While the visitor’s clubhouse of Minute Maid Park probably still hasn’t dried and reeks of champagne and beer from a celebration into the early hours of Wednesday morning, the process of preparing for the 2022 Major League Baseball season started less than 24 hours later with teams adjusting their 40-man rosters and eligible players becoming free agents.

The Mariners announced that their five players with expiring major-league contracts — James Paxton, Tyler Anderson, Sean Doolittle, Joe Smith and Hector Santiago — are all officially free agents.

The team also announced that it had declined the club options on third baseman Kyle Seager ($20 million) and left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (4 years, $66 million).

But in a bit of a stunner, Kikuchi decided to decline a $13 million player option for the 2022 season, which went into effect when the team declined the club option.

It’s a gift for a Mariners front office that has said it will have an increased payroll budget for 2022 and plans to spend in free agency in an attempt to build on last season’s 90-72 record. Kikuchi’s decision means that it will have $13 million less in committed salaries.

As of now, the Mariners have $15.2 million committed to major-league contracts for the 2022 season.

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  • Marco Gonzales, LHP, $5.5 million
  • Ken Giles, RHP, $5.25 million
  • Chris Flexen, RHP, $3.05 million
  • Evan White, 1B, $1.4 million

Seattle also has $5.75 million in “dead” money, paying $2 million to Seager in a buyout of the option and $3.75 million to Robinson Cano as part of the trade agreement with the Mets before the 2019 season.

Besides walking away from a guaranteed $13 million, Kikuchi probably won’t find that sort of a salary for the 2022 season on the free-agent market. But it might not be money that he’s searching for in free agency.

As he struggled in the second half of the 2021 season, MLB sources indicated that Kikuchi knew the Mariners would not exercise the club option. There was some outside speculation that he might return to Japan. But other MLB sources said he was adamant on proving he could be a viable MLB starting pitcher after three seasons of inconsistency in Seattle. The security of the guaranteed salary and another season with the Mariners seemed like the best way to do it.

However, as he continued to produce subpar outings, eventually being removed from the starting rotation in the all-important final week of the season, declining the player option became a stronger possibility for Kikuchi.

Manager Scott Servais labeled the meeting to tell Kikuchi he wouldn’t start against the A’s on Sept. 28 as “one of the toughest meetings I’ve ever had.”

“Anytime a player who’s been so consistent in the rotation, taking his turn every five or six days, and something like that happens, I think Yusei is no different than anybody else,” Servais said at the time. “He was a little surprised, but he understood where we’re at. He really wants his team to make the playoffs. And I explained to him, we would not be in this position if he had not pitched the way he did in the first half of the season. It’s a tough one.”

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Still, understanding the decision doesn’t mean agreeing with it.

Another mitigating factor was his spot on the 2022 Mariners. Even if he had exercised the option, he likely wouldn’t have been guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. With Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen and Logan Gilbert locked into spots, the Mariners looking to add at least one if not two starting pitchers this offseason, and Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Matt Brash all vying for spots, Kikuchi would’ve had to compete for a spot in spring training or pitch out of the bullpen.

Kikuchi’s agent, Scott Boras, will certainly sell teams on his client’s All-Star first half and his high-level velocity — 95.1 mph average fastball — and overall that still plays at the MLB level, particularly for a left-handed starter.  A team confident it could harness Kikuchi’s stuff and help him find consistent command might take that chance on a two-year contract at a lower average annual value.

In his first 15 starts of 2021, Kikuchi posted a 6-3 record with a 3.18 ERA with 93 strikeouts, 31 walks and 15 homers allowed in 93 1/3 innings.

But he was abysmal after being named the team’s only All-Star in early July. In his final 14 starts, he posted a 1-6 record with a 6.22 ERA. In 63 2/3 innings, he allowed a whopping 80 hits, including 12 homers, with 70 strikeouts and 31 walks. Opponents had a .304/.385/.532 slash line against him over that time.

As the top pitcher available from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in the offseason before the 2019 season, he agreed to a four-year, $56 million contract (counting the player option) with Seattle that included the unique four-year club option. Over three seasons, he struggled to adjust to the rigors and difficulty of MLB baseball, including the shorter rest and power-laden lineups. He tinkered with his mechanics, searching for velocity and consistency. He only found the velocity aspect.

In 70 starts over three seasons, including the shortened 2020 season, he posted a 15-24 record with a 4.97 ERA. In 365 2/3 innings pitched, he allowed 66 homers, struck out 132 batters and walked 66.

In Seager’s situation, the Mariners’ decision to decline the respective club options was anticipated given his farewell send-off in the season finale at T-Mobile Park, the team’s “step-back” plan to continue a younger core of talent for sustainable success and the deteriorated relationship between the front office and the veteran third baseman, a change seemed likely and necessary since spring training. News that the Mariners had informed Seager of their decision last week emerged on Sunday.