Every year, the relationship between American baseball and Japanese baseball gets a little more complicated. Reports Tuesday indicate that Yusei Kikuchi, a high school pitcher expected to be the first player picked in Nippon Professional Baseball's amateur draft late next month, is contemplating skipping the draft in favor of coming to America.
That may not seem like a big deal, but under Major League Baseball's current rules, Kikuchi would not be subject to the MLB Draft and instead be declared a free agent, free to sign with any American team he wants. In light of Junichi Tazawa making a similar jump last year, skipping the NPB draft for America now carries a three-year ban, but Kikuchi would be the second top prospect in two years to make the leap, should he choose to do so.
I contacted Patrick Newman and Ryo Shinkawa, the authors of NPB Tracker, to ask about Kikuchi's situation.
Both agreed that because of age (Kikuchi is 18, Tazawa was 22 when he signed) Kikuchi is considered a much rawer prospect than Tazawa was last year and might not command contract on par with the three-year, $3.3 million deal he received from Boston, but that he still might command a seven-figure contract.
Given time spent in the minors, that may not represent more money than he'd make if he were to stay in Japan, though it's impossible to put a dollar figure on getting into the MLB system at the age of 18 without having to be posted or waiting to be granted free agency (which comes nine years after being drafted in Japan).
The above video is taken from Kikuchi's appearance in a high school tournament in July. His fastball clocks in anywhere between 85 and 92 mph and he seems to spot it nicely with a big, slow curve that clocks in the low 70s. He even mixes in an eephus pitch for good measure.
It's hard to really judge his talent with free-swinging high school kids batting against him, but I think a lefty with the ability to hit 90-plus on the radar gun regularly (he does at least three or four times in the inning shown above) and a breaking pitch would make him a pretty good prospect if he were an American high schooler.
It's not hard to see why an American team would be interested in signing him and adding him to their system, even with his young age.