Kenta Maeda’s Elbow Adds Injury to the Twins’ Insulting 2021

The Twins came into 2021 with postseason aspirations, ones that were quickly dashed by an atrocious start to the season. By the trade deadline, they were dealing for the future; Nelson Cruz, Hansel Robles, and J.A. Happ were all rentals, but José Berríos, who was dealt to the Blue Jays, looked like a key part of the team for both this year and next. Trading him was a calculated gamble that they could sacrifice some certainty next year for future value. Now, 2022 is in even more jeopardy: Kenta Maeda, the team’s best pitcher, will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss a good chunk of next year.

For the Twins, this is obviously brutal news. This season was already a write-off, but they had mostly done a good job of building for next year even as they disappointed in the present. Cruz aside, the team will retain most of its offensive core next year, and while Andrelton Simmons will hit free agency, with Jorge Polanco and Luis Arraez still in the fold, they’ll have a huge array of options for how to replace him. Heck, reunite with Cruz on another one-year deal, and they could field a solid team without any further infield starters needed (Josh Donaldson to third base, Arraez to second, and Polanco to short). Austin Martin, the centerpiece of the team’s return for Berríos, might be ready to bolster that infield depth as soon as next year, as well.

The lineup, however, isn’t the Twins’ biggest problem. It’s underperformed this year, no doubt, but their pitching has been disastrous. They’ve allowed 5.3 runs per game, the third-worst mark in the majors. It’s no sequencing fluke, either: by BaseRuns, they also have the third-worst pitching staff in the big leagues. You won’t win a lot of games if you allow so many runs, regardless of how many bombs you’re hitting on the other side of the ball.

Those disastrous pitching numbers actually understate the problem Minnesota faces, because they include the contributions of Berríos and Maeda; the latter was in the midst of a down year, but a down year for him is still a solid season. He posted a 4.66 ERA, the worst of his career, but his peripherals were rosier: a 4.09 FIP, 3.98 xFIP, and above-average strikeout and whiff rates.

Those are solid numbers, but they pale in comparison to his marvelous 2020, when he posted a 2.70 ERA and a sterling 32.3% strikeout rate; he finished second in Cy Young voting, and deservedly so. In his last 32 starts — comprising the 2020 and ’21 seasons — he’s pitched to a 3.90 ERA, 3.67 FIP, and 27.5% strikeout rate. That’s roughly in line with his career marks in all three categories.

In fact, Maeda had been a rare bright spot as the Twins continued to scuffle in the second half. Since the beginning of July, he made nine starts and looked like his old self, with a 3.62 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and strikeout rate above 30%. It wasn’t quite his sensational 2020, but after some early-season scuffles had his ERA in the mid-5s, it was reassuring to see him regain his form.

The Twins needed that solid pitching performance. Even at their division-winning peak, they relied more on a potent offense than a stingy pitching staff to win games. They don’t call it the Bomba Squad because of their dynamic starters and exciting bullpen (though at times they’ve had both of those).

The bullpen has been awful this year. Taylor Rogers still looks sharp, but honestly, that’s about it. Alex Colomé has reclaimed the closer role, but more due to the “someone has to close” principle than anything else. On the season, they’ve been one of the worst bullpens in baseball, and in August, they’ve been one of the worst bullpens in baseball. Relievers are inherently volatile, which should give the Twins hope that they’ll be able to build a respectable unit next year, but if they’re going to build an elite run prevention unit, it will have to begin with the starting rotation.

They’ve done it before. In 2020, Twins starters posted the sixth-most WAR in baseball and finished seventh the year before. In their recent competitive run, Minnesota’s front office has spun gold out of some unpromising starts; we projected them as 10th and 14th, respectively, in those two years. Maybe they were just riding variance; we projected them as the 12th-best rotation this year, and they’ve been the 26th-best.

However you want to think about Minnesota’s powers of roster construction, next year’s rotation needed Maeda as an anchor. At the moment, Bailey Ober might be their Opening Day starter next year. Don’t take this as a knock on him: He’s been solid this year and tore up Triple-A before earning his call-up. Joe Ryan, who’s been inconsistent since coming over in the Cruz trade but shows flashes of three plus pitches and has looked the part in his minor league career, could also get the nod. They’re both solid pitchers, but neither is anyone’s idea of a staff ace.

After those two, it gets scary. Randy Dobnak is interesting; he’s also pitched to a 6.18 FIP this year. The Twins hardly seemed sure of him in the first place; he missed a large chunk of the season with an injured finger, though they had already sent him to the minors once before that ailment, after a desultory 14.1 innings of relief work.

Are you a Griffin Jax fan? ZiPS and Steamer aren’t, projecting him for a mid-5s ERA. Andrew Albers, perhaps? John Gant? You can name more names, but none of them fill me with confidence. Without meaningful personnel changes, the Twins will go into next year with one of the worst projected starting rotations in the majors.

Maeda alone would do a lot to make that picture brighter. There’s good news on that front: his surgery carries a shorter recovery timeline than a normal UCL replacement. It’s a so-called internal brace Tommy John surgery, where a piece of collagen-coated tape provides additional support and shortens recovery time. He could be back in 9–12 months as compared to certainly out for next season if he had opted for standard TJ.

Even if the Twins get a half-season out of Maeda, they’ll have some shopping to do this offseason. Their payroll is slated to drop significantly; Michael Pineda and Simmons alone accounted for $20 million of payroll this year, and they’re both leaving in free agency. Their modus operandi in these situations has been to hunt for bargains and build a rotation out of acceptable starters, adding Rich Hill, Happ, Matt Shoemaker, Jake Odorizzi, Homer Bailey, and Pineda on short-term, mid-dollar deals in recent years past.

This offseason should present plenty of options. Pick the right two or three names, and the Twins could create an average rotation out of spare parts and middling prospects. To highlight a few at random, take a look at this list:

2022 Free Agent Pitchers
Pitcher 2021 ERA 2021 FIP 2022 Age
Zack Greinke 3.66 4.46 38
Danny Duffy 2.51 3.39 33
Drew Smyly 4.75 5.35 33
Dylan Bundy 6.06 5.50 29
Andrew Heaney 5.53 4.71 31
José Quintana 6.35 4.08 33
Zach Davies 4.91 5.15 29
Johnny Cueto* 4.09 4.09 36
*: Cueto has a team option that is unlikely to be picked up

It’s obviously not as easy as that. Pick the wrong two names, throw in an injury or two, and you might be looking at a disaster of a staff. Minnesota doesn’t have any workhorses to lean on, which makes the whole proposition riskier. Come up empty this offseason, and the team could be wasting the last year of Byron Buxton in Minnesota; as good as the offense is, there’s a limit to how poor a playoff pitching staff can be.

The Twins aren’t the only ones put out by Maeda’s injury. He might suffer the most, even excluding the excruciating pain and monotony of rehab. When he came over from Japan’s NPB, he signed an incentive-laden contract that pays him more or less by the start, with a base salary of only $3 million but a pair of scaling incentives. First, he gets $250,000 for each 10-inning increment pitched starting at 90 innings. Second, he receives a bonus for games started: $1 million for 15 and 20 games started, then $1.5 million for 25, 30, and 32. If he made 32 starts in a season and eclipsed 200 innings, he would make $12.5 million. But in only half a season and with innings restrictions, he’ll likely make only his base salary next year.

That’s a significant financial hit, though signing such an incentive-laden contract meant that any injury was likely to be costly. In fact, I think this may have played a role in Maeda’s decision to choose internal brace surgery. If he opted for standard Tommy John, he would likely be out of commission until 2023. In his first game action since surgery, the team would likely limit his innings, and thus his chance at performance bonuses. By pitching in the latter half of 2022, he could alleviate some of the team’s fears about workload, potentially increasing his ’23 playing time.

Whatever the reasons that Maeda chose a surgery option with a shorter recovery time, it gives some hope to both he and the team. Fifty innings of Maeda next year would be a huge boost for a team that will desperately need innings out of their starters, regardless of what they do this offseason. The 2021 season was a tough one for the Twins. Unfortunately, 2022 is shaping up to be another challenge.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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pedeysRSox
Member
pedeysRSox

Albers is a guy I’d be ok with as a #5 starter but signing Greinke and Bundy look to be the best bets. A Greinke, Ober, Bundy, Ryan, Albers + others (Lewis Thorpe) rotation looks solid enough until Maeda is ready late in 2022 if he’s healthy.

cowdisciple
Member
cowdisciple

They’re going to need to get something out of the Simeon Woods Richardson/Jordan Balazovic/Jhoan Duran prospect group.