Scouting the Free Agent Market: Kenta Maeda

(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

Earlier today the Red Sox announced they will finally retire No. 26 in honor of Wade Boggs, which is long overdue. I don’t know how true the story is, but apparently the Red Sox were not happy with Boggs when he signed with the rival Yankees, so they didn’t retire his number. That’s silly, if true. Boggs is one of the best Red Sox players ever and one of the best hitters in baseball history. He had some big moments with the Yankees too, like drawing the go-ahead bases loaded walk in the tenth inning of Game Four of the 1996 World Series, two innings after the Jim Leyritz homer. There’s also the iconic image of Boggs on the police horse following the 1996 World Series win. Boggs was a helluva ballplayer, man. Congrats to him on the number retirement.

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Lions and Saints are the Monday Night Football game, plus the Islanders, Knicks, and Nets are all playing as well. There’s some college hoops on the schedule too. Talk about any and all of that stuff here.

Heyman: Brandon Phillips blocked trade to the Yankees two years ago

(Jamie Sabau/Getty)
(Jamie Sabau/Getty)

According to Jon Heyman, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips invoked his no-trade clause to block a trade to the Yankees two years ago. He first asked for some kind of compensation to accept the move. It’s unclear whether the Yankees and Reds agreed to a trade before Phillips shot it down, or if Cincinnati went to him first before advancing talks with New York.

The Yankees lost Robinson Cano to free agency two offseasons ago, and soon thereafter we heard the Reds offered Phillips for Brett Gardner. The Yankees said no. Heyman’s report seems to indicate the Yankees still had some level of interest in Phillips though, enough that the Reds went to him about the possibility of going to New York.

Phillips, 34, signed a six-year extension with the Reds in April 2012. That contract included a limited no-trade clause allowing him to block a deal to ten teams, and I guess the Yankees were among those ten teams. Phillips picked up ten-and-five rights in 2014, so he has full no-trade protection now.

Over the last two seasons Phillips has hit .282/.318/.385 (92 wRC+) — he put up a .294/.328/.395 (96 wRC+) line in 2015 — which would have been an upgrade for the Yankees. They’ve gotten very little from second base since Cano left. Phillips had four years and $50M left on his contract two offseasons ago. Now it’s two years and $27M.

Reports indicate the Nationals and Reds agreed to a Phillips trade recently, but he is again blocking the deal. That’s his right. Phillips lives in Cincinnati year round and doesn’t want to uproot his family. He’d rather stay with the Reds and be comfortable than join a potential contender. (He’d get to play for Dusty Baker again with the Nats too.)

The Yankees landed their second baseman of the present and future two weeks ago, when they acquired Starlin Castro from the Cubs. Even if Phillips were willing to come to New York, they no longer need him. I would have much preferred Rob Refsnyder to Phillips anyway. As Brian Cashman said at the Winter Meetings, they don’t do “old and expensive” anymore.

Revamped stance may mean Castro’s late-season success is here to stay

This was a dinger. (David Banks/Getty)
This was a dinger. (David Banks/Getty)

Two weeks ago the Yankees made the most significant commitment to their on-the-fly rebuild when they shipped Adam Warren (and Brendan Ryan) to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. They gave up a cheap yet proven above-average commodity in Warren for Castro, who is owed $40M or so over the next four years. The other rebuild trades didn’t involve giving up players as good as Warren or taking on that sort of financial commitment.

The Yankees are banking on Castro’s youth and talent, which became expendable for the Cubs. Castro had some pretty good years earlier in his career but has been replacement level in two of the last three seasons, so this is a clear risk for New York. They’re hoping his excellent finish carries over to next year. “He really looked like a different player over at second,” said Brian Cashman following the trade.

By now you know the story. Castro started 2015 as Chicago’s everyday shortstop before moving to second base in August in deference to the defensively superior Addison Russell. Starlin hit .243/.278/.320 (59 wRC+) as a shortstop and .339/.358/.583 (154 wRC+) as a second baseman. This could easily be a sample size thing — he batted 443 times as a shortstop and only 121 times as a second baseman — but I truly believe a position change can help (or hurt) a player’s offense.

“The first two games I played (at second base) felt a little bit weird, but after playing three or four games there, I felt pretty good,” said Castro to reporters in a conference call after the trade. Position changes aren’t always easy, but if the player is more comfortable and has more confidence at a position, it could carry over at the plate. The opposite is true too — if he’s not comfortable, it could drag him down offensively. Moving to second may have helped Castro’s bat.

While the position change is a nice story, there is perhaps a more practical explanation for Castro’s improved performance down the stretch: he made some mechanical changes at the plate. Starlin sat four days between the move from short to second, and during that time he worked with the hitting coaches — the Cubs have a hitting coach (John Mallee), an assistant hitting coach (Eric Hinske), and something of a hitting liaison (Manny Ramirez) — to close his stance.

“Just moved my front leg,” said Castro to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). “I think my front leg was just too open and I just tried to pull the ball. That’s why at the beginning of the season, I hit a lot of ground balls to third and to short. It’s not the type of player that I am. I just always hit the ball to the middle and right field. The adjustment that I did, I just closed the stance a little bit more and that helped me a lot to drive the ball to the opposite way.”

Here is Castro at the plate late in the 2014 season, early in the 2015 season, then late in the 2015 season. You can see his stance was very open in 2014 and early in 2015, but, after sitting for a few days and moving to second, he is much more closed at the plate. (Castro is still slightly open but it is not nearly as exaggerated.) You can click the image for the purposes of embiggening.

Starlin Castro stance

“Yeah it’s tough. It’s tough,” said Castro to Marakovits when asked about making the adjustment in the middle of the season. “Especially after six years playing every day, 160 games every year, and then to sit on the bench (for four days) when the team is playing so good. But I don’t want to be selfish. I just put the team first and continued working hard and (tried to take advantage of) the opportunity.”

Anecdotally, it makes sense closing your stance would better allow you to stay on the ball and hit it the other way. Most hitters open their stance in an effort to see the pitch better, but a byproduct can be pulling the ball more often given the direction of the legs and all that. Here is Castro’s batted ball data before and after the adjustment.

BIP GB% FB% LD% Pull% Mid% Opp% Soft% Hard%
Open Stance 342 56.7% 27.5% 15.8% 41.2% 37.1% 21.6% 24.0% 21.6%
Closed Stance 120 46.2% 33.6% 20.2% 39.2% 42.5% 18.3% 21.7% 29.2%
2014 430 45.3% 32.3% 22.3% 40.2% 38.1% 21.6% 16.0% 29.1%

I included Castro’s 2014 batted ball data in there as a reference point for how he hits the ball when he’s going well — Starlin hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) last year and that’s pretty awesome. That’s the kind of production the Yankees are hoping to see going forward, and the fact his batted ball profile with the closed stance so closely matches his 2014 batted ball profile is pretty rad.

Anyway, the data backs up when Castro told Marakovits, at least somewhat. He did hit the ball on the ground a ton with his wide open stance — that 56.7% ground ball rate would have been the sixth highest among the 141 qualified hitters had he sustained it all season — though he didn’t necessarily pull the ball more often. That 41.2% pull rate is not wildly out of line with last year or what he did with the closed stance. A percentage point or two in either direction is no big deal.

The more important number to me is Castro’s hard contract rate. The league average is a 28.6% hard contact rate, and Castro was far below that early in the season, with his wide open stance. He was (slightly) above league average last year and again this year once he closed his stance. Good things happen when you hit the ball hard, especially in the air. That was the biggest change in 2015. Castro hit the ball weakly and on the ground with his open stance, then hit it hard and in the air with his closed stance.

Now, here’s the thing: I’ve written an awful lot of posts about mechanical changes over the years and more often than not, nothing really comes of it. The only player I can remember who made a noticeable mechanical change and then showed significant, sustained improvement is Curtis Granderson, who went from an okay hitter to a dinger machine seemingly overnight in August 2010. Castro closing his stance can be a whole bunch of nothing.

At the same time, the fact Castro changed his stance and had about a month and half worth of success is encouraging. He’s not an older player trying to stay productive — the vast majority of those mechanical change posts I’ve written were about old dudes trying to hang on — he’s a young guy who lost his way and is trying to get back on track. This isn’t a player trying to compensate for lost bat speed or something like that. Not all adjustments are made for the same reason.

Castro credited Manny Ramirez for helping him this past season — “This is a guy who’s (been through) every moment in the big leagues,” he told Marakovits — and that’s a relationship the Yankees won’t be able to offer, but it’s not like they’re lacking veteran leaders. Starlin’s late-season success is encouraging and the closed stance gives us a tangible reason why it may continue. That doesn’t mean he’s forever fixed, but Castro may have found something that works at this point of his career.

Jorge Mateo tops Baseball America’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Mateo. (Main St. Rock)
Mateo. (Main St. Rock)

Baseball America’s annual look at the top ten prospects in each organization continued today with the Yankees and their improving farm system that figures to take a hit in the rankings. As always, the list and intro essay are free, but the individual scouting reports are not. You need a subscription for those. Here’s the top ten, as ranked by Josh Norris:

  1. SS Jorge Mateo
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. OF Aaron Judge
  4. RHP James Kaprielian
  5. RHP Domingo Acevedo
  6. RHP Rookie Davis
  7. SS Tyler Wade
  8. 2B Rob Refsnyder
  9. SS Wilkerman Garcia
  10. OF Dustin Fowler

As a reminder, neither RHP Luis Severino nor 1B Greg Bird are prospect eligible. They both exceeded the rookie playing time limits — 130 at-bats for position players and 50 innings for pitchers — this past season. Severino threw 62.1 innings and Bird had 167 at-bats in the big leagues.

I wouldn’t say Mateo moving into the top spot is surprising, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Moving him ahead of Sanchez and especially Judge means fully buying into his projection. The scouting reports say Mateo “could be an above-average shortstop” while Sanchez “profiles as a front-line catcher,” yet the shortstop in Single-A is ranked above the catcher in Triple-A (or MLB). Eh, whatevs. I’m guessing the gap between No. 1 and No. 3 is pretty small anyway.

The team’s top four prospects — in whatever order — are pretty obvious. If you have anyone other than Mateo, Sanchez, Judge, and Kaprielian in the top four, you’re overthinking it. After the top four is where it gets interesting and I honestly have no idea who New York’s fifth best prospect is right now. Norris slots Acevedo in at No. 5 and he’s the next great divisive Yankees prospect. Some see him as an ace in the making and others see a big guy with a big fastball and not much else.

Davis and Wade both made nice strides this past season and Refsnyder is Refsnyder. We know all about him by now. Garcia had the best debut from the team’s massive 2014-15 international haul and the scouting report says he “has the potential to be a five-tool player, with some scouts even giving him future average power.” Fowler, a 2013 draftee, was a two-sport guy in high school who is starting to figure out this baseball thing now that he’s playing it full-time.

LHP Ian Clarkin and 3B Eric Jagielo stand out as the most notable omissions. Clarkin (elbow) was hurt all season before getting some innings in the Arizona Fall League, so it’s understandable to drop him. I’m not sure I’d drop him all the way out of the top ten, but to each his own. Jagielo probably isn’t a third baseman long-term, though he mashed at Double-A this summer before jamming his knee sliding into home plate and having surgery. I like Wade, but give me Clarkin and Jagielo before him.

The Yankees actually got some help from their farm system this past season, and the graduations of Severino and Bird all but guarantee the team will place lower in the various organizational rankings in 2016 than they did in 2015. Losing two high-end talents like Severino and Bird hurts. Then again, the farm system lost them for the right reason, not because they stalled out in the minors. Sanchez, Judge, Refsnyder and possibly Davis are the top ten prospects in position to help the Yankees in 2016.

Fan Confidence Poll: December 21st, 2015

2015 Season Record: 87-75 (764 RS, 698 RA, 88-74 pythag. record), lost wildcard game

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Weekend Open Thread

Happy Friday, folks. Sorry I didn’t have time to chat today. Had some other stuff on my plate. There hasn’t been a whole lot going on lately anyway, so there wasn’t much to chat about. Maybe next week. Here are the weekend links:

  • Baseball’s next market inefficiency? Health. My press box neighbor Joe Lemire wrote about injury prevention and the different ways teams are trying to gain a competitive advantage by keeping their best players on the field. They’re using real time biomechanical data to measure fatigue and are looking for ways to optimize recovery, among other things. Every player is different though. What works for one guy might not work for anyone else.
  • MLB currently has a contingent of players and officials in Cuba for a goodwill tour. Clayton Kershaw and Jose Abreu are among those on the trip, as is journeyman catcher Brayan Pena. Pena defected in 1999, and as Derrick Goold writes, this trip has allowed him to reunite with family, some of whom he hasn’t seen in 17 years. Abreu will also reunite with his son, who was still an infant when he defected in 2013. Good stuff.
  • I enjoyed Andy Martino’s overview of the Winter Meetings, both the general experience and this year’s event. I’m pretty lucky. Even with CBS, my focus is analysis and not so much breaking news. For the reporters who cover teams and are trying to dig up scoops, the Winter Meetings are pure chaos. They’re all friendly with each other but are in direct competition. It’s something to behold.
  • And finally, this is a brutal read from former NHL player Patrick O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan opened up about his abusive father — “He would throw punches. Not like he was hitting a small child — but like he was in a bar fight with a grown man,” he wrote — who beat him daily from ages 5-16. People can be just awful.

Friday: Here is tonight’s ope thread. The Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all playing. There’s no college basketball on the schedule though. Talk about those games, any of the links or anything else right here.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. The Devils, Islanders, and Knicks are all in action, and there’s some college hoops on the schedule as well. Apparently the Jets are playing too. Have at it.

Sunday: For one last time, this is the open thread. You’ve got the afternoon football action plus the Eagles and Cardinals in the late game. The (hockey) Rangers, Devils, and Nets are all playing too. Enjoy.