Twins Tag Along on Betts-Price Trade, Swap Brusdar Graterol for Kenta Maeda

Please Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Even though the writing had been on the wall for quite some time, shockwaves still rippled throughout Twitter as news broke that Boston Red Sox outfielder and perennial MVP candidate Mookie Betts was being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Eyebrows were further furrowed when David Price was announced as joining Betts in the deal, with outfielder Alex Verdugo heading back to Boston — ostensibly to take Betts’ place in right field.

But the true intrigue laid in the fact that more yet had to go to Boston to make this deal make even a little bit of sense for the Red Sox, who appear to be retooling under new general manager Chaim Bloom. Simply getting back Verdugo from his old Tampa Bay comrade Andrew Friedman wasn’t enough — and that’s where the Minnesota Twins stepped in.

The Twins shipped highly-touted pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol to the Red Sox, and in turn, received starting pitcher Kenta Maeda from the Dodgers.

The league-wide ramifications of the Betts deal will be felt in 2020 for sure, and likely beyond as it appears the Dodgers would like to make him a very, very lucrative offer to keep him from hitting free agency next winter. Price is still an effective pitcher when healthy — and Boston is absorbing some money there — and Verdugo could very well turn into a superstar in due time.

But locally, the focus is on moving Graterol — a consensus top-100 prospect with a triple-digit fastball — while getting back Maeda, a pitcher who from the outside looks pretty solid but is fairly unknown to Twins fans.

So let’s dig right in.

The writing on the wall has been that Graterol is likely to be a reliever in 2020, and those whispers have only grown louder the closer the season gets. In fact, after battling shoulder issues last year coupled with a Tommy John surgery very early in his pro career, there’s a very real chance he’ll settle into a relief role and never leave it.

And while that has value, it’s fairly limited. In short, it’s a volatile profile — he could wind up being the next Aroldis Chapman or the next Joel Zumaya, or anywhere in between.

For the Twins to truly regret this trade solely from the side of trading Graterol, he’d have to hit all his marks and become either a solid No. 3 starter or a top-flight late-inning reliever.

Sep 1, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Twins catcher Jason Castro (15) and pitcher Brusdar Graterol (51) celebrate after defeating the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Please Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not an impossible outcome.

But one shouldn’t outright dismiss Maeda on the basis of an ERA over 4.00 in 2019 or fewer than 160 innings thrown in each of his last three MLB seasons. There have been some hijinks in play that might have precipitated the move — something the Twins can smooth out.

Most pitchers want to be starters. The reality is, there’s just more money and stability in starting. Maeda is no exception; he’s said on many occasions that he wants to start.

And he’s done that for the most part with the Dodgers, with 103 of his 137 MLB appearances coming as a starter. But he hasn’t reached the 30-start mark since his rookie season, and it’s easy to see why that’s a sticking point for the Osaka, Japan native who’ll turn 32 in April.

The rest of Maeda’s deal is structured as follows:

  • 2020 – $3.25 million
  • 2021 – $3.25 million
  • 2022 – $3.25 million
  • 2023 – $3.25 million

Those are very modest salaries for a pitcher who through nearly 600 MLB innings has a 3.87 ERA, 9.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and a WHIP of 1.15.

That’s because Maeda’s deal is very “pay-as-you-go” — almost as though it’s an NFL contract. Maeda can make an extra $1 million each at 15 and 20 games started in a given year. At 25, 30 and 32 that incentive bumps to $1.5 million. Starting at 90 innings pitched, Maeda gets an extra $250,000 for every 10 innings he throws, up to 190, with a $750,000 bonus for hitting 200.

In other words, his maximum compensation for a truly healthy, productive season is somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 million — still well beneath what he’d be worth if he were to have hit the open market this offseason.

But a fair number of those incentives were going unreached in Maeda’s time with the Dodgers, and they were doing so beyond his control. So again, he made it known that he really, truly preferred to start.

It wasn’t difficult to see what Derek Falvey and Thad Levine liked in Maeda, either. Certainly, it’s not solely the driving case that he has a contract that allows for maximum fluidity based on how he pitches — and we’ve seen this front office group be very intent on maintaining that fluidity — but also that frankly, he’s damn good, too.

The raw numbers tell a fairly good story. He’s fanned a batter per inning or more in all four of his MLB seasons — funny story, he also homered off Andrew Cashner in his MLB debut — kept the walks in check, kept the ball in the park and doesn’t have much in the way of batted-ball issues. He’s perhaps a little on the unlucky side in terms of fly balls leaving the park, but his groundball rate of 40.9 percent means he’ll be leaning more heavily on his outfield than infield defensively — a good plan as the Twins are currently constructed.

Maeda’s fastball isn’t overpowering. He’s averaged 91.5 mph on his four-seam fastball through four seasons, with last year’s 92.1 mph mark being a career-high. He doesn’t throw it a ton, either (33.9 percent), instead leaning heavily on his slider (31.5 percent) and changeup (23.7 percent) to do some of the legwork.

Last year, Maeda’s swinging-strike rate was a stellar 14.6 percent. That’s colloquially known as “whiff rate” and it’s a pretty strong indicator of a pitcher who can be dominant — i.e. get hitters to swing and miss. The AL average for starters last season was 10.7 percent. Of the 75 pitchers who threw at least 150 innings last season, only six had a higher rate:

That’s some pretty elite company to be in.

It’s not just one pitch that gets whiffs for Maeda, either. His four-seam fastball registers a career whiff rate of 8.4 percent — which seems low, but fastball rates have to be tabled down based on usage patterns and the general fact that it’s the pitcher’s straightest and most hittable pitch, in general. So 8.4 percent is fine for a fastball, while his slider (22.3 percent) and changeup (18.9 percent) are truly elite offerings, whiff-wise.

LISTEN (below): Brandon breaks down the move with Henry Lake on WCCO radio on Tuesday night:

Only the changeup (55.6 percent) really drives grounders in Maeda’s profile outside of a seldom-thrown sinker, but again, that’s OK with Byron Buxton and friends patrolling the outfield. Even more so if the baseballs are throttled back from last season.

And while opposing batters hit a solid .284/.394/.525 against Maeda’s four-seam fastball last year, a couple of things have to be taken into consideration. First, fastballs tend to be teed off upon. An .800 or better OPS against on a fastball is not uncommon, even for very good pitchers. Then consider that Maeda throws his slider nearly as often as his fastball, and things draw back into focus even more easily.

Opponents hit just .155/.203/.288 on his slider last season and were nearly as anemic on his changeup (.554 OPS), again leaving him with two very, very strong secondaries that he throws often enough to really call “primaries” when taking a step back to assess his pitch mix overall.

Ultimately, the collateral damage is that opposing batters have hit just .227/.289/.385 against Maeda in 2,429 plate appearances over the last four seasons.

Statcast also really, really likes Maeda:

(please credit: Statcast, MLB Advanced Media)

In fact, outside of fastball spin, it’s awfully similar to another new Twins pitcher:

(please credit: Statcast, MLB Advanced Media)

That’s fellow former Dodger Rich Hill, who when healthy is considered one of the very best pitchers in the game. In short, while Maeda is obviously a finished product physically entering his age-32 season, there are still some things he can clean up to turn himself to an even better pitcher than he’s been through four seasons with the Dodgers.

And even if he doesn’t improve, he’s still been very good. Different versions of wins-above-replacement stats obviously vary, but here’s how each has viewed the first four seasons in the United States for Maeda:

  • Fangraphs: 9.6 fWAR
  • Baseball Reference: 5.4 bWAR
  • Baseball Prospectus: 15.4 WARP

That’s value all over the map, but what stands to reason is that the Twins got a guy who could make a start on any of the first three days in March against the Oakland A’s….

…or in any of the first three games in the playoffs if that time comes in October. And that was the primary focus of the deal for the Twins — first getting to, then getting through the month of October.

Maeda’s line in October is pretty solid as well: 3.31 ERA in 32.2 innings with 39 strikeouts and 10 unintentional walks.

It’s not certain that Maeda will make the Twins better over the long run compared to Graterol, but in the short-term, it should be a fairly easy trade to justify for Falvey and Levine as they look to build on a 101-win season in 2019.

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