Reportedly signed RHP Kenta Maeda to a eight-year contract worth $25 million, plus $20 million posting fee and incentives [1/2]
When I was younger, I was fascinated with Japan in the way that many young men were—blame it on Neon Genesis Evangelion or Final Fantasy VII or the NPB handbook I got back in 1996 or whatever you like. After a couple years of Japanese in college, I set out for my first real adult vacation to Osaka around 2004 after my undergraduate. I would spend about three weeks seeing everything I could: Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, the whole nine yards. It was a fascinating, enlightening trip and a treasured experience unlike any other I’ve had before or since.
But when I stepped off the train after leaving the airport in Osaka, I remember seeing so much new information in a kind of haze, things you notice only when you first arrive in a culture so wildly different from what you knew. There were huge tangle-jungles of bicycles outside the train station. Everyone used an umbrella to stop the rain, but no one seemed to wear a raincoat. The blocky, digitized versions of the kanji on signs looked only vaguely like the academic, crafted versions from my textbooks (which I could barely understand anyways).
To finally get to the point, I felt for the first time that I was truly in a position where I had no idea what could or would happen next. I didn’t feel unsafe, just … adrift. I had expectations, based on what I’d heard from friends, or seen in media, but being where I was, I felt unsteady, unsure, when previously I felt I knew all I needed to know about the place I was going. And maybe that’s how the Dodgers are feeling right now.
There’s another mild connection here: Osaka is also where Maeda, the newest Dodger, was born. Like many of the other pitchers that come over to MLB from the NPB, his ultimate performance and value is an unknown, and Maeda’s ultimate effectiveness is perhaps even more of a mystery than the other recent Japanese imports such as Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka. For one, Maeda doesn’t have the signature out-pitch of a Tanaka, or the bonkers peripherals of Darvish. He relies on command even more than these other starters, and his pitch mix consists of fastball and slider (his bread and butter), along with mixing in a curve, change, and shuuto.
Though his command, and particularly his walk rate, should translate some to the American flavor of baseball, it’s an open question to see if the movement on his pitches will change based on the differences between U.S. and Japanese baseballs. In addition, Maeda has been worked hard, logging over 1,500 IP for the Hiroshima Carp since his 2008 debut, despite being a slight 6’0” and around 165 pounds.
It’s only fair that since we don’t know how Maeda will perform, we also have very little idea how much money he’ll make. At the time of writing, this is what we know: Maeda is due for an eight-year contract guaranteeing about $25 million dollars, but that incentives are in place that are “considerable” according to a Joel Sherman report. It stands to reason that since the guaranteed money is far below what pundits projected—and quite a bit less than similar-pedigreed Japanese starters have received in the past—that those incentives are likely to push the total value of the contract much higher if Maeda throws loads of innings. In addition to that, the Dodgers also had to shell out the requisite $20 million posting fee to the Carp, making the current outlay about $45 million before those incentives.
The low guaranteed money makes this deal seem like a very frugal deal for the Dodgers, even if Maeda is projected to be something more like a mid-rotation starter than a no. 1 or no. 2 like Darvish and Tanaka. But for a team like the Dodgers, who looked to be poised on the precipice of NL dominance once again as they entered this offseason loaded with money and talent, it’s awfully surprising to see them in the business of such risk.
Once again, Los Angeles has acquired a player with an uncertain future. They did it with Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy last year, they’re doing it with Maeda this season. Instead of shelling out the biggest money for the most premium players (Greinke, David Price), they’re signing Chase Utley to round out their infield and investing in Maeda and Scott Kazmir to shore up the rotation on funky, long-term, low-yearly-payout deals.
I wonder if the Friedman/Zaidi front office in L.A. feels at all the way I felt when I first landed in Osaka? Excited, sure, but the confidence that I had that I knew what to expect had all but washed away when I was confronted by a present state that was out of my control. Last year, the Dodgers were expected to run away with the National League, and everything felt so sure that the playoffs were simply six months away. This year? Kenta Maeda’s here, and we can’t tell yet if he’ll be a poor man’s Zack Greinke or a rich man’s Colby Lewis. It’s all about to begin, nothing is certain, and I’m not sure anyone knows what will happen next. —Bryan Grosnick
Most of the rumored landing spots were net positives for his fantasy value, but Los Angeles was towards the top of that list with the surrounding factors at play—and we're not just talking about the stadium, which does lean pitcher-friendly. Yasmani Grandal is one of the best framers in the game, and despite being a terrible place to drive, Los Angeles is a great place to pitch from a weather-standpoint (yes, this is something we are currently measuring and taking into account when measuring pitcher WARP by DRA). The strikeouts weren't there in droves in Japan, but don't let that fool you. MLB hitters are easier to strike out with placement and sequencing than NPB hitters are—and it bears out in some recent examples as both Hiroki Kuroda and Hisashi Iwakuma saw their strikeout numbers rise upon arriving in the United States.
The combination of non-overpowering stuff and close to pinpoint command is going to be a stronger WHIP than ERA—as the walks should keep the former low, while the home runs (when he doesn't quite hit his spots) may prevent the latter from occupying that same space. And while expectations seem to be tempered in strikeouts, don't be surprised to see Maeda eclipse 175, especially since he's used to throwing a ton of innings in Japan. Of course, there's risk as well. He's been worked heavily the last few seasons, and while that's less of an impediment in redraft formats, it's a consideration. With the uncertainty, it's unlikely that Maeda will get selected within the first 50 starting pitchers this year, but once you're in that range, he makes for a good target and someone you can be comfortable enough with as your SP4 (with potential to slide up or down a rung in either direction).
If his fantasy value went down after the Kazmir signing, it certainly fell even further after this one. He is now a pretty poor bet to make more than about 10-15 starts this year, unless he finds his way into another organization (or the pitcher in front of him all get hurt). Wait, maybe that number seems a little low on second thought. —Bret Sayre