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

    Nick Nelson

    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

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    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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    9 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.  

    Like they all showed up the second half of this season?

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    An old dude on another team came back from IJ and did pretty good. Pitched almost 200 innings when his season was finally over, picked up some hardware. In other words he returned to what he was. The problem for Marea becomes what is his recovery?  Is he really the 2020 pitcher or the spot starter he was with the Dodgers?  Time will tell

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    I’m actually way more worried about Mahle than Maeda; Kenta has had his surgery.

    Sorry to be Debbie Downer, but in terms of innings pitched in 2023, there is a strong chance Maeda>Mahle.

    Winder, Varland and SWR need their chance this year. And they will get it. But none of those young guys is an every fifth day guy looking at 30+ starts. In fact, only Gray and Ryan out of our pencilled in starting five (with Mahle, Maeda and Ober) could be expected to play that role and Gray really doesn’t have the history.

    Therefore, 1. Maeda is absolutely a starter until a) the rotation proves it’s durability and/or b) Kenta doesn’t perform; and 2. the Twins absolutely need to add a durable, inning eating #2-4 SP.

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    I tend to agree with the growing consensus that Maeda is a starter unless we go out and get someone like Rodon. I do think Maeda would be excellent in a 2+ inning relief role and that the Twins have a real need to have 2 of those guys in the bullpen that get regular use (not just mop up/long relief guys for when the starter gets shelled) because we have several starters that are unlikely to go 6-7 innings with any consistency (primarily through their own ability or lack thereof). Maeda could fill that role very effectively.

    But unless we go get another starter, I think you have to give Maeda the opportunity to take a role in the rotation. He's likely still better than Winder/Varland/SWR right now and the opening day rotation should have the best 5 guys in it. No scholarships. (I'm still of the belief that unless we get someone like Rodon who raises the ceiling for the rotation, that we shouldn't be looking to add a "veteran starter". No more Bundy types)

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    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. 

    If this is the way management feels, they will need 4-5 more starters. They can't count on anyone when it comes to injury. Seems to me they all carry risk, with some much more risk than Maeda!

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    11 hours ago, DocBauer said:

    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.

    The guy deserves to be paid & the Twins making him a starter so they don’t feel guilty doesn’t make sense. Gotta settle the finances so he’s not pissed off all year but he should start in the pen to see what that can do for the Team. If they need to stretch him out they could over June/July with Archer approach to pitches.

    Need him healthy & contributing. Seems a slow path back and filling a need makes sense.

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    We are all just guessing at this point.  Until Maeda toes the rubber and gets some work in ST, we do not know what his future will be and his role on the staff.  And comparing him to Verlander is huge stretch.  Verlander has been the prototypical workhorse for a long, long career.  Maeda, whom I do like and admire, not so much.

    I hope he does brilliantly.  Lack of SP slots is a problem that pitching staff health will sort out.

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    21 hours ago, tony&rodney said:

    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.

    Completely agreed!! We need depth in the pen to help us get a psyche that our pen will hold leads/opportunities, Maeda can help make that happen, vs. crossing our fingers for Lopez! Maeda can stretch out in June/July if needed.

    Gotta get a front line starter to go with the 4-5 guys we have coming back. Gray-Mahle-Ryan-Ober are a fairly solid 2-5.

    Maeda supplementing starters in August, if needed, works.

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