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Tigers showing “serious” interest in RHP Kenta Maeda, per report

The Tigers have serious interest in the 35-year-old former Dodgers and Twins rotation piece.

Division Series - Minnesota Twins v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

A report from Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press emerged on Tuesday evening, suggesting that the Detroit Tigers have “serious” interest in veteran Japanese starting pitcher Kenta Maeda. The 35-year-old right-hander is familiar to most Tigers fans from his four seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization. Prior to that he spent four years with the Los Angeles Dodgers after dominating the NPB in his mid-20’s and eventually getting posted for free agency with MLB teams.

One particularly interesting note from Petzold’s source is the idea that the Tigers view signing Maeda as a potential foothold with Japanese players. The idea goes that signing Maeda and making sure he feels welcome and comfortable, and helping him to find more post-Tommy John success, would help the Tigers build a reputation as a more attractive landing spot for Japanese pitchers than has historically been the case.

Here’s the key quote from Petzold’s piece on that subject.

“The Tigers want to establish themselves in the Japanese pitching market, so signing Maeda to a short-term contract — and giving him a first-class experience — would help set the foundation for future deals. He would provide a much-needed veteran presence on the young pitching staff, as well.”

This all makes a good deal of sense. Detroit just isn’t on the radar internationally. Miguel Cabrera’s presence helps in Latin America and particularly Venezuela, but the organization was never able to convert any of that goodwill into their international signing classes. However, in Japan, Korea, or Taiwan, where the top baseball is played in Asia, the Tigers have rarely been involved.

Most of the younger Japanese starting pitchers, from 25-year-old top free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto, to 22-year-old prodigy Roki Sasaki, who is still at least a few years away from potentially being posted for MLB teams to consider, grew up watching Maeda as one of the elite starters of that era. He has respect and admiration as a veteran who did it all in Japan, and then came stateside to enjoy a long and reasonably successful career in the major leagues.

All that is fine and good, and I’m pleased to see Scott Harris and Jeff Greenberg seriously scheming to open up some of these international markets. The key question is obviously how successful Maeda is likely to be in Detroit, and how much closer he gets them to contending for the division in 2024.

Maeda has always had good command, and the stuff to rack up above average strikeout totals, and that held true in his 2023 return to action with the Twins after missing all of 2022 recovering from UCL reconstruction surgery. However, in recent years as his velocity dipped down to 91 mph averages or below, the lower powered stuff has gotten hit hard at times, and Maeda has had some real home run problems, including in 2023 when he allowed 1.47 home runs per nine.

With his strikeout-to-walk ratios still holding at excellent levels, you can live with a little more home run vulnerability than average, particularly for a fly ball pitcher who generally puts up a strong WHIP year after year. Should the Tigers end up signing him, they’re probably convinced they can help him reverse that trend a bit. It’s possible that with a full season separating him from his stay in Tommy John rehab purgatory now, he might see a little rebound in his velocity as well. Still, velocity hasn’t been a part of his game in a long, long time. If any factor is likely to set him up for success, it’s the possibility that Comerica Park might help Maeda keep a few more balls in the park than Target Field ever did, and that a pretty good looking Tigers defensive outfield should help as well.

Despite the 90-91 mph fastball, Maeda’s plus-plus splitter remained a dominant pitch in 2023. Hitters managed a downright pathetic .222 wOBA against the split last season. Maeda doesn’t give up that many homers against the fourseam fastball, but he does give up plenty of hits against it. Meanwhile, it was the slider that was more of a do-or-die offering. 10 of the 17 home runs he allowed in 104 13 innings last season came against the slider. Typically he gets a good amount of whiffs, but when he makes a mistake with it hitters tend to feast.

Maeda has adapted over the years by throwing about 30 percent of the fourseamer, the slider, and the splitter, mixing in a handful of curveballs and sinkers as a change of pace. So he’s already throwing as few fastballs as possible. Arguably he may have gone too far in that regard, opening up too many opportunities for hitters to look for the slider.

One possibility the Twins were perhaps less equipped to explore compared to Chris Fetter, is using the sinker more to throw more fastballs total. Maeda’s fastballs have pretty good deviation in movement despite a nearly identical spin axis. Leaning into the seam-shifted action on his sinker, and throwing the fourseamer less, would give him a more complicated fastball mix and might lead to fewer barrels. Of course, that only helps keep the slider in the yard if a change like that allows Maeda to successfully throw more fastballs overall.

Statcast

In 2023, Maeda posted a 4.23 ERA and a 4.02 FIP, amassing 1.5 fWAR. He still appears to be a 2-3 win starting pitcher for now, even in something of a down period going back to the first flare-ups of arm trouble in 2021. Steamer projects him to throw 132 innings with a 4.15 ERA for a 2.0 fWAR season. The Tigers could certainly use that.

It’s a fine idea in isolation

Adding Maeda is a good idea overall, whether it helps them lure other Japanese pitchers to consider the Tigers or not. He’s still a quality pitcher and a pretty fun one to watch due to his precision when he’s right. The problem is with signing Maeda alone. If that’s the move, the rotation will remain weaker than it was entering the offseason. He’s a perfectly good addition, but he doesn’t put the rotation where it needs to be if the Tigers are really going to be a serious contender in 2023. That said, I’m interested to see it.

Maeda’s 2023 numbers aren’t great, but he had a rough go in one start in particular before going on the injured list for about eight weeks with a triceps strain starting in late April. That’s the kind of injury that often accompanies a return to action, and as long as the medical reports on Maeda come back in good order, nothing to worry about. He pitched really well in June and July after returning from the injury before fading a bit in August and September. However, by season’s end his fastball velocity was back up a full tick from the low point prior to the triceps strain. I wouldn’t expect 175 innings, but in his second year back from the UCL repair, it’s not a bad bet to think that he’s primed for a slightly better season.

Maeda has really good command and he can execute a game plan. Fetter is excellent at designing game plans and tuning fastballs and pitch mixes to help alleviate home run problems. Maeda putting that to work would be fun to see, but the Twins are no slouches in the pitching department these days. Expect the projections to be accurate rather than expecting some late career resurgence, but just maybe the Tigers have a few x-factors that will help him produce a little more here than in Minnesota.

Hopefully the Tigers have more up their sleeves than this, but Maeda is a pretty solid idea for them in terms of starting depth. We’ll see if they can agree on a deal.