As the sun and warm weather hit the Puget Sound, somewhat earlier than usual, the Twitter mailbag emerges with the sunshine. Coincidence? Probably not.

A little natural vitamin D can bring a sunny disposition to even the grouchiest of curmudgeons. But if it gets into the mid-80s, expect the mailbag to start complaining about it being too hot and the lack of air conditioning. 

As always, these are real questions submitted by real Twitter followers, who understand the importance of sunscreen … usually after their first sunburn of the season.

Well, I don’t know that it’s a decision general manager Jerry Dipoto can make on his own. He will need approval from Mariners chairman/principal owner John Stanton and the minority ownership group, because it’s a large amount of money they’d be committing to Kikuchi.

For a refresher, Kikuchi signed a unique contract with the Mariners negotiated by agent Scott Boras.

When he signed on Jan. 2, 2019, the Mariners announced it as a four-year deal, which was viewed as such by MLB and the players association. The total value of those four years is $56 million, all guaranteed. The Mariners also paid a $10.275 million posting to the Seibu Lions, who held the rights to Kikuchi in Nippon Professional Baseball. That figure was derived from an agreement between MLB and NPB. The Mariners pay 20% of the first $25 million of the contract, 17.5% of the next $25 million and 15% of the amount above $50 million.

Advertising

Of that $56 million, Kikuchi received an immediate $6 million signing bonus and an $8 million salary in 2019. The $14 million salary slated for the shortened 2020 was reduced to $6,685,185 based on the 60 games played and $15 million this year.

But it’s the fourth year of the contract where it gets interesting.

Following the end of the 2021 World Series, which the Mariners probably won’t be playing in, the team has three days to decide if it wants to exercise a club option for the 2022 season.

But here’s where it gets really different: The club option isn’t for one year but four years — 2022 through 2025 — for a total of $66 million at an annual average salary of $16.5 million per year.

However, if the Mariners choose to decline the club option, it then becomes a player option for Kikuchi. If he exercises that player option, he would stay in Seattle for 2022 with a $13 million salary and then would become a free agent.

But … he could also decline the player option, become a free agent immediately and go on the open market.

Advertising

“It is a contract structure that is beneficial to the club and the player,” Dipoto said at the time. “It gives us the opportunity to keep him here for seven years at $100-plus million or gives him the flexibility to seek something else if it’s not as easy of a transition for him.”

A year ago, the premise of keeping Kikuchi around for another four years at the cost of $66 million seemed illogical if not impossible. He’d shown nothing but inconsistency over his first two seasons. There were a variety of reasons for the variance in his performances — a few great, some good, far too many frustrating — that provided the Mariners hope of something better.

Seattle’s patience and Kikuchi’s endless work has been rewarded this season. Starting with his outing against the Astros on April 29, when he tossed seven shutout innings, allowing one hit with two walks and seven strikeouts, he has been the Mariners’ best starting pitcher.

Over his past nine starts, he has a 4-2 record with a 2.53 earned-run average and eight quality starts (six or more innings and three runs or fewer allowed). In 57 innings, he has struck out 61 batters with 17 walks, and opponents have a .173/.237/.322 slash line against him.

After Friday night’s outing, in which he allowed one run over seven innings against the Rays to get the win, manager Scott Servais began his campaign to get Kikuchi to a spot on the American League All-Star team.

“I think it’s something we should start talking about,” he said. “I said it a couple weeks ago. I think he’s one of the top five left-handers in the league right now. I really do. With his stuff, his ability to command it, the aggressiveness and obviously he’s getting the results.”

Advertising

Of those nine starts, the Mariners have won only four of those games.  

“He should have a few more wins,” Servais said. “We’ve let a few slip away. You know that he’s had leads when he’s left and our bullpen hasn’t been able to hold them. But I absolutely think he should be in consideration for the All-Star team, and I think we just started talking about it a little bit more.”

Beyond the numbers, it’s clear Kikuchi has found his identity in the big leagues. He spent the first season struggling to adjust to baseball’s highest level. His velocity was inconsistent, and he tinkered too much with his mechanics, leading to maddening unpredictability. An offseason spent cleaning up his mechanics to get more consistent velocity didn’t yield expected success in 2020. He threw his pitches harder but couldn’t command them.

But after spending all offseason throwing bullpen sessions, starting in November, his mechanics have grown so repeatable in muscle memory that the command of his pitches has returned. It has allowed him to exercise his fear of contact and pitch with a noticeably more aggressive mindset.

Though he won’t consider himself a finished product, he has established an identity of who he is as a pitcher and what he needs to do to succeed.

But can he continue to do it for the next four years? Is this sustainable?

Sponsored

He turned 30 on Thursday, and he has never been placed on the injured list. His work ethic and conditioning levels won’t be outmatched.

You could look at this way: If a healthy 30-year-old left-handed pitcher was on the free-agent market, with a history of some inconsistency, but also possessed a fastball and cutter that ranked among the top five in velocity and effectiveness among all left-handed starting pitchers and was coming off a season of let’s say 3.0 wins above replacement or a 3.50 ERA, how much would he command?

Would he command more than a four-year, $66 million contract? Remember MLB teams don’t necessarily have the COVID-19 excuse going into this offseason as a reason not to pay free agents accordingly.

When he signed, Kikuchi was likened to Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin in terms of stuff and velocity. In 2018, his final year with Arizona and with free agency looming, Corbin posted an 11-7 record with a 3.13 ERA in 33 starts. That offseason, at age 29, he signed a six-year, $140 million contract.

Also the questions the Mariners must ask themselves: Can they afford not to pay the money for him? Do they have a viable replacement if he leaves? What makes them better moving forward when they are expected to be more competitive?

Looking at the starting pitching depth chart, they have Marco Gonzales locked into the rotation as an established and reliable MLB starter. Chris Flexen appears to have been a nice pickup in free agency this season, but he is a back-of-the-rotation starter at best. Lefty Justus Sheffield has struggled this season, and right-hander Justin Dunn has battled shoulder issues of late. Top prospect Logan Gilbert is still adjusting after a premature debut.

Advertising

It’s impossible to say that any of those pitchers is more established or brings more potential for success than Kikuchi.

As for the passel of pitching prospects in the minor leagues, only lefty Brandon Williamson, who was recently promoted to Class AA Arkansas, is on a timeline to possibly contribute in 2022. Right-handers George Kirby, Emerson Hancock and Isaiah Campbell all project to 2023 at the earliest.

What do you have until then?  

Yes, there is a free-agent market. But the Mariners have plenty of other roster needs they will likely have to overpay to sign. Adding a starting pitcher to that list seems unnecessary.

From a pragmatic viewpoint, the Mariners shouldn’t make that decision today or in the next week. Kikuchi’s remaining 17 to 19 starts this season should offer more clarity.

Also something to watch in those starts is how Kikuchi reacts to the impossibly naive decision by commissioner Rob Manfred to institute a ban on using foreign substances for pitchers three months into this season.

If you recall, Kikuchi had troubles adjusting to the MLB ball, which is slicker and has flatter seams than the ball used in Japan. In one of his best starts of his rookie season at Yankee Stadium, cameras caught a ridiculous amount of pine tar under the bill of Kikuchi’s hat and monitored his incessant grabbing of the bill with his thumb and two fingers.

Advertising

The Mariners shrugged it off at the time, and Kikuchi felt remorse. If Kikuchi continued to use pine tar or sunscreen mixed with resin for better grip, which is likely, he has been somewhat less conspicuous.

A glance at the spin rates on his pitches from Friday’s start, his first under the new rules, showed that all of them were down 300 to 500 RPMs from his season average. That is significant.  

Since Oklahoma City doesn’t have a team, I will go with the Cardinals. Maybe it’s the Baseball’s Best Fans Twitter account that has me jaded, or the fact I needed a sherpa and map to find my way around Busch Stadium, or the shirt-ruining humidity.