That Kenta Maeda Contract

The Dodgers just signed Japanese righty Kenta Maeda to a deal that sounds like it belongs in the early 1990s: eight years, $25 million. Not $25 million a year. $25 million. Total. Greg Maddux signed in 1993 for six years and $28 million. That’s how far you have to go back to get a similar deal.

Of course, this is nothing like that deal, because this is 2016, not 1993. The reason this deal is so low is all the risk — risk upon risk, really. But the years, the low guarantee, and even the incentives combine to shift this deal all the way in the other direction. The Dodgers did really well here.

It’s not only the elbow issues in the physical that make things risky, although that was a huge part of the fact that Maeda didn’t have as many suitors as he might have had otherwise. The pitcher wouldn’t comment on what was specifically wrong, but did list being healthy as a goal, and Andrew Friedman called him “totally asymptomatic.”

But that’s handled by the incentives. Maeda can earn an extra $10 million-plus a year by hitting 30 games started and 200 innings pitched a year. We don’t know exactly how those incentives break down, but if Maeda can even pitch in the big leagues for 200 innings a year for eight years, it’ll be difficult for him not to be worth $100 million over eight years.

Since 2000, there have been 620 player seasons with 200 innings pitched. Of those, 562 were worth more than 1.8 wins, which is how much Maeda would have to manage to be worth $13 million in a season. That’s 91%! Only Jamie Moyer in 2004 has pitched 200 innings and been below replacement. A simple average of those 620 seasons gives you almost four wins, suggesting that this could still be a great steal for the Dodgers if he manages to be prolific and healthy.

The downside needs discussion. Obviously, the elbow was scary enough to lower the number of suitors. The Dodgers spent $20 million to talk to Maeda and are on the hook for $25 million. What’s the least they need to get for their $45 million?

That’s tough because of the incentives, but if you figure that, on average, 200-inning starters get about four wins for a full season, you can give the Dodgers four full years of work before they’ve paid the contract off, even if he then pitches four full years at replacement level. If he’s only a two-win guy, a back-end of the rotation pitcher, things are a little different — they’d need just over seven seasons to pay off the deal. They could afford to lose a full year to surgery, but they’d need him to be a mostly healthy major league starter the rest of the time.

The incentives really cover them on a yearly basis, though. If Maeda produced two four-win seasons and never pitched again, the team would do well. So the Dodgers paid for Maeda like a healthy fifth starter and are hoping for more.

That’s good because there’s that other risk inherent in signing Maeda — namely, he’s not as good as the high-profile Japanese pitchers that have come over recently. His Japanese strikeout rate puts him in the bottom third of all Japanese posted pitchers, and though his walk rate there was good, Kenshin Kawakami, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka all had better league-adjusted walk rates leading up to their posting. He looks a lot like a younger Kawakami when put up against his fellow posted players.

His translated Japanese numbers from Clay Davenport’s site suggest that he might have similar strikeout and walk ratios to Yovani Gallardo did last year, when he basically had a league-average FIP.

On the other hand, Maeda is a 27-year-old that has been just short of dominating in Japan recently. His PITCHf/x numbers suggest that he could be an older Aaron Nola. And even a healthy 4.00-ERA guy can be, as we’ve seen, worth $100 million over eight years.

When we wondered how much teams should pay for Kenta Maeda, we didn’t know that his elbow had “irregularities” as Friedman put it on MLB Network after the signing. But we thought that teams should pay for Yovani Gallardo and hope for more. Gallardo is projected by the crowd to get $56 million over four years. The Dodgers paid more years, and the incentives could make it more expensive, but they only forked over $45 million in guaranteed money.

That’s how you sign a guy to a decent floor, reduce your risk, and still leave massive amounts of upside. It’s a weird deal — not since Mike Hampton has a pitcher gotten eight years — but it’s a great one. There’s not even an opt-out!

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

Raisel Iglesias signed a 7-year, $27 million deal with the Reds. This seems a bit similar in that they are high floor, low ceiling imports.

6 years ago
Reply to  danteswitness

I wouldn’t say that Maeda is particularly high floor, low ceiling. His floor is that he has significant elbow issues that could cause him to miss years and if he goes down for a surgery, there’s no guarantee his stuff comes back. And sure, he probably won’t be an ace, but there’s a lot of upside for his deal in that he could become a 3 while being paid like a 5.

6 years ago
Reply to  nimishtodi

I actually agree. I was more referring to the opening where you had to go back to Greg Maddux to find a similar contract. While it’s only two contracts, it may be a sign that this could be the going rate now for youngish pitching imports with question marks.