NEW YORK – Earlier this week, as interim manager John Schneider and pitching coach Pete Walker met with Yusei Kikuchi to discuss his move to the Toronto Blue Jays bullpen, the left-hander made a suggestion. He would, if the team wanted, go to triple-A Buffalo and keep starting there, staying ready on a five-day rotation while trying to get himself right.
The Blue Jays greatly appreciated the offer. “Totally professional,” said Schneider. But they felt a stint as a reliever at this point made the most sense both for Kikuchi himself and the club as a whole. His first inning of relief since the 2015 season with the Seibu Lions in Japan came in Thursday night’s 9-2 thumping of the New York Yankees and immediately impressed.
“I love the way he was around the zone,” said Schneider. “I thought he did a phenomenal job and I'm excited for him.”
The outing capped an emotional few days for both Kikuchi and the club. On Monday, he showed flashes of the pitcher he could be but still allowed six runs, three earned, in 3.1 innings of a 7-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. By Wednesday afternoon, after that fateful discussion, he was in the Blue Jays’ bullpen, after making the “very difficult” offer to spend time at triple-A.
“I was ready and prepared to do whatever was best for the team,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “Schneider mentioned going to the bullpen was most likely the best move for the team. I'm looking forward to doing my part there, helping the team in any way possible. And I'm just preparing for that and whenever that opportunity comes, just make the best out of it.”
Before the game, Schneider had mused about how Kikuchi’s stuff might play up in a relief role, joking that “a lefty who throws 99 is a nice thing to have.” Kikuchi didn’t quite get there Wednesday, topping out at 97.4 m.p.h., but his fastball sat 96.2, up from his season average of 94.8, and on seven swings, he got three whiffs, two foul balls, a groundball single and a lazy fly out, finishing with two strikeouts.
That will play, especially if the Blue Jays intend to use him in low-pressure spots for now, the way they did in the eighth inning of a blowout Thursday. Maybe over the season’s final 45 games he earns the trust to pitch in a higher-leverage role and in the post-season, that profile could really be weaponized out of a bullpen still in search of more swing-and-miss.
For the time being, however, the switch keeps Kikuchi around in case something happens to another starter and perhaps the experience of relieving helps him dial in on the mound in a way that serves him if he’s back in the rotation down the road.
“There might be something that I may find that would benefit me as a starter as well,” said Kikuchi. “As a starter, I've always thrown let's say 30 pitches before entering the game. Now it might be in certain situations five pitches and then just go straight in. Those experiences might actually go a long way in a positive way for myself. I may feel like, Hey, I don't necessarily need this entire warmup routine or 30 pitches on a start day to get ready. I'm looking forward to those little things.”
Kikuchi is also looking forward to eventually starting again and with the Blue Jays’ starting depth perilously thin now that Mitch White is in the rotation, the possibility that he’s called on at some point this season can’t be discounted. Bigger picture, with Ross Stripling a pending free agent, the Blue Jays have Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah locked in for next year with White around as well, so his pathway has wider ramifications.
The $36-million, three-year deal he signed with the Blue Jays in the spring was front loaded so he’s due $10 million in each of the next two seasons, a salary that provides important payroll efficiency if he’s logging effective innings.
Whatever the case, Kikuchi is trying to stay ready.
“Absolutely,” he said of still eyeing a starting spot. “We still have a little bit of the season left, you never know what's going to happen with the rotation, there might be some injuries or whatever it is. So I'm always going to be prepared to be able to jump back in at any given time.”