Japanese left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi said Thursday he picked the Seattle Mariners in part because he felt the American League team "needed me the most."
"I feel this team needed me the most and I feel chemistry between us," the 27-year-old said at a news conference after signing a four-year contract with the Mariners.
"Today is a very special day for my family and I...Playing in the big leagues has been a dream of mine since I was 15 years old," he said.
Kikuchi was posted to Major League Baseball on Dec. 3 by the Seibu Lions of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league after the 2018 season. He was eligible to negotiate and sign with any MLB team, and his deal with the Mariners was announced on Wednesday.
"From an age, character and talent standpoint, we don't think this fit could have been any better for us," Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto said at the news conference, adding that the team was "excited" to have landed "one of the premier pitchers in the world."
Kikuchi owns a career record of 73 wins, 46 losses and one save with a 2.77 ERA. This past season, he helped Seibu finish with the best record in the Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball when he went 14-4 and struck out 153 batters over 163-2/3 innings.
The Japanese pitcher, who will wear No. 18 for the Mariners, used English to answer most of the questions asked in the language. He said he has studied English "little by little" since he started dreaming of playing in the big leagues as a teenager.
The lefty said that Ichiro Suzuki, who finished his 18th major league season as special assistant to the Mariners' chairman, has had "a big influence" on the pursuit of his dream.
Asked about Shohei Ohtani, who won an MLB Rookie of the Year Award in November, Kikuchi said the Los Angeles Angels two-way star is a talented player against whom he wants to play "many times."
In response to a question about whether he, like Ohtani, also wants to step into the batter's box, Kikuchi said he wants to "focus on my pitching." Kikuchi and the 24-year-old Ohtani are graduates of the same high school in Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan.
Late in the 2018 season, Ohtani underwent Tommy John elbow ligament surgery and is unlikely to return to the mound in 2019 as he continues a lengthy rehab. Other Japanese stars like Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish have also suffered injuries resulting in the procedure after switching to the majors, where a five-day rotation leaves less rest between starts than is typical in NPB.
To allay concern over the demanding transition, Dipoto said the parties have crafted "a fairly unique contract" guaranteeing Kikuchi an adjustment process that draws on the team's method of acclimating minor-leaguers to the length of pro seasons.
"We think going from Opening Day through the end of the season and taking 30 starts without down time is critical to understanding a major-league season," Dipoto said. "But along the way, we can lessen the inning burden by, every fifth or sixth start, just making it a short start -- where there's a one-inning, 30-pitch type outing."
"We're not necessarily looking for complete games every night. We want to use 2019 to develop the innings in a more appropriate and health-oriented fashion," he added.
Mariners Manager Scott Servais acknowledged that it will take "discipline" to oversee such a process while "understanding where Yusei is in his development."
"As a manager, when (pitchers) get going good, you want to keep running them out there every fifth day. That's not what the plan is here -- it's a long-term play to get the most out of" Kikuchi, he said.
Kikuchi is the first Japanese player to be sent to the majors under the new posting system rules in effect since this postseason, whereby the Japanese team posting a player receives a fee based on an agreed percentage of the value of the contract, bonuses and incentives.
According to MLB.com, Kikuchi signed for an initial three years plus a player option in 2022, which can be replaced by an additional four-year guarantee totaling a seven-year stint overall.
He became the latest Japanese addition to the American League club, which has had at least one Japanese player on its roster every year since 1998, including Suzuki, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kenji Jojima, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Kazuhiro Sasaki.
The Mariners will open their 2019 season against the Oakland Athletics at Tokyo Dome in March.