Maybe the Twins Should Have Prepped Kenta Maeda as a Reliever

Photo Credit: Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Twins’ newfound depth in their starting rotation is a great problem to have. With six formidable, proven starting pitchers and a handful of prospects knocking on the door, the club is confident that they can cobble together a solid starting corps. Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle can provide frontline upside when healthy. Pablo López was the big catch of the off-season and is dicing up world-class competition in the World Baseball Classic. Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober have established themselves as young building blocks in the rotation for years to come.

And then there’s Kenta Maeda.

The veteran right-hander is coming off of an 18-month hiatus while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Entering his age-35 season, Maeda is adamant that he wants to continue as a starting pitcher, a request that the Twins are seemingly ready to accept. But is that really what’s best for Maeda as he enters a contract year? Is that plan what’s best for a Minnesota team that is desperate for a winning season after two consecutive losing efforts?

Without a doubt, Maeda has flashed incredible upside as a starter throughout his career. His career 3.91 ERA as a starting pitcher is respectable, as is his 26.2% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate. Opposing hitters have only mustered a .227 batting average against him in the rotation, with a commendable 3.74 fielding independent pitching. That’s a rock-solid career as a starter that has spanned six MLB seasons and nearly 800 innings pitched. But after a lengthy absence, combined with the fact that he’s entering his career’s probable twilight, it’s hard to imagine him living up to his career norms, let alone surpassing them.

Results notwithstanding, locking Maeda into a rotation spot creates a predicament when trying to create a roadmap for the rest of the season. It’s hard to put a firm figure on his possible workload limitations, but most projection models see him starting around 21 to 24 games, with an inning total landing somewhere in the 120 to 140 inning pitched mark. Personally, I think that estimate is rather high, seeing as he hasn’t surpassed 120 innings pitched since 2019. That was pre-surgery, and approaching four years ago.

He was on the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019.

David Freese was on the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2019, and he’s been retired for nearly three years.

Louie Varland was taking field trips to Camp Snoopy as a fourth grader in 2019. Okay, that last one was an exaggeration, but the point remains – 2019 was a long time ago.

Maybe a better path forward would have been to prepare Maeda as a relief option heading into this season. It’s a role that he’s had success in before, and it’s a move that he will inevitably make at some point this season anyway. Not only should the team be considering his workload limitations due to his extended absence, but they should also note his peripheral stats that suggest a move might be necessary.

Maeda’s numbers facing a lineup for the third time in a game can attest to this notion. In these instances over his career, he has a concerning 5.54 ERA and a bloated home run rate (1.52 HR/9). Maeda’s issues ballooned to exorbitant heights in his last season of action in 2021, when he had an 8.82 ERA and allowed a .931 OPS when facing an opponent thrice in a game. It’s not uncommon for starters to have noticeable drop offs when facing a lineup for a third time. But that was a major factor that played into the team’s downfall last season. The rotation had trouble working deep into games, and the wheels came off the bullpen due to overuse.

Is the club really interested in playing with that fire again? They just rid themselves of two starters with perpetual early-yankability tendencies in Chris Archer and Dylan Bundy. Why jump back into that pattern for a relatively-modest best case scenario where Maeda sticks in the rotation for three or four months?

Instead, a more-fitting plan would have been to prepare King Kenta as a bullpen weapon over the off-season. He’s had incredible success in relief, even in the high-stress environment of playoff action. He has a career 3.19 ERA in 42 innings pitched out of the bullpen, and his strikeout-to-walk rate improves drastically (3.66 K/BB as a starter, 7.25 as a reliever). Not only would that shift be good for Maeda, but it would add an established arm to a bullpen picture that went relatively untouched over the off-season.

I can see the benefits of relying on Maeda as a starter if the Twins lacked depth in their starting rotation. But beyond the original six aforementioned starters, the organization has Varland, Simeon Woods Richardson, Josh Winder and José De León (who is opening some eyes in the WBC) as fallback options.

It’s a crowded group in the starting rotation depth chart, and it’s a problem that the Twins are happy to have.

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Photo Credit: Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

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