Another key piece of the Detroit Tigers’ offseason came together on Sunday evening, as Jon Heyman reported that the club will ink RHP Kenta Maeda to a two-year contract worth $24 million on Monday, pending a physical. Multiple national writers confirm Heyman’s lead report.
The Tigers and the 35-year-old Japanese starting pitcher have been linked all throughout the past week. However, the Baltimore Orioles and the Minnesota Twins were still reportedly interested as well, so it didn’t seem like a lock that he was coming to Detroit. The Tigers hope that Maeda will help them as both a pitcher, a veteran presence, and perhaps as a bit of an ambassador to other top Japanese players to start considering the Detroit as a good landing spot when posted for MLB free agency.
Right-hander Kenta Maeda and the Detroit Tigers are in agreement on a two-year, $24 million contract, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN. Detroit has been all over mid-tier pitching, and the 35-year-old Maeda stays in the American League Central. @JonHeyman had agreement.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 27, 2023
Maeda started his professional career with the Hiroshima Carp in Nippon Professional Baseball. During his eight year career with the Carp, Maeda twice won the Sawamura Award as the league’s most valuable pitcher, collecting the hardware in both 2010 and 2015. He was posted for availability to MLB teams in December 2015, and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in January 2016.
Maeda spent four years with the Dodgers as a good mid-rotation starter before he was traded to the Minnesota Twins in 2020. Maeda missed the 2022 season with UCL reconstruction surgery, but rebounded in 2023 with a solid season though a triceps strain in May and June limited him to just 104 1⁄3 innings, with a 4.23 ERA and a 4.02 FIP. Maeda pitched well in the second half of the season, improving as he got more work under his belt in his return from the UCL surgery.
In the second half, he posted a 3.79 ERA with a 4.29 FIP. His strikeout rate of 28.2 percent was well above average (22.1 percent) for a starting pitcher and he backed it with an above average (7.9 percent) walk rate of 6.9 percent. The one fly in the ointment was some home run trouble in the second half, and the Tigers will look to help him there, as well as hoping that Comerica Park will hold a few more deep fly balls than Target Field does. A fly ball pitcher, Maeda should benefit from a reasonably good looking defensive outfield with Parker Meadows in center field and Riley Greene playing corner.
Maeda features a fourseam fastball that is pretty average, but helped by the veteran right-hander’s typically excellent command. His best pitch is a lethal splitter that collected a 35 percent whiff rate in 2023, while hitters managed a feeble .222 wOBA against it. He backs that with a pretty good slider, but it’s also the pitch he tends to hang in swing counts when the home runs bite him. He also has a high spinning (2738 rpms) curveball at 76 mph that can steal some strikes and add a different wrinkle against certain hitters.
Overall, the terms of the deal are more modest than I would have guessed. With the Twins still showing interest, something like two years, $30 million seemed very likely, so the Tigers got a pretty good price at two years, $24 million. They paid Matthew Boyd $10 million for one year in 2023 coming off a season where Boyd had barely pitched. Maeda is certainly an upgrade. There may be incentives or options involved as well, but the full details won’t be available until Maeda passes his physical and inks the deal on Monday.
Maeda should be a pretty effective starting pitcher for the Tigers as long as expectations for innings remain reasonable. He is 35 years old, and his fastball was typically in the 91 mph range in the second half of the 2023 season. With significant prospect depth in starting pitching at the Triple-A level, and hopefully another starting pitcher still to be added this offseason, the Tigers won’t mind if Maeda can’t give them 30 starts, so he’s a pretty good fit all around for their needs in terms of a depth starter. Of course, to actually upgrade the rotation over the 2023 model, they’ll need to do more.
For now though, Maeda is a decent replacement for Eduardo Rodriguez. He probably represents just a slight downgrade in performance and durability, for a considerably smaller salary. We can hope that between the park, and the skill of Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter and his staff, they may be able to solve some of the home run troubles. If they can, the Tigers are going to be in very good shape with Kenta Maeda in house.
If the longer term plan to hopefully gain some entrance into the Japanese free agent market plays out as hoped, this will be looked at as an extremely wise signing with potential benefits well beyond Maeda’s own performance. Still, fans would be wise not to get too carried away that Maeda is enough to lure Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Shoto Imanaga to Detroit. For now, we’re content that they’ve added a solid starting pitcher and are actively thinking about broadening the Tigers reach for talent.
The Maeda signing leaves the Tigers in pretty good position at this point in the offseason. They have the veteran right-handed bat they were hunting for in Mark Canha, and they’ve got a quality starting pitcher who may have a bit of upside left in Maeda. The Winter Meetings are still a week away. The Tigers could still use a good starting pitcher and help in their bullpen and infield, but with their most basic needs met, they can work on upgrades without fear of being left weaker than they were when the offseason ended.