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Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi will be posted on Tuesday, but don’t expect the Tigers to sign him

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He won’t be landing in Detroit, unfortunately.

Melbourne Aces v Brisbane Bandits Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images

Another talented free agent starting pitcher is available this week just days after the flurry of non-tendered players hit the market last Friday. The Saitama Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, will reportedly post left-handed starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi for bids by Major League Baseball teams on Tuesday morning.

On the mound, the 27-year-old isn’t of the same caliber as last year’s wunderkind free agent, and fellow Hanamaki Higashi H.S. graduate, Shohei Ohtani. However, Kikuchi does represent a strong mid-rotation arm with the upside for more. There was some debate as to whether the Lions would allow the posting, as they had control of Kikuchi until the 2020 posting period. Now a stagnant free agent market in America has another fine arm in the mix. While the Detroit Tigers appear totally unwilling to invest in a player anywhere near the cost Kikuchi will demand, he’s an interesting addition to MLB nonetheless, and worth a look.

From the Lions’ perspective, they may be a year too late to fully maximize their return for the southpaw. After a dominant 2017 season in which he posted a 1.97 ERA across 187 23 innings of work with 217 strikeouts, Kikuchi suffered some shoulder issues in 2018 and was unable to repeat his success. One of the casualties of the shoulder issues has been the sharp biting slider that carried him through his monster 2017 campaign.

Kikuchi is essentially a two-pitch pitcher, which has caused some MLB observers to be initially skeptical about his chances to be a frontline starter in America. However, when he’s right, they are two electric offerings. He holds a career 2.77 ERA in eight seasons with the Lions. And despite the relative struggles this season, he’s still provided 163 23 innings of work with a 3.08 ERA. His strikeouts are down substantially, but a 23.2 strikeout percentage in 2018 is still a solid mark. If he can get a bit of his 2017 feel for the breaking ball going, he should have little trouble striking out a better than average rate of major league hitters.

He packs excellent velocity for a southpaw, averaging around 93 mph, with the ability to rush hitters up to 96 mph when he chooses to air it out. Unlike many Japanese pitchers, Kikuchi is willing to live and die with his fastball, using it aggressively in the zone. The slider sits at 85 mph with strong two-plane break. In 2017, the slider was absolutely a dominant offering, and he’ll need to find that version to reach his ceiling in the major leagues.

His comparative struggles in 2018 have led Kikuchi to a deeper mix, utilizing a decent curveball/changeup combination to open up the plate for his primary offerings. Neither pitch appears better than fringe average as a third options in the major leagues, however. The general consensus among scouts appears to project Kikuchi as a number three starter, with the possibility for more if he can regain his 2017 form.

Take a look

West coast teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants, and the lurking San Diego Padres all make sense as destinations. The New York Yankees are always a factor. And seven years after they signed Yu Darvish, a re-tooling Texas Rangers squad makes a potential home for Kikuchi as well. Perhaps most intriguing was his appearance at an Anaheim Ducks game last week, leading to speculation that he might follow in Ohtani’s footsteps by joining the Los Angeles Angels. Possibly no team hoping to contend in 2019 is more desperately in need of pitching than the Angels, so it checks out as a possibility.

Overall, Kikuchi profiles as a somewhat better option than Dodgers right-hander, Kenta Maeda, was when he came to America as a 27-year-old. Maeda received a wildly incentive-laden contract stretching eight years, with only $25 million guaranteed. However the potential was for a total of $106 million if Maeda had been able to max out all his incentives for marks like hitting 200 innings, etc. That contract makes it tricky to gauge Kikuchi’s eventual signing price, as does the requirement for his eventual home team to pay a posting fee which, in Maeda’s case, amounted to another $20 million the Dodgers had to commit.

It would be fantastic to see a rebuilding team like the Tigers take an opportunity like this to turbocharge their rebuild, but you can bet the house that Detroit won’t be involved. They haven’t been players in the Nippon League market to begin with, and continue to signal that owner Chris Ilitch has the payroll on relative lockdown for the foreseeable future.

However, in an already crowded and very slow moving free agent market this offseason, Kikuchi’s addition to the mix is another wild card. It should be interesting to see which of the rich get richer by adding a fine starting pitcher in his prime years, without having to give up anything but cash to acquire him.