When the Twins traded for Kenta Maeda in February, one of the interesting nuances of the trade was his complicated, incentive-laden contract. Now, after a massive shakeup, figuring out just what that deal will pay is harder than ever. It might also be more important.
The Pohlad family, which owns the team, can certainly afford to pay everyone their prorated salaries, even allowing for whatever losses they might realize based on a truncated season in which they will not be allowed to welcome large crowds at Target Field. Still, every team figures to operate on a tight budget this season, and even into 2021, as owners put up a united front and try to maximize profit despite revenue shortfalls. A contract like Maeda’s can be especially valuable under those circumstances, but it can also become onerous.
On Monday, the league and the MLB Players Association announced their agreement on the disposition of incentives and vesting options in player contracts in a short season. The terms of that agreement stipulate that both amounts paid and thresholds will be prorated. Thus, a player who needed to pitch 162 innings in order to qualify for a vesting option would need precisely 60 to do so. A player who met a prorated incentive threshold worth $250,000 would be paid $92,500 for doing so.
With those things pinned down, we can now say what Maeda can make in 2020. He’ll get $1,11 million as a base salary. If and when he is on the active roster come Opening Day late next week, he will earn another $55,500. After that, things start to get really interesting.
Maeda’s deal provides for incentives based both on games started and on innings pitched. Under the final agreement on such issues, he will make $370,000 each when he makes his sixth and seventh starts of the season. If he gets to nine, 11, and 12 starts, each of those will trigger additional payments of $555,000. If he’s a full-time starter, it seems reasonable to guess that he would get 11 turns during the 60-game campaign.
There are 12 different innings totals that would trigger bonus payments to Maeda: 33, 37, 41, 44, 48, 52, 56, 59, 63, 67, 70, and 74. The first 11 would each net him $92,500. If he got to 74 innings, he’d cash in for an extra $277,500. Given both his track record and the ramp-up period that is leading us into the season, however, it seems optimistic to project Maeda for more than about 62 innings.
If he does make 11 starts and pitch 62 frames, he’ll add $2.59 million to his earnings for the year, bringing him to a total of $3.755 million. That’s an exceptional bargain for the Twins, considering that the Dodgers kicked in $3 million as part of the trade, and paid $2.4365 million of that to the team this year.
The trickiness of prorating starts and innings totals on an incentive-laden deal could make for resentment on one side or the other in a case like this. It could, in the cases of some workhorse starters, make it easier to hit those incentive thresholds, and thus tempt the team to manipulate the situation, as the Dodgers have done with Maeda in full-length seasons over the past few years. Maeda requested a trade from LA, which speaks to the effect of such fudging on player morale.
A less equitable system for handling incentives and bonuses could also have left players feeling mistreated, but prorating both thresholds and bonuses was the obvious solution and both sides eventually arrived there.
There’s no reason, given this structure, for the Twins to do anything but start Maeda every time his turn in the rotation comes, and to use him to the fullest extent that his health and effectiveness permit. If Michael Pineda returns to the crowded rotation in mid-September, the team could plausibly move Maeda to the bullpen, since he has more and better experience in that role than any of the other candidates for such a shift. They might even be able to do so without upsetting Maeda, given the lower stakes of the decision with prorated dollar amounts and given the strangeness of the whole season. But they should only do so if it’s the optimal baseball decision. Business need not enter into the equation.