It’s no secret the the Arizona Diamondbacks are in a time of transition. One of the biggest changes coming to the Diamondbacks is their starting pitching. For the past two seasons, the Diamondbacks starting pitching has been, in a word, excellent. Over the previous two seasons, the Diamondbacks were tied for third in the majors and behind only the Dodgers in the NL when ranking by ERA-. Those results were largely the result of having a relatively healthy pitching staff and outstanding single-season performances by Robbie Ray and Patrick Corbin, backed up by Zack Greinke’s typical excellence.
The 2019 season looks to be quite different. Patrick Corbin has departed for free agency. Taijuan Walker will begin 2019 on the DL as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. He is not anticipated to be back until early-July. Clay Buchholz, last season’s answer to injury woes finished the season injured and is now a free agent. Additionally, the team is now reported to be aggressively shopping the team’s ace, Zack Greinke. Those departures and injuries leave the Diamondbacks with two known commodities in the rotation, Robbie Ray, and Zack Godley. Those two combined for only 302 innings in 2018. As a general rule, most teams look for about 900 innings out of the starting rotation, give or take a few based on workhorses and injuries. That’s a ton of innings to replace.
The Diamondbacks have got their work cut out for them when it comes to finding replacement innings. Walker may be able to contribute 70-90 innings after returning from injury. Matt Koch is still with the team. He provided 86.2 innings in 2018, though relying on him as a full-time starter is a risky proposition at best. Jon Duplantier is still waiting to make his MLB debut. He’s likely to start the season in AAA. Even if he begins the year on the big league roster, he is still likely going to top out around 140 innings. Taylor Widener is also in the wings, but is not likely to see the bigs until July or August at the earliest, barring injuries forcing the issue. All told, the Diamondbacks, even with bullish projections on the contributions from their current options, still need to find about 300 innings of help for the starting rotation.
It remains possible, even somewhat likely, that Mike Hazen finds a starting pitcher through trades over the winter. With the impending trade of Paul Goldschmidt and the likely trade of Zack Greinke, it seems like Hazen would be addressing the team’s need for pitching in at least one of the returns. Even with a starting pitching acquired via trade, it is almost a certainty that the team will still need at least one more starter. That starter will likely have to come from the pool of free agents. To put things bluntly, that pool of pitchers stinks this winter. After the top two pitchers, Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, the drop-off in talent is rather steep. The next two best arms are likely Nathan Eovaldi and A.J. Happ. Eovaldi is already a two-time Tommy John pitcher. Happ is already 36 years of age. Charlie Morton had a good 2018, but he is already 35 and just finished a career year. Expecting more than two years of slightly above average pitching out of him is rolling the dice.
There is another option though, Japanese starter Yusei Kikuchi. Kikuchi is only 27-years old. He projects as a #3 or #4 starter in the big leagues. He has a healthy arm. He’s even a lefty to boot. Under the new negotiating rules, all 30 teams will have a 30-day window to negotiate with Kikuchi, who has signed on with Scott Boras.
The Nuts and Bolts
This is the first season to employ the new posting system that allows Japanese players to leave the NPB before their contracts are up. Unlike previous seasons, the posting fee now operates as a percentage of the contract that the player actually signs. This means that, beyond the actual contract given to Kikuchi, the team which signs him will need to pay a release fee equal to 20 percent of the first $25MM of the deal, plus 17.5 percent of the next $25MM of the contract, plus another 15 percent of anything beyond $50MM. (A $60MM contract, for instance, would come with a release fee of $10.875MM.) The Lions will also receive a sum equal to 15 percent of any non-guaranteed money that Kikuchi eventually earns (e.g. performance bonuses, option salaries). This means any team signing Kikuchi will still have a steep up-front cost compared to the AAV of the contract, but it will now be one manageable for any team in the league.
The Case for Kikuchi
Under the best of circumstances, the Diamondbacks are going to need to add one more full-time starter to the rotation. While it is unlikely Kikuchi will be a 200 IP pitcher in 2019, penciling him in for 160 is not a stretch. With that full season under his belt, he should be able to eat up plenty of innings in future seasons. Kikuchi’s age and health are pluses. Unlike Happ and Morton, who will likely have to settle for two year deals, Kikuchi is probably in line for a contract of four to six years. This means he’s still be around through at least 2021 and 2022, when the next wave of premium tallent should be arriving from the Diamondbacks’ farm system, possibly longer. Eovaldi may also receive a four-year deal, but his hard-throwing mechanics, history of multiple Tommy John surgeries, and average annual value are all red flags. Kikuchi is younger, will likely sign for as many seasons, has fewer injury concerns, and is unlikely to get anywhere near the premium value that Eovaldi lands. Short of Kikuchi breaking or simply ending up a bust, just about any contract he is signed to is going to include plenty of excess value. This means the Diamondbacks could always trade him at a later date for another player of value that better fits their needs.
The Case Against
The Diamondbacks are attempting to trim payroll for 2019. Even if they unload 100% of Greinke’s contract, finding a starting pitcher is hardly their only area of need. The departure of A.J. Pollock leaves the team without a reliable solution for center field. A combination of Jarrod Dyson and Socrates Brito raises as many questions and concerns as it addresses there. The departure of Jeff Mathis leaves the team with only Alex Avila and John Ryan Murphy as candidates to spend time behind the plate. Ildemaro Vargas currently looks like the team’s front-runner for replacing Daniel Descalso. None of these holes has a ready, in-house solution. That means filling those holes through trades or free agency. It is also unknown just how far the Diamondbacks are desiring to trim payroll. The departure of Goldschmidt and Greinke will save the team over $45 million in 2019. However, as things stand right now, they are slated to spend somewhere between $135-140 million just on the players they already have. Another potential obstacle could be Kikuchi’s agent. There is plenty of bad blood between Scott Boras and the Arizona Diamondbacks. That bad blood goes back many years and is tainted by the egos of the two men pulling the strings, Boras and Diamondbacks Managing Partner, Ken Kendrick. This does not mean the two will never again work out a deal for a premium free agent, but it does complicate matters.
Lastly, the Diamondbacks will be competing with all 30 teams. As other Japanese free agents have shown, it isn’t just about the money. While the presence of Yoshihisa Hirano might help Arizona build their case, Arizona is not exactly a destination spot with a large media market. In that arena, the Yankees, Dodgers, Seattle, all have a leg-up, while San Diego benefits from its location in southern California and being poised to explode with talent over the next two or three seasons as well as having about $50 million in expected payroll room. This means that other teams could force the Diamondbacks to be overly aggressive if they wish to pursue Kikuchi, something that Kendrick is usually (but not always) adverse to. It would also work against the stated goal of trimming payroll.
Even not knowing what the final payroll figures for Arizona need to look like, it still makes sense to aggressively pursue Kikuchi this winter. MLB Trade Rumors projects him going to the Padres for 6 years/$42 million. If that gets the job done, Arizona should be squarely in the hunt. Going as high as $8-10 million AAV on a six-year deal is still a small gamble when compared to the contracts being handed out for starting pitching these days. With Boras as his agent, it’s likely that Kikuchi will wind up with an opt-out after either three or four seasons in he signs a six-year deal. That still provides enough seasons of coverage that the Diamondbacks could expect Kikuchi to be around for the first year or two of the next projected “competitive window”.