Darvish, he should be an attractive option for many teams as a three-time NPB all-star who doesn’t turn 28 until June.

As MLB.com’s David Adler reported, Kikuchi features the classic power pitcher fastball-slider combo with an occasional curveball and changeup. He’s said to sit around the 92-94 m.p.h range on his fastball, but he can reach the upper 90s at times as well.

Adding to his stuff, Kikuchi has a certain swagger to his approach on the mound that could lend itself well to baseball’s highest level, where self-confidence is paramount for success.

He has flashed big-time potential at times, with an outstanding 2017 season that saw him post a 1.97 ERA and 10.4 K/9. With all that said, however, MLB scouts don’t expect Kikuchi to pitch at the level of Darvish or Ohtani, with a projected ceiling of a No. 2 starter in the majors, according to Jon Morosi of MLB Network.

Shoulder troubles

Kikuchi dealt with some injury problems last season, another reason why his projections are more modest. He posted a 3.08 ERA with 8.4 K/9 in 2018, and this can be at least partially attributed to time he spent on the disabled list with stiffness in his throwing shoulder.

Because of this injury, Kikuchi worked on his tertiary offerings – the hook and change – and got away from his bread-and-butter fastball-slider combination. In the short term it resulted in a worse year, but, as former Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Frank Herrmann told Morosi back in August, the shoulder woes may have been to his advantage long-term.

“The one positive I’ve seen from him is that is he’s becoming more than a [two-pitch] guy,” Herrmann told Morosi. “He will now flip in a curveball early in the count and uses his changeup to guys that [are] on his fastball. Last year, there was never a need to get away from the [fastball/slider] combo.

“The slightly diminished stuff in ’18 could be a positive once the shoulder gets back to full strength, because I think he’s gained confidence in his other secondary offerings out of necessity.”

If Kikuchi is able to return to his old form with his new weapons in tow, he could end up being quite effective against MLB hitters.

Teams interested

Given his age and upside, there’s a case to be made that just about every MLB team should contact agent Scott Boras about Kikuchi.

So far we know that Kikuchi’s market includes the Phillies, who have reportedly said they will be in on him, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are also likely interested, and perhaps the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, who are “lukewarm” on him, according to Rob Bradford of WEEI.

The Los Angeles Angels can’t be discounted either. Though the connection is loose, Kikuchi and Ohtani did attend the same high school, Hanamaki Higashi H.S., so there’s some preexisting level of familiarity. Plus, for what it’s worth, Kikuchi was recently spotted at an Anaheim Ducks game.

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