Yusei Kikuchi was about 9 years old when he went to his first professional baseball game to watch the Orix Blue Wave.
He was eager to see his idol, Ichiro Suzuki, up close and in person. Of course, Ichiro would sign with the Mariners the next year, so Kikuchi wanted to witness his farewell tour in Japan.
Kikuchi never imagined he’d one day be playing alongside Ichiro and in the running to start one of the first two games for the Seattle Mariners in Tokyo where Seattle has a two-game series March 20-21 against the Oakland Athletics.
“I was very anxious to watch (Ichiro) play in person,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter about attending that game 18 years ago. “I went there only knowing of Ichiro, and I still remember the aura that Ichiro had on the field, how exciting it was to watch Ichiro play in person.
“Since then I’ve read any book there is about Mr. Ichiro, any articles about Mr. Ichiro and his play style and work ethic. It’s something I really study, and I’m looking forward to being able to work with him — and I have a lot of questions I want to ask him.”
By the Mariners, there’s excitement about Kikuchi’s first year in the United States. The 27-year-old left-hander, like Ichiro before him, made the jump to Seattle this offseason as one of Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto’s many moves.
“We’ve done a lot of things in our time here in Seattle in trades and roster shifting and constructing, but (signing Kikuchi) has been the most enjoyable because it was unexpected and a lot of fun,” Dipoto said. “We got the chance to add one of the premier pitchers in the world and a pitcher has had a great deal of success in Nippon Professional Baseball and the international stage.
“Now we get a chance to bring him to T-Mobile Park and Seattle where we think the fit is just about as good as it can be. From age, character and talent standpoints, we don’t think this fit could have been any better for us.”
That being said, let’s do a quick status update on the Mariners’ starting rotation as the team began spring training on Monday in Peoria, Ariz.:
Their ace pitcher from last year, James Paxton, is now with the New York Yankees.
Their ace pitcher of the previous 13 years, Felix Hernandez, was so poor in 2018 that he was briefly demoted to the bullpen before returning to the rotation out of necessity.
Yet even considering those the Mariners’ projected 2019 rotation has considerable potential and far more depth than at this point a year ago.
Kikuchi will be at the top of their rotation, but so will Marco Gonzales. At this point last year few knew if Gonzales would even be on their roster because he was out of minor-league options, and now he might be their Opening Day starter.
Then there’s the youth infusion the Mariners added to their farm system, which was maybe the most thin in baseball in terms of starting-pitching prospects. It cost them Paxton, Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano, but the Mariners farm cupboards are no longer barren.
“I feel like we’re in a similar place as we were a year ago, with even more upside,” Dipoto said. “With Yusei Kikuchi, with Justus Sheffield, with Justin Dunn, with Erik Swanson, it gives us a lot of fun upside in our rotation — and we all know about Marco Gonzales. And, frankly, we know a lot about Wade LeBlanc and how he would handle a full season of starts.
“So the starting rotation, we’re very comfortable and in a very good space.”
The only sure pieces last year at this point were Paxton, Hernandez and right-hander Mike Leake.
Then they signed LeBlanc in the final week of spring training to be in their bullpen, and Gonzales had emerged in spring training and solidified his spot in the bottom of the rotation.
The Mariners’ starting staff was thought to be their biggest question mark. It turned into probably their greatest strength.
Gonzales won 13 games, Paxton won 11, Leake won 10 and LeBlanc vaulted into the rotation when Erasmo Ramirez had the first of his two trips to the disabled list. LeBlanc would finish with the best earned-run average on the staff (3.72), just ahead of Paxton (3.76).
Leake pitched the most innings (185 2/3) with the most starts (31) for the Mariners and had the lowest walk rate of a staff that had the fewest total walks allowed in baseball.
“Our pitching far exceeded expectations,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Where we were a year ago, every one of you guys (media and fans) was wondering why we didn’t go sign a big-time free-agent starting pitcher. We didn’t think we needed it. We were right.”
But Servais also knows they got a lot more out of some of their pitchers than even they expected, particularly the 34-year-old LeBlanc.
Even early in LeBlanc’s career with the San Diegeo Padres, he never started 27 games in a single season before 2018. He drew frequent comparisons to former Mariners lefty Jamie Moyer — even from his manager.
“There’s a guy named Jamie Moyer who pitched for a long time and people didn’t think that was sustainable, either, because he didn’t blow you away with his fastball,” Servais said during the season. “It’s a feel to pitch.”
That earned LeBlanc a contract extension midseason, so he’s signed through 2019 with club options through 2022. It’s the first time in years he had a contract beyond a one-year deal — and he was maybe the most feel-good story of the 2018 Mariners.
“Man, to be honest, I thought my career was over after Japan,” LeBlanc said of his 2015 season in NPB. One of his teammates there, coincidentally, was Kikuchi.
“I was always kind of a nobody, but there you’re really a nobody because you kind of fall off the map. I was hanging on to the map by a thread,” LeBlanc said.
How LeBlanc can build off 2018 in 2019 is a watchpoint this spring, but he’s set in the Mariners’ rotation plans. It figures to be some order of Gonzales, Kikuchi, Leake, LeBlanc and Hernandez, with Sheffield and Swanson, who were acquired from the Yankees in the November Paxton trade, waiting next in line.
And how Kikuchi adjusts is another thing to monitor. The Mariners already laid out plans to bring him along slowly, meaning Sheffield and Swanson should get plenty of looks as spot starters or in long-relief roles to bring them along, too.
Then there’s of course, how the Mariners handle Hernandez in the final year of his contract — a season after he posted a 5.55 ERA and went 8-14 over 28 starts and one relief appearance.
Dipoto did emphasize that there’s no way Hernandez is their next closer.
“I don’t want to put the kibosh on that any more than to say that’s chatter at the water cooler,” Dipoto said.
He also emphasized that, while their five-man rotation appears set, they fully intend on developing their prospects as they see fit.
“Right now, the commitment is to those five,” Dipoto said. “It’s up to Scott what order they pitch, and we’ll take it from there. But we won’t let anything stand in the way of developing the young players when it’s their time.
“If you look at our roster today with YK and Mike Leake, Marco, Felix, Wade LeBlanc and Roenis Elias and then what we think is a wave of players who are coming led by Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson being the next closest — we’re excited about that group, and we think over the course of a 1,500-inning season there is plenty to be moved around.”