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Kikuchi finding another level for Jays in contract year

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TORONTO — Whether you believe its embedded in the psyche of an athlete hoping to cash in or simply call it good timing, there’s a long history of contract year cases around sports.

Yusei Kikuchi looks to be in the midst of authoring another success story.

After breaking out last year to a degree in the second year of the three-year, $36-million contract he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays during spring training 2022 by finally cutting the walks and limiting home runs, Kikuchi seems primed to hit another level in 2024.

Through nine starts, the Japanese lefty has been as consistent as we’ve ever seen him during his six years in the majors.

Sitting on a 2.60 ERA after a short but dominant outing Wednesday in Baltimore, Kikuchi’s command has found another level, he’s limited the long-ball with a stunning four homers allowed, and he’s still showing his swing-and-miss stuff, striking out nine more Orioles this week to sit on 55 punchouts across 52 frames this season.

Simply put, Kikuchi is shifting his previously volatile mid-rotation ceiling into maybe something more.

Consider this: Last year at this time, there was concern that Kikuchi might have to be relegated to the bullpen yet again, a spot where he found himself finishing out 2022.

At that point, the three-year pact the Jays handed him did not look great.

On May 24 last year, Kikuchi had just finished giving up a five-spot of earned runs and was sitting on a 4.56 ERA, with the peripherals painting a similar picture of mediocrity.

Thirty-one starts later, thanks to some more tinkering with his mechanics and his ever-evolving pitch mix — an 83-mph curveball that he didn’t throw a couple of years ago has developed into his best pitch — Kikuchi has gone on to post a 3.26 ERA since the end of last May, a mark that’s fully supported by a 3.13 FIP.

Kikuchi’s resurgence has been quite remarkable, even if his filthy stuff always pointed to this type of ceiling since the day he arrived in North America and signed a three-year deal with the Seattle Mariners.

When all is said and done at the end of 2024, Kikuchi will have earned more than $70 million over his six MLB seasons.

That total might be the floor for his next contract this winter.

If he continues to pitch as brilliantly as he has, Kikuchi, heading into his age-34 campaign next season, is going to be viewed atop the second tier of free agent starting pitchers when free agency opens in November, right behind Corbin Burnes, Max Fried, Blake Snell and Walker Buehler.

With the way he’s pitching early on, he’s even building a case that he deserves to be mentioned alongside those names in the top tier.

If the Jays were willing to guarantee him $36 million coming off a 4.41 ERA heading into the 2022 season, what will Kikuchi be worth to teams coming off a great year?

With the unpredictable way the market went for Snell and Jordan Montgomery last winter, it’s become much tougher to predict with any sort of confidence, but this version of Kikuchi checks every single box, including durability and an every-fifth-day ceiling of dominance.

At this point, it wouldn’t make much sense for Kikuchi to consider an extension with the Jays with the open market on the horizon, but GM Ross Atkins & Co. have some serious long-term planning to do when it comes to the future of their rotation.

Kikuchi hits the free-agent market this winter, followed by Chris Bassitt in 2025, and then Kevin Gausman in 2026.

The staggered nature of their rotation stalwarts hitting free agency is actually a good thing, but there isn’t much in-house that suggests rotation won’t be an extreme need, starting this winter when Kikuchi is entertaining offers from other clubs.

This was supposed to be the summer that Ricky Tiedemann eased his way into a rotation spot with an eye on an impactful role in 2025, but injuries have slowed the pace of the club’s top prospect significantly, while Alek Manoah’s long-term ceiling will start to become clearer over the next couple of months.

Manoah and Kikuchi are great examples of how fortunes, as well as perception, can change in the blink of an eye in baseball, especially on the pitching side where it’s always a fine line between mediocrity and excellence.

While the 4.07 ERA in a Blue Jays uniform won’t wow anyone, Kikuchi has been a huge win for the Jays as an affordable free-agent investment, and his biggest contribution may still be yet to come.

No, not by dazzling for the Jays down the stretch.

Right now, it’s easier to think about what Kikuchi could fetch them at the trade deadline in two months.