clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It may be time to re-think Kenta Maeda’s role on the pitching staff

He wants to remain a starter—but is that realistic at this point?

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Coming off the remarkable Bomba Squad season of 2019, the Minnesota Twins were in the market for a solid starting pitcher. While not necessarily wanting to smash the piggy bank for an A-1 ace just yet, they targeted Kenta Maeda of the Los Angeles Dodgers as a solid, high-upside acquisition.

Maeda—after starring with the Hiroshima Carp from 2009-2015 in his native Japan—bounced back-and-forth rather successfully between the Dodger rotation and pen in the 2016-2019 seasons. But Kenta wanted a full-time starting gig and Minnesota was happy to oblige so a deal was struck.

The partnership couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. In the pandemic-shortened 2020, King Kenta posted a 6-1 record, 2.70 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, & 160 ERA+ in 66.2 innings—all starts. He finished a narrow second to Shane Bieber in AL Cy Young Award balloting.

Wild Card Round - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game One
Sadly, only cardboard got to witness Maeda’s ‘20 dominance in the flesh
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

In 2021 Maeda was again an exclusive starter—but something wasn’t quite right. After 21 outings (106.1 IP, 4.66 ERA, 91 ERA+) and battles with groin & shoulder ailments, Kenta was shut down in September and underwent Tommy John surgery which sidelined him for the entirety of 2022 as well.

Despite a shaky Spring Training this year, the Twins stuck with Maeda as their fifth starter—even with Bailey Ober clearly ready-to-rock. But it was a semi-disastrous April for the now-veteran hurler.

Kenta Maeda’s 2023 starts:

  • 5 IP, 1 ER, 9 K at Miami. Actually a great start—despite the team loss—for Kenta’s comeback tour.
  • 6 IP, 4 ER vs White Sox. Clearly not as sharp in this second outing.
  • 2 IP, 1 ER at Boston. After having this third tilt pushed back for a little extra rest, Maeda got smoked in the shin with a batted ball and had to leave the contest early.
  • 3 IP, 10 ER vs New York Yankees. Disaster struck in this utterly non-competitive outing.
New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins
Where to go from here?
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

After the Yankees meltdown, Maeda was placed on Injured Reserve with what the team is calling a right triceps strain. I do not believe there is a timetable for his return.

It has been close to three calendar years at this point since Maeda has been a reliable starting pitcher. I realize he has every incentive—quite literally built into his contract—to return to first-inning duty. But he isn’t getting any younger—35 at the moment—and right now the Twins bullpen features two arms that no one ever wants to see: Emilio Pagan & Jovani Moran. Would Maeda be an improvement over those options? Almost certainly.

Not only does Kenta have the aforementioned bullpen pedigree from his Chavez Ravine days, but he has even succeeded in that role in the playoff spotlight. His career postseason stats are an impressive 37.2 IP, 2.87 ERA, 1.16 WHIP—and only 4 of those outings were starts.

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three
Pitching in the World Series for the Dodgers
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Of course, this is all dependent on when Maeda is ready to return to action and how the rotation looks at that time. But if Ober and Louie Varland are holding down the fort, it may be time for a Maeda-to-the-bullpen conversation. Would Kenta acquiesce to such an arrangement if it made the overall team stronger (despite his contract boosts to the contrary)? If he wants to see the rubber in October again, coming in from Target Field’s CF swinging gate may just be his best opportunity.