Twins

Yusei Kikuchi Is the Perfect Twins Trade Deadline Target

Photo Credit: Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

As MLB’s Trade Deadline nears later this month, the Minnesota Twins only have a few holes to fill. The offense has been the best in baseball since their 7-13 start. While the bullpen could use reinforcements, the impending return of high-leverage right-handed relievers Brock Stewart and Justin Topa could function as the team’s bullpen “acquisitions” later this season. However, there is one hole that decision-makers would be wise to fill.

Acquiring a playoff-caliber starting pitcher.

The organization has two starting pitchers fans would be comfortable watching start a playoff game: Joe Ryan and Pablo López. However, López has had a shaky first half of the season (5.18 ERA and 78 ERA+ in 18 starts and 99 innings pitched). In the past, Ryan has also regressed late in the season. Therefore, it is hard to have unwavering confidence in these two options. Bailey Ober, Simeon Woods Richardson, and Chris Paddack have performed admirably this season. While they have significant value over a 162-game season, they aren’t viable playoff starters.

Ober has struggled to consistently pitch well this season, experiencing exceptional highs and damaging lows. His high-variance nature makes it hard to entrust him in high-leverage moments. However, he will likely be Minnesota’s third playoff starter if they don’t acquire a starter at the MLB Trade Deadline.

Although Woods Richardson has performed well in his rookie season, his underlying metrics (4.42 xFIP) suggest he is due for some regression that could manifest around playoff time. Paddack has struggled with health concerns and shaky performances when healthy. Like last postseason, he is better suited transitioning into a reliever rather than as a stretched-out starter come playoff time.

According to FanGraphs, the Twins have an 85.6% chance of making the playoffs and are in the second AL Wild Card spot. Ryan and López are serviceable playoff starters, but if the Twins find themselves in a winner-take-all third Wild Card game, how many fans would be confident in Ober, Woods Richardson, or Paddack’s ability to lead the team to the Divisional Series? Therefore, Minnesota’s decision-makers should be incentivized to acquire another serviceable playoff arm, and Toronto Blue Jays left-handed starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi is the ideal candidate.

Kikuchi, 33, has been a mainstay in the Blue Jays rotation for the past two-and-a-half seasons. He struggled in the first year of the three-year, $36 million contract he signed with Toronto in 2022, generating a 5.19 ERA, 5.62 FIP, and 74 ERA+ over 20 starts and 100 2/3 innings pitched. However, he excelled in his second season, posting a 3.86 ERA, 4.12 FIP, and 111 ERA+ over 32 starts and 167 2/3 innings pitched.

The Japanese-born pitcher performed particularly after the All-Star break last season, generating a 3.39 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and an 85-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 14 starts and 74 1/3 innings pitched. He has also started this season strong, riding his plus fastball and imposing slider to a 4.12 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and 98 ERA+ while being one of the struggling Blue Jays’ lone bright spots.

Toronto should be a seller in the upcoming MLB Trade Deadline, and Kikuchi will likely be one of the more prominent players to depart the team. He’s in a contract year, which makes him particularly attractive to the Twins.

Kikuchi entered the 2023 MLB Season earning $10 million. Still, if the Twins acquired Kikuchi on the July 30 trade deadline, they would be responsible for paying only $3 to $3.5 million of his remaining deal. Minnesota is operating on a budget due to the Bally Sports bankruptcy. However, they could afford a short-term rental to help their playoff push, and the intriguing Blue Jays veteran lefty could be the perfect option.

Kikuchi could also help the Twins as they attempt to chase down the seemingly unshakeable Cleveland Guardians for first place in the AL Central. However, his value could reside in more high-leverage areas. Not to get too far ahead of things, but he could play a significant role for Minnesota in the postseason.

Hypothetically, López could start Game 1, Ryan could start Game 2, and Kikuchi could start Game 3. The Twins could also use him as a “piggyback” option for López in Game 1 or Ryan in Game 2, similarly to what he did for José Berríos in Game 2 of the Wild Card series against the Twins last postseason. Possessing an established starter and adequate flexibility are essential facets needed for a team to succeed in the postseason, and Kikuchi would provide both.

Since Kikuchi would be a rental, the Twins might not need to part ways with significant prospect capital. However, there will inevitably be competition to acquire the veteran southpaw’s services, meaning his price tag could become hefty. Ideally, the organization would have to send out a mid-teens to high-20s level prospect like Tanner Schobel or Ricardo Olivar. Yet, they could be forced to bid adieu to a prominent prospect like Marco Raya or Andrew Morris to seal the deal.

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