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?