Scouting the Free Agent Market: Kenta Maeda

Monday Night Open Thread
Slow moving market may give Yankees a chance to land a bargain in January
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)
(Koji Watanabe/Getty)

Even though the New Year is right around the corner, there are still several quality free agent pitchers on the board. Mike Leake, Scott Kazmir, and Wei-Yin Chen are the most notable. Usually teams like to handle their major business by this point of the offseason so they can simply tinker the rest of the way, but the remaining unsigned free agents ensure January will be busier than usual.

Another available free agent starter — free agent but not in the traditional sense — is right-hander Kenta Maeda. Maeda spent this past season as Hiroki Kuroda‘s teammate with the Hiroshima Carp, and he’s now coming over to MLB after eight seasons in Japan. Maeda has already been posted, so this isn’t a will he or won’t he be available thing. He’s available. The process is already underway. Does Maeda make any sense for the Yankees? Let’s take a look.

The Performance

Maeda, 28 in April, has been one of the best but not necessarily the best pitcher in Japan over the last few years. He was behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka for a few years, and more recently Shohei Otani has risen to the top of the Japanese pitching ranks. That said, Maeda won the Eiji Sawamura Award as Nippon Pro Baseball’s top pitcher in both 2010 and 2015. Here are his career stats, via Baseball Reference:

Kenta Maeda stats

The Carp play in NPB’s Central League, which does not use the DH. For reference, the Central League averages in 2015 were a 3.25 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, and 3.0 BB/9. Maeda was obviously excellent, but he was pitching in a pitcher friendly league. Just providing a little context, you guys.

Anyway, Maeda doesn’t offer the same kind of blow-you-away ability as Darvish and Tanaka. During their final seasons in Japan, Tanaka had a 1.27 ERA with 7.8 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9 while Darvish had a 1.44 ERA with 10.7 K/9 and 1.4 BB/9. They both pitched in the Pacific League too, the DH league. Maeda’s never really performed at that level.

(One thing to keep in mind — and we talked about this with Tanaka a few years back — is that hitters in Japan have a very different approach than hitters in MLB. They focus on contact and spraying the ball around. That’s why Tanaka and Darvish saw their strikeout rates tick up after coming stateside. The same could happen with Maeda.)

The Stuff

Maeda is a five-pitch pitcher who throws two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker), a slider, a curveball, and a changeup. We have a very tiny little bit of PitchFX data for him, from the 2013 World Baseball Classic, when he pitched in AT&T Park. Here are his average velocities, from Brooks Baseball:

Kenta Maeda velocity

There are some major, major caveats here. For starters, this is from a game played in mid-March, so this is basically Spring Training velocity. Also, it’s one game. Five innings and 82 pitches worth, to be exact. And finally, this is more than two years old now. It’ll be three years old by time Spring Training rolls around. So take this info with a huge grain of salt. It’s not meaningless, but it shouldn’t be taken as gospel either.

For some updated information of Maeda, here’s a snippet of a scouting report from Ben Badler (subs. req’d) earlier this month:

Maeda has shown solid stuff across the board, with a fastball that sits at 89-93 mph and can touch 94, a tick above-average slider that he leans on heavily, along with a curveball and a changeup he will use to try to keep hitters off balance … (in the Premier 12 tournament in November), Maeda’s changeup was a plus pitch. At times, the pitch had good sink, at others it had excellent fade, and sometimes it had both.

The inaugural Premier 12 tournament was held in November. It’s like a mini-World Baseball Classic. Teams from 12 different countries competed (non-40-man roster players only) with the winning club splitting a $1M pool. (South Korea won this year.) Badler notes Maeda’s main offspeed pitch is his slider, though he showed an improved changeup in his two Premier 12 starts, perhaps emphasizing the pitch because he knew scouts would be watching.

Here’s some video of Maeda in action. This is all 50 pitches from his start against Puerto Rico in the Premier 12 last month. (He was on a pitch limit after the long season.) For reference, 145 kmph is approximately 90 mph.

Like most Asian pitchers, Maeda has that little hesitation in the middle of his delivery. His slider looked pretty sharp and his changeup was impressive in that one look, but again, it was just one look. Try not to make too much of those 50 pitches. Badler says Maeda lacks a bonafide knockout pitch like Darvish’s slider or Tanaka’s splitter, and he instead succeeds with fastball command and an array of offspeed stuff.

“Several scouts feel comfortable projecting Maeda as an immediate No. 4 starter in a big league rotation,” wrote Badler. I feel guys with that profile — fastball command and lots of offspeed stuff — tend to perform better than expected because the big leagues are so strikeout heavy. Kuroda had a similar profile. He commanded the fastball and went to work with sliders and splitters and curveballs.

Workload & Injury History

Unlike Tanaka and Darvish, Maeda has not endured a huge workload in Japan. He has been a workhorse, throwing 190+ innings in five of the last seven seasons and 200+ innings in four of the last six seasons. Tanaka and Darvish threw 1,315 and 1,268.1 innings in Japan through their age 24 seasons, then came to MLB. Maeda is at 1,509.2 innings through his age 27 season. So yes, he’s thrown a lot of innings, but he hasn’t been through the same kind of workload as Tanaka and Darvish.

As for injuries, Maeda missed time with relatively minor elbow problems in both 2013 and 2014. It was termed “discomfort” in 2013 and “tightness” in 2014. He missed a few starts each time and returned to the mound with no problems. Maeda’s had some minor non-arm issues as well, specifically oblique tightness, a bruised quad after being hit by a line drive, and tonsillitis. Yes, tonsillitis. That stuff is whatever. No big deal. The elbow is a concern but it is worth noting Maeda stayed perfectly healthy in 2015. No problems at all.

Contract Estimates

The posting agreement between MLB and NPB changed two years ago, right before Tanaka was posted, as I’m sure you remember. The old system featured blind bids, then a 30-day negotiating window for the player and the team with the high bid. Under the new system, the NPB team sets a release fee, then every MLB team can negotiate with the player for a period of 30 days. The team that signs him pays the release fee.

The Carp have set the release fee for Maeda at the maximum $20M, as expected. There is conflicting information about when exactly Maeda was posted — Jayson Stark says he was posted December 8th while Jon Heyman says he was posted December 10th — but the important thing is he has been posted, and there is still something like 18-20 days left in that 30-day negotiating period.

(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty)

Maeda was in Los Angeles last week meeting with teams according to Bill Plunkett and Sponichi Yakyu, though it’s unclear how long he’ll be there. This does not necessarily mean he’s leaning towards a Southern California team. Tanaka did the same thing. Rather than travel to the different MLB cities, he went to Los Angeles and the teams went to him to make their pitch. It’s unclear if Maeda is still in Los Angeles. He could be back in Japan already.

I haven’t seen anything indicating the kind of contract Maeda is seeking. Eno Sarris did some good work trying to come up with an estimate and landed at six years and $105M, with $20M of that going to the Carp for the release fee. (The contract counts against the luxury tax, the posting fee does not.) So a player contract worth $85 across six years? That’s a $14.2M average annual value, or Ervin Santana money.

That sound reasonable? I could see Maeda’s camp pushing for an opt-out after, say, three years, allowing him to jump back into the market at a relatively young age if he proves he can thrive in MLB. There’s some evidence teams get a discount by including an opt-out, so maybe instead of six years at $14.2M it ends up being six years at $13M annually. I’m just spitballin’ here. It’s tough to gauge Maeda’s market. It only takes one team to see him as an ace and make a huge offer.

Wrapping Up

Believe it or not, the Yankees are among the teams with interest in Maeda according to a Yahoo! Japan report. The Dodgers, Padres, Angels, Mariners, Cardinals, and Astros are also said to be in the mix. Peter Gammons notes Maeda’s cultural transition should be relatively painless because his wife spent time studying in the U.S. and speaks perfect English. I dunno. We’ll see.

Anyway, I am intrigued by Maeda, more than I thought I would be before writing this post. He’s not a big guy at all (listed at 6-foot-0 and 180 lbs.) but he has good fastball command and confidence in multiple offspeed pitches, so he’s a pretty complete pitcher. The elbow woes are a red flag, no doubt about it, though they have been minor and Maeda stayed healthy this past season.

I don’t see Maeda — his nickname is Maeken, by the way (MAEda KENta) — as an ace or anything like that. It does seem like he has a chance to contribute as a mid-rotation guy for someone though. There’s no indication the Yankees will spend money on a significant free agent this offseason, though the release fee doesn’t not count against the luxury tax and Maeda’s annual salary may not be exorbitant. He may be a reasonably priced rotation option, at least relative to the other top available free agent starters, who are all looking at $16M+ per year.

Monday Night Open Thread
Slow moving market may give Yankees a chance to land a bargain in January