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What Will Kenta Maeda's Role Be in 2023? What Should It Be?


When it comes to Minnesota's offseason rotation outlook, there's an elephant in the room. 

Kenta Maeda likely expects to return to a starting job. But the Twins would be wise to make other plans. Where does that leave him, and their relationship?

Image courtesy of Ken Blaze, USA Today

First, a quick catch-up on Kenta Maeda's history for the unfamiliar. 

Signed in 2016 out of Japan by the Dodgers, his contract was laden with incentives due to questions about the health of his elbow. 

Over the course of his time in Los Angeles, Maeda was often shuffled between rotation and bullpen – in part to manage that elbow, and in part because the Dodgers were usually overflowing with starting talent. This limited the ability of Maeda to trigger his contract incentives, which frustrated him and ultimately contributed to his being traded.

In Minnesota, where "overflowing with rotation talent" is a problem that's never existed, Maeda immediately locked down a full-time rotation spot. And boy, did he deliver, with a phenomenal effort in the truncated 2020 season that earned him a runner-up AL Cy Young finish.

The following campaign was a struggle, however – right up until he went down in August with an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery. We saw the best of Maeda, then the worst of Maeda, and now 18 months of no Maeda. He'll be coming back next spring and nobody really knows what to expect.

How do you plan around the unexpected? The Twins would be negligent to write Maeda's name in ink as a member of their rotation. Consider that:

  • Maeda is coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery at age 35. 
  • He has thrown 173 innings total since 2019.
  • His velocity had been trending down before the injury, with a fastball dipping into the 80s.

I'm not saying Maeda can't come back and be an effective starter with a relatively normal workload. But can you count on that? 

Coming off a season where Sonny Gray was limited to 119 innings, and with Tyler Mahle having his question marks ... I don't think you can. And I don't think the Twins will. With ample spending flexibility this offseason, they need to replace Maeda with a more dependable frontline starter. 

He is an ideal candidate to open the season in a long reliever or swingman role, largely because he's got so much experience doing it. In the two seasons prior to Maeda's trade to Minnesota, 30 of his 76 appearances (40%) came out of the bullpen. And he's shown he can be effective in that role, with a 3.19 lifetime ERA as a reliever. 

Now, there is the matter of Maeda's stance on all of this. He's a well-liked veteran player and he has a voice in his usage. Maeda would surely prefer to start, both to maximize his 2023 earnings and to set himself up for the future. He said before undergoing surgery he planned to "pitch for maybe five years" and that was partially his motivation to get it taken care of. 

At the same time, Maeda's a professional and has to know that the team's needs come first. His performance in 2020 isn't forgotten, but can't be leaned on as an expectation based on all that's happened since. 

This plan doesn't preclude Maeda from starting more games, it just means he has to earn his way back into that role. He's been playing for the Twins long enough to know that opportunities will come along in this rotation over the course of the year, and probably very early, if he's doing his part and showing he can still get outs. This might actually form an ideal scenario where he's able to limit his innings early on and keep him fresh later into the season (and playoffs?) in light of his minimal workload baseline. 

Using their considerable funds to fill Maeda's rotation spot with a verified stud (calling Carlos Rodon!) would be the kind of step this front office needs to take to build confidence in this starting unit and hedge against all the risk attached to their top veteran arms. 

What do you think? What's the proper way to proceed with Maeda as he enters his last year of team control?


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This plan doesn't preclude Maeda from starting more games, it just means he has to earn his way back into that role. He's been playing for the Twins long enough to know that opportunities will come along in this rotation over the course of the year, and probably very early, if he's doing his part and showing he can still get outs. This might actually form an ideal scenario where he's able to limit his innings early on and keep him fresh later into the season (and playoffs?) in light of his minimal workload baseline. 

This paragraph is the key to your article Nick.  I like the approach to work in the BP while building up innings towards moving into the starting rotation later on WHEN injuries occur there.

In regards to him being unhappy, could the Twins tweak that contract to include RP incentives to make him financially happy?

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Imo...starter until proven otherwise. Except for Ryan, pretty much every starting pitcher we have on the roster has had injury concerns in one way or another. Maeda's velo was down in 2021 due to the elbow. If he's fully recovered from the TJ surgery, there's no reason he can't be as effective as he was in 2020 and before. 

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The Twins must take into consideration who Maeda is.  I have seen him as a very serious person, perhaps some of that has to do with his Japanese culture.  So I expect he worked hard on his rehab.  None of us know whether or not he could have returned for a few starts or relief appearances last September.  But the Twins were out of it and "why push him."

There is a realistic chance that Maeda can return as the starter he was before his injury derailed his 2021 season.  It is also likely that his elbow was the reason his velocity and performance declined well before being shut down.  This guy has always appeared to me to be the ultimate professional.  So I expect there is a strong probability he will return as the pitcher we knew in 2020.  I expect the Twins have him penciled in as one of their starters and where that fits into the rotation will be decided in spring training.  I also expect they are aware that there will need to be some limitation on the number of innings he can throw.  Should he not perform in spring training, they can easily move to Plan B with either Winder, Varland or SWR moving into the rotation on opening day.

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Maeda should really be the driving force here on the decision, probably 80% his call.  I believe that he and Twins have already have decided what the are going to do, with the only hiccup being a setback in his rehab.

Personally I think he will be a SP with probably a somewhat stricter pitch count his first 7-10 times through the rotation.  He isn't a young kid, he knows his body and what it can/can't do.  He is too important to be put in the BP, especially if they are trying to stretch him out.

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It feels like he could managed similarly to Chris Archer this past year -- limit him to 75-80 pitches for the first month of the season, see how his body responds, and move forward from there. 

For this plan to work the Twins need to have an effective long reliever who can enter a game in the 5th inning and bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen in the 8th inning twice a week. 

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Excellent article Nick. You present quite the conundrum. Spring training should give us some initial answers. But April will give us more answers. By the middle of May, we should know a lot more about where Maeda stands. I really do enjoy watching Maeda pitch a baseball game. He is an intelligent pitcher with excellent control. I hope for his sake and for the Twins' sake that 2023 is a huge success for Maeda. 

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I read the article and had 2 reactions. 

First - like most comments so far, he’s a starter until he proves otherwise 

second - unless you have your head buried in the sand so far it pops in Australia, of course you have contingency plans. 
 

NOTE: and yes sone pro sport executives/owners have viewed Australia often from the US. 😂

NOTE 2: most TJ recovering pitchers are adequate in post year one & back to normal post year two. 

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Spring training will determine the way that he begins the season, but I have thought that we have put too much into a partial season's stats.  Yes he was great that short season, but Lopez was great for half a season and many others have put together half seasons only to see their results disintegrate as the season progressed.  I think we have a real unknown.  A good pitcher, but whether he is the quality we saw in the shortened season (2.70 era) or the pitcher we saw before he was shut down (4.66 era) is something we really do not know.  The three seasons in LA before we got him were 4+ eras.  

I just have the feeling that we are expecting too much and he is not the answer to the rotation problem.  He might be good in the BP.  

 

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35 minutes ago, GKuehl said:

It feels like he could managed similarly to Chris Archer this past year -- limit him to 75-80 pages for the first month of the season, see how his body responds, and move forward from there. 

For this plan to work the Twins need to have an effective long reliever who can enter a game in the 5th inning and bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen in the 8th inning twice a week. 

This is what I was going to say.  The Twins expected Archer to add more innings after the first month or two, but it never came.  Maeda should be handled similarly, with the hope for better results.

Maeda will start, if only as an opener or 2-5 inning type guy early on.  I think his elbow was also a problem long before the surgery, so I anticipate this results will be solid.

The Twins need to have a contingency plan.  Both for the shorter starts (Ober piggybacking?) and the potential risk for an Archer type season if he does struggle.  

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I think Maeda should start the season in the rotation, looking at the schedule, it looks like the team might be better served having 6 starters for the first month, especially with Maeda, Gray and Mahle ending the year on the injured list, Ober on the injured list for several months last year and Winder and Varland possibly being counted on heavily. 

If not 6 starters, some very creative ways to get to the short-relievers. Piggy-back starters, skip turns in the rotation and use starters out of the bullpen in long relief until their next turn, etc... I think something can be figured out so that scheduled throwing days could done in game situations instead of in the bullpen before/after the game.

Kind of scary hoping Baldelli can figure out how to piece together both a rotation and a bullpen without over using/injuring somebody along the way.

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I've maintained all along that while the rotation for 2023 looks solid, and deep, the FO should be approaching the season EXPECTING someone to be hurt on a regular basis. They should be adding a high quality arm, not a filler. Rodon would be the ideal fit for many reasons. But there are a handful of others out there as good or better than what we have on hand if not Rodon.

But that doesn't diminish Maeda in any way. His velocity was down in 2021? Well, his arm was giving out. I wouldn't be surprised to see an uptick in velocity in 2023, though his performance has never been about pure velo. (And he looked fantastic during ST 2021). I've heard the reason he didn't pitch late in 2022 was basically (and there was little reason to at that point), they just wanted to ramp him up for 2023 and felt his control was looking excellent. 

He's probably going to be on somewhat of a pitch and innings count early on. I could see him finishing the year in the pen, assuming he tires. But then again, with some monitoring, and a few skipped starts here and there, that may not be necessary. I don't expect the 2020 version of Maeda. But I expect a pretty solid pitcher with tons of experience who will make a really solid contribution next year.

Doesn't mean I expect him or anyone else to be 100% all season and the Twins shouldn't add someone for the top of the rotation.

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"This might actually form an ideal scenario where he's able to limit his innings early on and keep him fresh later into the season (and playoffs?) in light of his minimal workload baseline."

Totally agree with you Nick. But not only for Maeda but for all our SPs. But especially for Maeda because of his surgery & his idleness. I absolutely quinged when I hear talk of Maeda come right back into the rotation & fulfill the positive hype of fan's expectations. Those expectations are unrealistic & dangerous. Someone quoted to me in BTV that 20% of the pitchers of TJ surgery don't make it back.

I believe that Maeda will come back, but it'll  take time. Maeda has never been a strong pitcher, so a slow acclimation period in the BP is beneficial to Maeda. Letting him build success each step and hopefully at the season's end he'll have something he can take with him going into FA. If we throw him into the rotation, with the par of pitching at least 5 innings  to be acceptable. That kind of action will produce ineffeciency & maybe injury, nobody wants that.

 

 

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2 hours ago, CRF said:

Imo...starter until proven otherwise. Except for Ryan, pretty much every starting pitcher we have on the roster has had injury concerns in one way or another. Maeda's velo was down in 2021 due to the elbow. If he's fully recovered from the TJ surgery, there's no reason he can't be as effective as he was in 2020 and before. 

That is all correct.  His elbow was in question when he came to the states.  That is old news.  Until Maeda proves he's not a starter...He's a starter.  I know he's not Verlander, but a person can come back from T.J. and be effective.  Maeda never relied solely on velo anyway.  He'll be fine.  He's a smart guy who knows how to pitch and get outs.  

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I would prefer they start him out as long relief. And if I'm being honest, I don't think he will contribute much. He's 35 coming off TJ. 

I hope I am wrong, but I think his days are over. Twins will try and sell it though as a stud coming back for the rotation. We all know better than that. If it happens, great, but counting on him for much is a mistake IMO.

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35 years old. Gutsy competitor who battled for Cy Young (in a Covid shortened 65 game schedule) in 2020. He has BullPen experience and may not have the durability to start again. We need QUALITY in the Pen & he would be a great add……I’d be psyched to see him pitch twice a week as a solid bridge to our 8th & 9th innings guys!

New sign starter a must - Gray - Mahle - Louie - Ryan - Ober………That’s 6 guys w/o Maeda. I say we go with these guys and see how health and effectiveness are going through mid-June and if Maeda is healthy enough to stretch out and is needed in rotation for 2nd half then we have that option.

It’s not his choice! He’s getting paid $9 million to help the team wherever needed & I think he would be happy doing just that!!

 

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The Twins have multiple starters in similar boats. I'm just fine waiting for Maeda, Mahle, Ober and Winder to show their stuff and evaluate their velocity and stamina in spring training. Preferably this wait-and-see plan would also entail getting at least one more rotation lock via free agency to join Ryan and Gray. Two more would be nicer.

Edit: Ok, it's been awhile since I looked, and outside of the three HOF starters who certainly won't come here, I don't know that there's more than two, maybe three free agent pitchers I'd want. Two of those four rostered pitchers better have their act together come April.

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Maeda is a starter at the beginning of the season. No doubt there.  I can see limiting him to 80 pitches per start through May then 90 for the next month or two and 100 or just let loose after that.  I can also see the Twins putting him in the pen in August to finish the season.  

As far as starting pitching goes we actually don’t need to add unless we are adding a top end starter.  We have: 1. Gray, 2. Mahle, 3. Ryan, 4. Maeda, 5. Ober, 6 Winder, 7. SWR, 8. Varland, 9. Balazovich if he gets his act together next season.  This seems like a lot of options and I am sure more will show up the second half of the season.  

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4 hours ago, GKuehl said:

It feels like he could managed similarly to Chris Archer this past year -- limit him to 75-80 pages for the first month of the season, see how his body responds, and move forward from there. 

For this plan to work the Twins need to have an effective long reliever who can enter a game in the 5th inning and bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen in the 8th inning twice a week. 

Heck GKuehl, with our Manager they need three or four of those long relievers.

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Kenta Maeda would be best served to ease his way back through multiple inning stints in the bullpen. I hope he is used that way in the beginning of the year. However, Maeda will get his shot because the Twins need someone to start games. If Maeda displays the strength and command, he will get a ton of starts.

Gray has been a fair starting pitcher but he has struggled to get past the 5th inning in the last three years. Mahle has had one decent year. Ryan had a good first year as a starter.  I'm hoping the Twins give one starting pitching slot to Varland, Ober, or Winder. The Twins need starting pitching. A rotation of Gray, Mahle, Maeda, Ryan, and Ober won't cut it.

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As far as I am aware they have a full spring training schedule next year to evaluate where all players are. They also have time in January plus early February to check up on how players are doing with their various injuries. I think Maeda was not brought back this year because "what for." Jeffers was the only player brought back off the injured list in September. Maeda is a good pitcher and we just haven't had enough of those the past 30 years.

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7 hours ago, JD-TWINS said:

35 years old. Gutsy competitor who battled for Cy Young (in a Covid shortened 65 game schedule) in 2020. He has BullPen experience and may not have the durability to start again. We need QUALITY in the Pen & he would be a great add……I’d be psyched to see him pitch twice a week as a solid bridge to our 8th & 9th innings guys!

New sign starter a must - Gray - Mahle - Louie - Ryan - Ober………That’s 6 guys w/o Maeda. I say we go with these guys and see how health and effectiveness are going through mid-June and if Maeda is healthy enough to stretch out and is needed in rotation for 2nd half then we have that option.

It’s not his choice! He’s getting paid $9 million to help the team wherever needed & I think he would be happy doing just that!!

 

Point of reference, unless I missed someone else doing the same, his $9M is based on incentives to be garnered as a SP. IF he's targeted for the pen...and I don't believe that is the plan at this time...and the Twins want to make him happy in his new role, they would have to adjust his incentives to something like appearances.

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6 hours ago, Brandon said:

Maeda is a starter at the beginning of the season. No doubt there.  I can see limiting him to 80 pitches per start through May then 90 for the next month or two and 100 or just let loose after that.  I can also see the Twins putting him in the pen in August to finish the season.  

As far as starting pitching goes we actually don’t need to add unless we are adding a top end starter.  We have: 1. Gray, 2. Mahle, 3. Ryan, 4. Maeda, 5. Ober, 6 Winder, 7. SWR, 8. Varland, 9. Balazovich if he gets his act together next season.  This seems like a lot of options and I am sure more will show up the second half of the season.  

I don't disagree with you at all, except,  a fully healthy Mahle might be better than Gray. But we're talking margins as a healthy Gray is a damn fine pitcher!

My arguement has been, and continues to be, without extreme luck, every team will need 8-10  SP for double headers and a few muscle pulls and blisters, etc. And SWR and Varland, and HOPEFULLY Balazovic will provide all the depth we need.

But there are enough questions about our very hopeful staff that if the FO really and truly intends to compete, you just have to EXPECT that something will go wrong with someone, at some time. And they should invest in someone as good or better than what they have already to make sure they are a serious competitor. Rodon is still my #1 addition to the staff. Risk, yes, but potential reward is very great.

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16 minutes ago, DocBauer said:

I don't disagree with you at all, except,  a fully healthy Mahle might be better than Gray. But we're talking margins as a healthy Gray is a damn fine pitcher!

My arguement has been, and continues to be, without extreme luck, every team will need 8-10  SP for double headers and a few muscle pulls and blisters, etc. And SWR and Varland, and HOPEFULLY Balazovic will provide all the depth we need.

But there are enough questions about our very hopeful staff that if the FO really and truly intends to compete, you just have to EXPECT that something will go wrong with someone, at some time. And they should invest in someone as good or better than what they have already to make sure they are a serious competitor. Rodon is still my #1 addition to the staff. Risk, yes, but potential reward is very great.

I didn’t say we don’t need to add Rodon.  I said we need to add a top starter if we add as we already have the depth

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