Our player previews continue with the first new member of the Dodgers, Kenta Maeda.
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When the Dodgers lostZack Greinke
in the offseason, they knew they couldn’t replace him with one pitcher. One of the new pieces to the rotation is Kenta Maeda, who will turn 28 the day before the Dodgers’ home opener. He’s a bit of an unknown commodity, but the risk is relatively low with him.
Maeda put up great numbers in 2015, but it’s hard to tell how much to read into them. As the ace of the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, Maeda went 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA and 1.013 WHIP in 206 1/3 innings. Maeda had decent strikeout numbers, striking out 7.6 batters/nine innings. His strength is his control, as he walked only 41 of the 821 batters he faced. Maeda won the Sawamura award in 2015 (Japan’s version of the Cy Young*) and was posted and signed with the Dodgers.
edit*- It was pointed out to me on Twitter that the Sawamura award isn’t necessarily the Cy Young, but rather an award given to honor the memory of Eiji Sawamura, given to a pitcher who most resembles his impressive stats. H/T @graveyardball
2016 Role and Steamer projections
While nothing has been made official, Maeda appears to slot into the number three spot in the rotation, behind Clayton Kershaw and Scott Kazmir. Assuming this to be true and assuming the Dodgers don’t skip a spot in the rotation with an off day, Maeda would be lined up to make his Dodger Stadium debut the day after his birthday, on the day of the Dodgers’ home opener.
Steamers projects Maeda to make 29 starts this season and finish with an 11-10 record. In his projected 178 innings, Steamers projects Maeda to post a 3.55 ERA/3.66 combo with 153 strikeouts, 41 walks and a 2.7 WAR. These numbers are solid and considering the injuries the Dodgers’ rotation has already suffered, having him start 29 games would be a welcomed sight.
Maeda was dubbed as a third starter by most, so these projections are pretty consistent. He likely won’t be as successful as other recent Japanese players, but if he could give the Dodgers a steady pitcher that can keep them in the game more often than not, it’ll be a success.
What Could Go Wrong
Maeda signed a very team friendly eight-year contract. That sounds like an oxymoron, but complications reportedly came up in his physical. Due to this, the Dodgers signed him to an eight-year, $25 million guaranteed contract. A million of that came from the signing bonus, leaving him making only $3 million in guaranteed money a year. He has a number of incentives, including a bonus for every opening day roster he makes. He can also receive up to $6.5 million more per year based on the number of starts he makes and another $3.5 million based on the number of innings he pitches.
Even if things go wrong, the risk is minimal financially. Given injuries to Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-jin Ryu and Brett Anderson, an injury to Maeda would be devastating from a baseball perspective. Japanese pitchers have a track record of injuries, possibly due to the fact that they generally start once a week in Japan.
The true worst case for Maeda is if he pitches a lot and pitches poorly. If he’s hurt, the Dodgers will eventually be able to replace him with a number three quality pitcher. But if he’s healthy and eating innings, he’ll hit his incentives while not performing well. Expectations should be tempered and he’s almost guaranteed to not be as good as Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish (probably closer to Hisashi Iwakuma or Hiroki Kuroda), but the Dodgers don’t necessarily need him to be at that level.
What Could Go Right?
If Maeda pitches beyond anyone expectations, he will be an absolute steal. Even if he hits every single incentive, by my math he will make a little more than $13 million. For reference, Ian Kennedy will make $14 million a year, Kazmir and Mike Leake will each make $16 million. It’s not unreasonable to expect him to pitch close to their levels, and the only way for him to get paid at that amount is if he hits 200 innings and starts 32 games. 36 starters started that many games in 2015 and only 28 broke the 200 inning mark, so the likelihood that Maeda does that in his first year in the majors isn’t very high.
He could hit those incentives and only really has to pitch decently to make his maxed out contract worth it. He has already received high reviews during his first few bullpen sessions at Camelback. Catcher Yasmani Grandal told LA Daily News’ J.P. Hoornstra the following.
"“He’s a four-pitch guy. You don’t get many of those here. That’s what I liked about [Zack] Greinke. I can get creative back there”"
Obviously, trying to compare Maeda to Greinke is flawed and none of us should expect Maeda to ever reach that level, but being able to throw four pitches for strikes is a huge advantage that will allow Maeda to survive with a lower-than-average velocity. He was reportedly sat in the high 80s/low 90s in Japan, although Grandal also told Hoornstra he guessed Maeda topped out at 94-95. An uptick in velocity would go a long way for Maeda to have more success than expected.
At best, Maeda could be a rock in the Dodgers’ rotation for the next eight years. Without a clearcut number two starter this year, he will likely battle with Kazmir, Alex Wood and eventually Ryu for the rotation spot behind Kershaw. Maeda is the most unknown commodity of the group, but could also have the most upside.