While there are several tantalizing starting pitchers available this offseason, one of the more intriguing storylines could come to us all the way from Japan, where the Hiroshima Carp will soon decide whether to post their 27-year old ace, Kenta Maeda.
Maeda has long been rumored to make his way to the states, and has admitted his desire to play in America the past two offseasons. However, the Carp have so far been opposed to setting their star pitcher free in light of recent changes to the MLB/NPB posting system, which only allows the parent NPB club to collect a maximum posting fee of $20 million in a transaction. With the Carp controlling Maeda's rights through 2017, this has incentivized the club to hold tight and extract as much value as possible from their ace while in his prime, knowing they can still cash their $20M chip in future offseasons.
We've done this dance before, but there are reasons to be optimistic that this is the year Maeda makes the move to the big leagues. First, the righthander was recently awarded his 2nd Sawamura Award - the Japanese version of the Cy Young - five years after winning his first as a 22-year old in 2010. After Carp owner Hajime Matsuda implied last offseason that a dip in production would have made a move difficult at the time, team brass can have no such claims this year following his award-winning campaign and strong showing versus the U.S. in last November's Japan All-Star Series exhibition.
Though Maeda doesn't possess the mid-90s heat of Darvish or worm-killing splitter of Tanaka (more on his pitch mix below), he's made his bones in NPB with consistency and command of his 5+ pitch arsenal and ability to limit baserunners. It's an approach that's seen Maeda run off six consecutive standout seasons for the Carp and heading into his age-28 season, he is likely itching to test his mettle on the games' highest level while still in his prime.
Regardless of his readiness, money and politics will continue to be a factor in a possible Maeda move. The Carp are known as NPB's answer to the Oakland A's; as one of the only clubs without a major corporate sponsor pumping in funds, the team has struggled to retain or recruit free agents in recent years. A low payroll coupled with the introduction of a new free-agent system in 1993 has led to a dark age for the Carp - they last won the Central League pennant in 1991, a 24-year drought that's the longest among all NPB teams.
With the knowledge that Maeda made a meager $2.5 million last season, a $20 million 'transfer fee' could be a franchise-altering infusion of capital for the perpetually poor club, much in the same way that the 'Herschel Walker trade' revived a certain NFL team in the early 90's. It's true that Hiroshima would have one remaining offseason (2016) to offload their ace, but waiting another year could be seen as a risky proposition given the mileage on Maeda's arm - he's thrown more innings than any NPB pitcher over the past six seasons.
Maeda, listed at 6'/154 pounds, is not an imposing figure on the mound and doesn't project as anything more than a no. 3 starter for most MLB teams if and when he makes the jump to 'the Bigs'. While his fastball sits 87-92 with the ability to reach back for a couple extra ticks when he needs it, the pedestrian velocity plays up because of an advanced pitching pedigree and the ability to throw all of his quality offspeed offerings for strikes.
Maeda combats a less-than-ideal launch angle with plus athleticism that allows him to repeat a high-effort delivery that starts out mirroring Darvish's mechanically almost to a T - but finishes with a Lincecum-esque 'dragline' which allows him to release the ball later and gives the effect of added velocity (seen here in super-slo-mo).
Make no mistake, Maeda's secondary pitches and his ability to locate them explain how he's been able to have sustained success in NPB without overpowering stuff. His low-80's slider is known as his best pitch despite true wipeout, bat-missing break because he's able to flip it for strikes to both righties and lefties in any count.
He also mixes in a solid low-80's changeup that has unorthodox armside movement, coaxing a fair amount of uncomfortable swings. While Maeda's pitch classification will be a topic of interest as he inches closer to the big leagues, the pitch he stymied Yasiel Puig with in exhibition play last year is known in scouting notebooks far and wide as a 'Bugs Bunny' changeup.
Sticking with the Looney Tunes theme, watching Maeda's curveball in action may elicit the image of Wile E. Coyote, as he drops the anvil with a 12-6 bender that plays well off his plus-slider with similar elite vertical drop, but thrown 10mph slower. A minor knock on the pitch in the limited looks we've had on Maeda is that he can hang it from time to time. But just concluding a season where he gave up only five HRs in 200+ IP - tying teammate Kris Johnson for the lowest HR rate among all NPB starters - it's fair to conclude he's not making those mistakes with regularity and that his curve will continue to be a weapon for him.
Rounding out his impressive arsenal, Maeda boasts a traditional Japanese 'shuuto', a mysterious version of the common two-seam or sinking fastball that he throws in the high-80s. The now-defunct NPB tracker also credits Maeda with mixing in cutters early in his career but then stopping in 2011; it's unclear whether he truly stopped throwing the pitch or if the data source simply re-classified them as something else. Current Japanese pitch-type data is not readily available to the public, but PitchF/X's 'eye in the sky' got a look at Maeda at the 2013 World Baseball Classic while pitching for Team Japan in AT&T Park.
A little-known blog called 'I R Fast' had a field day with the data and is recommended reading for anyone wanting to further ruminate on what the cameras saw that day and how Maeda used his deep array of offerings to get batters out.
It bears repeating that Maeda does not possess the high-end stuff that is found throughout this season's stellar free agent class, with names like Greinke, Price, Zimmermann and Cueto expected to seek nine-figure contracts. That's not to say there won't be considerable interest in Japan's top pitcher, whether he becomes available this offseason or the next. Now that the posting system has been re-worked so that a posted player can negotiate with *all* MLB teams, (the prior system only allowed negotiations with the club that won a 'blind bidding') Maeda would draw a host of suitors ranging from the deep-pocketed Dodgers and Yankees to the pitching-starved Diamondbacks, whose GM has already expressed interest.
Despite the aforementioned mileage on his arm - and the prospect of a different pitching routine than those found in NPB - Maeda could have the advantage of being at least 2 years younger than all of the available aces noted above.
Maeda projects best as a no. 4 starter in the majors, with the potential to outperform expectations during his first turn through the league. Popular comps for Maeda include such soft-tossers as Freddy Garcia and Jered Weaver - guys who use(d) a variation of breaking stuff to confound batters and make their middling fastballs 'play up'.
If we're being bold, the most tantalizing outlook for Maeda could be a mid-career Roy Oswalt if everything breaks right. The former Astro also had his doubters when he came up as a diminutive right-hander, but rang off eight All-Star-level seasons in Houston with an arsenal and approach that parallels Maeda's: a fastball that cuts to either side of the plate, a 70mph bender, and a usable cutter-slider-change combo.
- Maeda is posted by the Carp on Christmas Eve
- Theo Epstein flies to Japan on Christmas morning
- Astros' brass note my (and others') Roy Oswalt comp, discover Maeda's elite spin rate, and outbid the big fish to the tune of a 5 yr/$77M deal
- Maeda's preseason aggregate prospect rank: 47
- Maeda's final 2016 pitching line: 14-8, 3.24 ERA, 178 IP, 155 K, finishes 2nd in AL ROY to Minnesota's Jose Berrios