Two developments over the weekend emerged from Minneapolis that figure to be of intrigue to Seattle sports fans.
The Mariners’ new ace (of April, anyway) is, of all pitchers, Yusei Kikuchi. Partly by ability and partly by default.
And former Mariners star Alex Rodriguez signed a deal to become, in 2023, co-owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, arguably the least successful NBA team in the 21st century. So his Mariners roots are likely to come handy.
First, the current M’s.
A likely season-ending elbow injury has foreclosed on the comeback of No. 2 starter James Paxton at two innings. No. 1 starter Marco Gonzales is on an anything-but-very-boring tumble off the edge of the earth after two unexpectedly bad outings.
Yet the Mariners are 5-4 after winning their second series of the season Sunday despite the non-production of the two starters, as well as star CF Kyle Lewis, yet to play because of a bruised knee.
Lots of contributors, of course. But in 12 innings over his first two starts, Kikuchi struck out 16 and walked three, including a 4-3 win Saturday in 10 innings over a strong Twins lineup when he permitted five hits over six innings, with two walks and six strikeouts.
Not All-Star material. But for a guy with a U.S. career ERA of 5.30 entering his third season season of a four-year deal worth $56 million, it’s overdue production at a good time.
Since his American arrival, Kikuchi, 30 in June, had issues with mechanics, control and command that overshadowed his flashes of competence. At $16.5 million, his salary occupies 20 percent of the payroll, and is second only to 3B Kyle Seager’s $18.5 million. After a 4-for-4 Sunday that included two home runs to help Seattle overcome a 6-0 deficit to win 8-6, Seager is earning his keep.
Kikuchi has begun.
“Kikuchi was outstanding again,” manager Scott Servais said after Saturday’s game. “He feels really good about where he’s at, the adjustments he’s made and the growth he’s made. Not just with his pitches but his approach, his attitude when he’s out there. I like it.
“He’s more animated, he’s fired up. You see more of his personality starting to come out. That’s a good thing . . . We’re going to need many, many more outings like that out of him. He’s got that type of ability and it’s great to see it playing out.”
We all understand it’s mid-April, and we all understand the Mariners’ are in step-back year No. 44. But since no one else is doing much in the American League, the prospect of having high expectations met finally met by someone in blue represents a breakthrough in a world otherwise given over to dithering.
Regarding Rodriguez, his latest effort to stay in the headlines after his break-up/make-up drama with fiance Jennifer Lopez is to buy into a sports league that knows what it’s doing, as opposed to MLB.
He and a billionaire partner and friend (he does have one), Marc Lore, have signed an agreement to buy from Glen Taylor the Wolves and WNBA Lynx for $1.5 billion, according to ESPN. Taylor will hold the team until after the 2022-23 season.
The development was a surprise to all, although Taylor, 79, who has owned the Wolves since 1994, has shopped the team before.
The traditional knee-jerk consequence of news about an NBA franchise sale is suspicion of relocation. No knees jerk harder than those in the void Seattle market.
But Taylor, who also owns the Minneapolis Star Tribune, told his newspaper that a stipulation will be in the agreement to preclude such a move.
“They will keep the team here, yes. We will put it in the agreement,” Taylor said. “At this point we have a letter of intent, but when we make up the contract we’ll put that in there. That’s no problem. That won’t be a problem.”
Legal observers in July told the Star Tribune such language in a potential deal would be tricky to enforce and would have to avoid being overly punitive in the case of a move for it to hold up in court.
In any event, the likelihood of relocation is minuscule, precisely because of what happened in Seattle in 2008.
The NBA has not relocated a team in the 13 years since the hijacking of the Sonics to Oklahoma City (other than the temporary move of the Raptors from Toronto to Tampa for reasons of COVID-19). In the 13 years prior, however, the NBA moved four teams.
While it’s wise to never say never, the NBA monopoly has reached such financial imperviousness that operating a team in any city has become nearly idiot-proof. Taylor’s tenure helps make the case.
Over the past 16 seasons, the T-Wolves have had one winning season and one playoff appearance, and are on their eighth coach in that span. Ryan Saunders, who in his third season, is 13-40 and on the plank. Still, the sale is worth $1.5 billion.
Additionally, the blowback the NBA received from then-Commissioner David Stern’s ruthless pettiness has left a scar, even if owners and executives dare not show it. Bad look to do to another town what was done to Seattle.
Besides, the pandemic has changed the sports world, even the NBA.
The notion of expansion, once distant, is potentially a fix for the financial damage from the shutdown.
Commissioner Adam Silver raised the expansion idea himself in a preseason press conference in December. Now that Seattle will have an NBA-capable arena by this fall, speculation was that expansion to two among four likeliest cities — Seattle, Las Vegas, Kansas City and Mexico City — would net a one-time fee of $2.5 billion each. That would give the NBA $5 billion to share among the 30 clubs.
The Wolves’ sale price would seem to tamp down the notion of a $2,5 billion fee. Whatever the fee is down the road, it is far more lucrative than giving one of the bid cities to a Wolves relocation.
Especially this relocation. Because Seattle fans would be forced to consider forgiving Rodriguez for his duplicitousness after the 2000 season, and general career smarminess.
Some things are just not possible.