Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!: Tigers Sign Kenta Maeda

Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Based on the St. Louis Cardinals’ activity before Thanksgiving, the going rate for a right-handed pitcher in his mid-30s with a recent track record of high volume but unimpressive results is one year in the low eight figures with a club option for year two. For a mid-30s right-hander with better results but a major injury in his recent past? Apparently you have to guarantee the second year.

The Detroit Tigers have landed Kenta Maeda, late of division rival Minnesota, for two years and $24 million. The top two teams in this year’s AL Central standings both have holes to fill in their rotations, as Minnesota has to replace Maeda and Sonny Gray (who reportedly signed a three-year, $75 million deal with the Cardinals this morning), while the Tigers need a replacement for Eduardo Rodriguez. (As much as I like Maeda, he’s probably not that.)

Detroit’s rotation will probably stand or fall based on the performance of Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, and Matt Manning, that much-hyped trio from so long ago they might as well be Generation K. But three pitchers does not a rotation make, and Maeda fills Detroit’s need for quality depth.

According to Bob Nightengale, this contract straight-up does what it says on the tin: No options, no bonuses, no opt-outs. That must be a refreshing change for Maeda, who is coming off one of the weirdest long-term contracts in baseball history, an eight-year pact with so many incentives and escalators you’d think his agent was Johann Georg Faust. I’ll be honest: It never occurred to me that Maeda’s original Dodgers contract would ever expire until I read his name on a list of upcoming free agents this fall.

Maeda’s first foray into free agency only lasted a few weeks. So what do he, and the Tigers, come away with?

If the 2020 Mookie Betts trade rigmarole was Parks & Recreation, Maeda was its Aubrey Plaza. He finished second in Cy Young voting, but it was a bit of a weird year. Shane Bieber was the runaway winner, having had the kind of year where if you don’t vote for him people look at you funny at the next BBWAA meeting, leaving a muddled field vying for no. 2 on the ballot. Maeda was outstanding, with a 2.70 ERA and career-bests in K% (32.3) and BB% (4.0).

However, 2020 was the only season in history in which a starting pitcher with 66 2/3 innings pitched could end up on a Cy Young ballot. Had Maeda been stretched further, certain load-bearing aspects of his season (namely, a .208 opponent BABIP) might not have stood up to the scrutiny of a 33-start campaign.

In August of the following year, Maeda tore his UCL, then missed all of 2022 recovering from surgery to reconstruct the ligament with an internal brace. Maeda made it back for the start of the 2023 season, and was back on the IL with a triceps strain. In his last start before going on the IL in April, Maeda suffered a complete systems failure, allowing 11 hits and 10 earned runs in just three innings. That constitutes one out of every five runs Maeda allowed in the entire 2023 regular season. But once he returned in late June, Maeda was nails:

Kenta Maeda, Post-Triceps Injury
G IP K% BB% ERA FIP AVG OBP SLG
17 88 1/3 29.0 7.0 3.36 3.94 .219 .279 .401

More than that, Maeda was reliable. He took his turn every time out from the time he returned in June until the last two weeks of the regular season. Is he a 200-inning workhorse? Of course not. Maeda hasn’t qualified for the ERA title since his rookie year in 2016, and hasn’t even gotten to 110 innings in a season since 2019.

But between the pandemic and the torn UCL, Maeda really hasn’t had a chance to throw 150 innings in a year since 2019. Comparing Maeda’s repertoire from his Cy Young finalist year to his first year back post-injury, the difference isn’t huge, particularly when you consider that Maeda is three years older and didn’t throw that hard to begin with:

Cy Young Contender-to-Post Elbow Injury
Velocity
Year Fastball Sinker Curveball Slider Splitter
2020 91.6 90.8 78.5 82.9 84.5
2023 91.0 90.3 76.4 81.6 84.1
Usage
Year Fastball Sinker Curveball Slider Splitter
2020 18.7 7.1 3.4 38.7 29.3
2023 27.4 6.4 3.6 30.6 31.9
RV/100
Year Fastball Sinker Curveball Slider Splitter
2020 2.7 1.4 -6.0 0.8 2.4
2023 0.3 0.2 -1.4 -1.2 1.5
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

I don’t want to keep going back to the Cardinals, but that constitutes the bulk of the activity in this sector of the free agent market so far, so I don’t have much choice. Prior to inking Gray to a deal, I think a lot of the confusion around St. Louis going after Gibson and Lynn was based in the assumption that the Cardinals are always going to at least try to be good. And given the past, oh, 30-odd years of baseball history, you understand why people think that. The Cardinals are always good; 2023 was only their second losing season of the 21st century.

But those are signings a team makes when it cares more about getting innings than the quality of those innings. The Tigers getting Maeda is the opposite. He’s a little older, and he’s got minor durability concerns. Big whoop. Every pitcher has durability concerns of some kind nowadays.

Maeda was a league-average pitcher overall this season, finishing bang-on at an ERA- of 100. After he got his triceps injury straightened out, he was even better. And over a seven-season major league track record, league-average is the floor for what we’d expect from Maeda. If the Tigers only get, say, 25 starts out of him, that’s fine, because they’re shifting into contender mode. They need their no. 3 or no. 4 starter (depending on what other moves Detroit makes, and how much you trust Manning and Mize) to actually keep them in games now, not just get them through games.

Steamer has Maeda penciled in for 132 innings, a 4.15 ERA, and 2.0 WAR in 2024. Let’s use that as a rough baseline. Last offseason, the Phillies and Cubs went after starters who could give them 150ish innings of league-average pitching, and paid $72 million over four years to Taijuan Walker, and $68 million over four years to Jameson Taillon, respectively.

Even taking a pessimistic view of Maeda’s age and durability, two years and $24 million is starting to look like a coup for the Tigers. If Maeda pitches up to his usual standards in any kind of volume, $12 million a year is a bargain. If he struggles to stay in the rotation, or if the Tigers retain Rodriguez, or replace him with an equal or better front-of-rotation starter, Maeda has plenty of experience pitching out of the bullpen, particularly in the playoffs. Maeda has appeared in the postseason every year he’s played in the U.S. and made it to October healthy, and out of 27 appearances he’s only made four starts.

And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Maeda is a total write-off. Two years at $12 million per isn’t that big a salary for a team to eat, even a team like the Tigers, that’s several years removed from tickling the $190 million mark in annual payroll. Maeda’s salary is only half what the Tigers are paying Javier Báez, who posted a wRC+ of just 61 this season. And those two represent Detroit’s only salary commitments past the end of the 2024 season. I don’t think Maeda will turn into a pumpkin, but even if he did, the Tigers could work around it.

As nifty a piece of business as this is, it’s probably not the move that gets Detroit over the top. Maeda, like Mark Canha, who was acquired by trade earlier this offseason, is a very nice supporting piece, not a franchise-changer on his own. But the Tigers have plenty of time, and presumably, money to find that player before the offseason ends.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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David Klein
4 months ago

Really good deal he really had one disastrous start that inflated his numbers and after he came off the il he had a e.r.a in the high 2’s with fantastic K and walk numbers. The question is always health with him but if he can give them fifty starts combined in the next two years he’ll be a huge bargain.