Maeda has been serving as both a reliever and a starter for the Dodgers, but he’s not a swingman. He came to the US as a 27-year-old after winning the Sawamura Award (the Nippon Professional League’s equivalent of MLB’s Cy Young Award) twice. He started in his first year with the Dodgers. For the last three, he has also been a starter who switched to a bullpen role late in the season.
Twins CBO Derek Falvey addressed this in an interview earlier this week. “I would tell you this: we think he’s a starting pitcher,” said Falvey. “We think he’s a guy who can really impact our rotation.” Falvey saw the switch in roles as a postseason strategy. “My sense is that the way [the Dodgers] used him felt like it worked best for them as they went into their playoff series every year,” continued Falvey. “It had nothing to do with his ability to start and pitch.”
What’s more, Maeda isn’t a guy who just fills out a rotation. He profiles as top-half-of-the-rotation starter. In 103 starts with the Dodgers, he has a 3.92 ERA, and 9.6 K/9. Last year his ERA was up a bit to 4.14 as a starter, but he became even better against left-handed hitters, holding them to just a .247 BA. He’s always been good against right-handers, who have a .199 BA against him for his career. Read that last sentence again.
Even though his addition came as spring training began, Falvey claims that the Twins had targeted Maeda early in the offseason, and had engaged the Dodgers during the winter meetings. “We always targeted him as somebody - if the Dodgers would move him - that we would have interest in,” he revealed. When the Dodgers acquired David Price, suddenly, that window opened.
Twins’ fans’ expectations may have been skewed by the team’s early offseason pursuit of high-impact (and high-dollar) free agent pitchers, and to be fair, Maeda would not have been slotted in the top five of this year's remarkable free agent class. But he would have been a half-step below them, along with Jake Odorizzi and Michael Pineda, which (along with Jose Berrios) makes the top four Twins' starters all formidable.
He also has something that all other 30 teams would certainly value, and maybe the Twins more than most: a reasonable contract that keeps him under team control for four years at a guaranteed salary of just $3M per year. It is heavily laden with incentives, so if he ends up being an effective starter, he’ll make around $10M, but their budget is protected if something very bad happens. Compare that to the $118 million guaranteed dollars the Phillies gave to Zach Wheeler.
The Twins are also protected another way. As the Dodgers recognized, Maeda can also be moved to the bullpen. He is not anxious to do so, and seems to be especially interested in starting in the postseason. In fact, that was the first question Japanese media asked Falvey earlier this week.
But if, for some reason, the Twins do decide to put him in a high-leverage relief role, his history suggests he will thrive. In 42.1 innings of pitching relief, he has struck out 58 batters and walked just eight. In the postseason as a reliever, he pitched two innings or more in all but one appearance. That’s a weapon.
You would be forgiven if you didn’t recognize all this on Thursday morning. Meada’s interview was a quiet spring training affair. It lacked the pomp and circumstance that Josh Donaldson’s press conference provided last month. Maeda carefully answered the Twins’ media’s questions through a translator, while a dozen Japanese media waited their turn. He talked of being honored to be part of the Twins organization.
But this was a big deal. Maeda, the Twins and their fans hope that will become apparent in October.