A free agent class light on quality middle infielders is getting a boost thanks to the Hiroshima Carp in Japan. According to the Japan Times, the Carp will post second baseman Ryosuke Kikuchi for MLB teams this offseason. The team confirmed the news Friday.
"A lot of ballplayers want to go further, to play at the highest level, and I am one of those," Kikuchi told the Japan Times last year. He's been hoping to make the jump to MLB since playing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Kikuchi currently spends part of his offseasons training in the United States.
Kikuchi, 30 in March, is a dynamic defender at second base. He has never provided much offensive punch, however. Here are his stats the last few years:
The average hitter in Nippon Pro Baseball's Central League authored .253/.323/.392 batting line with an 8.6 percent walk rate and a 20.3 percent strikeout rate in 2019. Kikuchi's slash line the last three years has been more or less league average, though he puts more balls in play than the average player given his relatively low strikeout and walk rates.
Our R.J. Anderson included only six middle infielders on his top 50 free agent list:
12. Didi Gregorius
23. Howie Kendrick
24. Ben Zobrist
42. Scooter Gennett
44. Jose Iglesias
50. Starlin Castro
Gregorius had a disappointing season after coming back from Tommy John surgery. Kendrick fits best at first base these days and Zobrist very well might retire. Gennett was so bad this past season that he was released in August. Iglesias is the best comparison for Kikuchi as a light hitting/slick fielding middle infielder.
Here's what you need to know about the newest addition to the 2019-20 free agent class.
How good is he exactly?
Kikuchi is Jose Altuve-sized (5-foot-7 and 152 lbs.) and, as noted, he is a low impact hitter and a standout defender. Mark Simon of Sports Info Solutions said Kikuchi was leading all NPB second baseman with 20 Defensive Runs Saved near the end of the 2019 season, a number that would place him among MLB's elite glovemen. There are highlight videos aplenty on YouTube:
Simon adds Kikuchi has a "plus-plus glove at second base, but he lacks the arm strength to really excel anywhere else on the diamond. He'd probably be OK at shortstop, but his best fit is an everyday role at the keystone."
Jim Allen of the Kyodo News had this to say about Kikuchi:
A few scouts have told me that Kikuchi has been on their radar, and there is a good chance that from 2014 to 2016 he was the best defensive second baseman in the world.
He's nothing special as a hitter, but is a serious player and an engaging character, yet another plus makeup guy who will be a positive in the clubhouse.
The offensive numbers don't jump out at you, but Kikuchi won't have the bat knocked out of hands either. Two years ago he drove a 98 mph fastball out to the opposite field against former White Sox reliever Nate Jones at Dodger Stadium during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. You need to have some strength to do this:
Realistically, Kikuchi projects as a bottom of the order hitter in an MLB lineup who provides the most value with his glove. Iglesias has been a consistent 1.5 WAR player despite well-below-average offense because he's so good in the field. Kikuchi has a similar profile, though he is apparently limited to second base.
It's worth noting the most successful position players to come over from Japan have been outfielders: Nori Aoki, Hideki Matsui, and future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki. Big name infielders like Kaz Matsui and Tsuyoshi Nishioka mostly flopped. There's some thought the speed of the game on the infield requires too much of an adjustment, and outfielders have a better chance at MLB success.
How does the posting process work?
Kikuchi will not qualify for international free agency until after the 2021 season, so he must be posted to come over to MLB this offseason. It can sometimes be difficult to get the team to go along with that, but Hiroshima is apparently willing.
Once a team posts a player, he has 30 days to negotiate a contract of any size with MLB teams. The player returns to his team in Japan if he's unable to agree to terms within the 30 days. The MLB team that signs the player pays his former club in Japan a "release fee" that is based on a percentage of his total contract guarantee:
- Contract worth $25 million or less: 20 percent of total guarantee.
- Contract worth $25 million and $50 million: $5 million plus 17.5 percent of amount over $25 million.
- Contract worth $50 million: $9.375 million plus 15 percent of amount over $50 million.
The posting window opened Nov. 1 and will close Dec. 5. Players can be posted anytime between those dates with the full 30-day negotiating window to follow. That ensures the process will not drag out into January (like Masahiro Tanaka in 2014) and hold up the rest of free agency.
The posting process was changed two years and Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi (no relation) is the only player to jump to MLB under the current rules thus far. He signed a complicated four-year, $56 million contract with one player option year and multiple club option years. The Mariners paid his former team, the Seibu Lions, a release fee north of $10 million.
Which teams could be interested?
There have not yet been any reports or rumors connecting Kikuchi to specific MLB teams. MLB teams of course scout Japan (some more than others), so he is a known entity. Quality middle infielders are always in demand, though Kikuchi being limited to second base -- he has played only 20 career games at shortstop with the Carp and none since 2013 -- will limit his market somewhat.
Kikuchi's market figures to include both contenders who want to bolster their infield defense and rebuilding teams eager to add a player young enough to be considered a building block. The Mariners are very much in a rebuild and they signed Kikuchi last year. Two years ago the Angels, a team trying to compete, landed Shohei Ohtani.
These teams strike me as potential fits for Kikuchi (to be clear, this is just my speculation):
- Athletics: Jurickson Profar fell flat in 2019 and the A's don't seem to love prospect Franklin Barreto.
- Brewers: Would they move the defensively deficient Keston Hiura to first base in his second year?
- Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte can move to center field full-time, where he rates best defensively.
- Indians: They declined their club option on Jason Kipnis and have an opening at second base.
- Nationals: The World Champs have an opening at second given Kendrick's free agency.
- Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia is hurt, Brock Holt is a free agent, and Michael Chavis can play first base.
It's so early in the process that I would not rule out any MLB team pursuing Kikuchi this offseason. It's harder to see some teams having interest than others, sure, but all 30 clubs will do their due diligence over the next few weeks, before the posting becomes official.