While we’re unlikely to see the Detroit Tigers go on a big spending spree this offseason, especially with big-name free agents like Anthony Rendon, there are ways the team can lean into making improvements in 2020. One option is to make a run at MLB-ready players from foreign markets.
For example, it was announced on Friday morning that another major player from the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball Organization with designs on an MLB career would be posted this offseason — Hiroshima Carp 2B Ryosuke Kikuchi.
Kikuchi is an 8-year veteran of NPB, earning regular playing time in 2013 and playing a full slate of games every year since. He batted .261/.313/.406 in 2019, while walking 6.6 percent of the time and striking out in 16.4 percent of plate appearances. Those numbers are more or less in line with what the 29-year-old has done over the course of his career. It’s been more than enough to make him a regular in the Hiroshima Carp lineup, where he’s played lockdown defense and earned the NPB’s Golden Glove award in every one of his seven full seasons.
It’s his defense that gives Kikuchi the potential to hold down a spot in the majors stateside. He’s been making highlight reel plays since he broke into Japan’s highest league. He’s a bit small for some, listed at 5’7” and weighing in at 152lb, but he’s extremely athletic and extracts every bit of talent from his frame.
“[He’s] high energy, competes, really plays like he wants to be the best guy on the field,” described one scout when the Japan Times asked about Kikuchi. “I really like the way he goes about his business.”
Gifted with plus speed that he converts into huge range on the infield dirt, Kikuchi is able to track down any ball that comes remotely near his place at second base. His glovework is simply phenomenal, drawing praise from every outlet. “A few scouts have told me that Kikuchi has been on their radar,” wrote veteran NBP columnist Jim Allen. “And there is a good chance that from 2014 to 2016 he was the best defensive second baseman in the world.”
The slight second baseman also draws value from his ability to make surprisingly accurate throws from unbalanced or uncomfortable angles. Unfortunately, his arm strength doesn’t quite match, and most evaluators think he isn’t a fit at short. However, his defensive prowess at second would be a welcome addition to just about any team.
The real question is whether his offensive tools would carry over to the MLB.
Because of his size, Kikuchi shouldn’t be expected to contribute much in the way of power. He’s never hit more than 14 home runs in a single season, and that number may go down as he faces better pitching in the MLB. He does have a contact-geared swing that really works when it’s on, though, and his speed enables him to beat out ground balls and be an aggressive baserunner. Sports Info Solutions wrote that he has “decent bat speed” and “demonstrates quick wrists ... that allows him to whip the bat through the zone and hit line drives.”
Scouts are split on whether he’s suited to make a transition to MLB. Some, like Jim Allen, mentioned earlier, are believers in his extraordinary mentality and explosive defense. On the other hand, some outlets, like Sports Info Solutions, see too many flaws in his swing. MLB Trade Rumors also pointed out that in a market so flooded with second baseman, it’s even more difficult for a player to grab teams’ attention.
To be completely frank, such players sometimes find the leap from to MLB a difficult one to accomplish, thus making them in inherently risky. That’s a double-edged sword — it provides low-end teams with a field of players that offer upside they may not otherwise be able to land but it also means there’s a higher chance of investing millions in a player who might not pan out.
But if Kikuchi were a lock, the Tigers would be far less likely to have a shot at him. His dynamic defensive tools and strong clubhouse presence make him a more interesting option than a number of free agents. In the end, it comes down to whether the Tigers are willing to take the gamble.