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  1. Kicking the Tires on Kikuchi

    Back in 2009, Kikuchi was a prep phenom for Hanamaki Higashi HS, touching the mid-90s with his fastball as a teenager. As he nearly became the first Japanese player ever to bypass the NPB draft and enter MLB directly out of high school, one of the teams courting him was the Texas Rangers, reportedly offering $7 million.

    Thad Levine was assistant general manager for the Rangers as they ardently pursued Kikuchi, who opted to remain in Japan at the time. He was also their assistant GM a few years later when they pulled off the landmark Yu Darvish signing.

    Levine was Minnesota's GM last offseason when Ohtani – a generational two-way talent out of Japan – became available. At the time, Levine made no secret of his desire to land Ohtani, but his Twins didn't make the final cut. Ohtani ended up having a sensational rookie season for the Angels.

    Now, we turn our attention to Kikuchi. Let's be clear: Ohtani he is not (though they did attend the high school). Kikuchi's upside doesn't approach that of Ohtani as a pitcher, and hitting isn't even part of the equation. But the 27-year-old lefty offers a quality arm that would fit snugly within Minnesota's long-term strategy.

    "VERY INTERESTED"
    La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune tweeted on Friday that the Twins "like Kikuchi and have done a deep dive on him." A day later, the perpetually plugged in Darren Wolfson of KSTP added that the team is "very interested," and that Kikuchi has been scouted extensively by some of the organization's top evaluators.

    It isn't hard to see why Kikuchi would be of great interest to the Twins. First of all, they have plenty of money to spend. Secondly, they could use another starter – ideally a younger one who can pair with Jose Berrios as entrenched rotation fixtures.

    There is much to like about Kikuchi, who owns a 2.81 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in around 1,000 NPB innings. While it's tempting to draw up glitzy Ohtani comparisons, the more plausible comp is right-hander Miles Mikolas.

    Mikolas was a former seventh-round draft pick of the Padres who headed to Japan to re-establish himself after washing out of affiliated ball in his mid-20s. During his time with the Yomiuri Giants, he posted numbers that were similar in many ways to Kikuchi with the Saitama Seibu Lions – very strong, but not out-of-this-world overpowering or dominant. Last winter, Mikolas sought to return to the majors at age 28.

    The Cardinals signed him to a two-year deal worth $15.5 million, and boy has that investment paid off. Mikolas was phenomenal in 2018, finishing 18-4 with a 2.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 200 innings. He finished sixth in the NL Cy Young voting.

    The two aren't mirror images by any means. Mikolas has superior command, which was his calling card during a stellar reintroduction to the majors. But Kikuchi probably has the better repertoire, highlighted by a swing-and-miss slider. And he's a lefty.

    Mikolas is an encouraging precedent, both in terms of process and results. The Cards were able to add him cheaply, because of the inherent question marks in translating performance from a foreign league, but he was more than up to the task. Kikuchi will require more to sign than Mikolas, but he'll still be far cheaper than, say, Patrick Corbin (who is incidentally a pretty similar pitcher in the FB/SL southpaw mold).

    UPHILL BATTLE
    So the Twins are interested in Kikuchi. Why wouldn't they be? But this brings us to the core issue at hand: so is almost every other team in the majors. And as was the case with Ohtani, the Twins only have so much capacity in their efforts to woo him.

    Granted, this isn't nearly the same type of scenario that led to Los Angeles committing just $23 million last year to acquire Ohtani, who potential earnings were capped. Changes in the posting system, along with Kikuchi's heightened service time, mean that he'll be an unrestricted free agent in the traditional sense, with the Saitama Seibu Lions receiving a percentage of his eventual contract as a release fee.

    This actually works to the Twins' benefit. Going against big-market clubs and West Coast teams, they have some built-in disadvantages when it comes to recruiting talent out of Asia, before you even start talking about budget and resources. This ultimately doomed them in their pursuit of Ohtani. But with money being more of a differentiating factor, they have leverage to negotiate. If Minnesota's extensive scouting has created a strong confidence in Kikuchi's outlook, there's no reason the Twins can't hang with any other team in the bidding. They're still about $50 million short of matching their 2018 Opening Day payroll at present.

    But are they going to be able to outbid and outpitch every other big slugger in this race? The Yankees are known to be interested, and may be motivated after coming up short on Corbin. Kikuchi has been linked to the Padres, Dodgers and Mariners. Giants reporter Henry Schulman reported earlier this month that San Francisco "might be his first choice."



    Here's one wild card in this whole situation: Kikuchi is represented by Scott Boras. In one sense that's scary, since Boras is a notoriously tough negotiator and is known for brokering some of the biggest contracts in MLB history. But on the other hand, Boras also reps two of Minnesota's most integral long-term pieces: Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff. Those two would hopefully slot in alongside Kikuchi within the next few years.

    Is this advantageous in any way? I have no clue. But it's at least interesting to note.

    THE CLOCK IS TICKING
    Kikuchi was posted by the Seibu Lions on December 4th, and his 30-day window for open negotiations will end on January 2nd, so we'll have clarity on the lefty's future within 10 days. La Velle noted, in his tweet on the team's interest, that the Twins "think they won’t be one of the favorites to land him," which is unsurprising. But by all accounts, it looks like they are earnestly trying.

    If the money is there, and Kikuchi buys into Minnesota's vision of a perennial contender at Target Field fueled by fellow Boras clients Lewis and Kirilloff? Who knows. One thing's for sure: It'd be the kind of splashy addition this fan base could use.

    • Dec 23 2018 06:53 PM
    • by Nick Nelson