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International Free Agent Profile: Kenta Maeda

There is a good chance that the Hiroshima Toyo Carp post their ace this winter. If so, how interested should the Mets be?

Kenta Maeda
Kenta Maeda
Koji Watanabe

Born April 11, 1988, in Okaka, Japan, Kenta Maeda is currently the ace of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. The right-hander attended PL Gakuen High School, one of the more successful schools in the annual Summer Koshien tournament over the last thirty years.

The Carp drafted Maeda out of high school in 2006. After spending a season on their ni-gun (secondary team, the NPB equivalent of the minor leagues) team in 2007, the 20-year-old right-hander made his professional debut in 2008. He went 9-2 for the year, posting a 3.20 ERA over 109.2 innings. His performance was a bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming season. In 2009, with the departure of veteran Ken Takahashi to the Mets, the Carp needed Maeda to continue pitching well. Though his win-loss record fell to 8-14 for the year, he improved in virtually every aspect of his game.

Statistically, Maeda had his best season in 2010, winning the Eiji Sawamura Award, the first Central League starter to win the award since 2004 (Kenshin Kawakami) and the first Hiroshima Toyo Carp since 1991 (Shinji Sasaoka). Despite Maeda's performance, the Carp were unable to crawl out of the cellar, actually losing one more game than they did in 2009 because of the loss of Colby Lewis to the Texas Rangers and rotation stalwart Kan Otake to injury. With 15 wins, a 2.21 ERA, and 174 strikeouts, Maeda won the pitching Triple Crown, the youngest pitcher in professional Japanese baseball to accomplish such a feat. In 2011, Maeda had a better season than he did in 2010, but because of specific criteria used to select the Eiji Sawamura Award winner, Maeda was not in consideration—not that it mattered much, as Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish had monster seasons, in part because of the new standardized ball to which NPB transitioned.

The 24-year-old started the 2012 season on the right foot, throwing a no-hitter in his second start of the season. For five innings, he had a perfect game going against the Yokohama DeNA Baystars before walking pinch hitter Yuta Naito and second baseman Takehiro Ishikawa. Maeda kept the magic going throughout the rest of the year, posting a career-low ERA and FIP. Although he was in the Eiji Sawamura Award conversation, the right-hander lost out yet again, this time to Fukuoka Hawks ace Tadashi Settsu. Maeda arguably deserved the award more than Settsu did: Maeda won the same amount of games, posted a lower ERA, threw more innings, walked fewer batters, and struck out more hitters.

Maeda was selected to be a member of Samurai Japan during the 2013 World Baseball Classic and was a member of a formidable pitching staff that included 2005 Eiji Sawamura Award winner Toshiya Sugiuchi, 2009 winner Hideaki Wakui, 2011/2013 winner Masahiro Tanaka, and 2012 winner Tadashi Settsu. Though team coach Koji Yamamoto, himself a former Carp, tabbed then-reigning Sawamura Award winner Settsu as the team's "Opening Day" starter, it soon became apparent that Maeda would be the ace upon whom Yamamoto relied. Maeda held Team China to no runs in five innings in an eventual 5-3 Japan win that saw the Carp ace allow one hit, one walk, and strike out six. His next start came nearly a week later in the tournament's second round. Though he faced a much more formidable Netherlands team in this matchup, the results were more of the same: Maeda gave up no runs while allowing one hit, walking none, and striking out nine.

Based on his dominant performance, Maeda started the semifinal game against Team Puerto Rico. Though Maeda lost and Samurai Japan was denied their third championship in as many competitions, the right-hander pitched admirably: In five innings, he allowed one run on four hits, walking two, and striking out three. The ace started three games and pitched 15 innings in total, the most of an pitcher in the 2013 WBC. His 0.60 ERA was third in the tournament among starters who pitched at least two games, and his 18 strikeouts were the most by any pitcher. As a result, he was named to the All-WBC Team (alongside numerous former and current Mets such as Jose Reyes, David Wright, Angel Pagan, and Nelson Figueroa). Maeda did not suffer any kind of "WBC hangover" (as the media narrative periodically pushes here in the U.S.), turning in yet another successful season that saw him near the top of the leader boards.

The 2014 season was more of the same for the young right-hander. Despite tightness in his right elbow in mid-April, a bruised thigh in late May, and tightness and inflammation in his left side in mid-June, Hiroshima's ace missed only a single start, and avoided being taken off of the active roster to recover. Maeda pitched his way through all of those nicks and dings and is well on his way to posting another plus season. The Carp, surprisingly, have been in the playoff hunt, on the tails of the Yomiuri Giants for much of the season, and Maeda has been a big reason for Hiroshima's resurgence.

2008 20 19/18 109.2 3.20 4.34 55 35
2009 21 29/29 193.0 3.36 3.61 147 29
2010 22 28/28 215.2 2.21 3.13 174 46
2011 23 31/31 216.0 2.46 2.86 192 43
2012 24 29/29 206.1 1.53 2.56 171 44
2013 25 26/26 175.2 2.10 2.95 158 40
2014* 26 25/25 171 2.58 3.05 144 40

*Stats current as of September 25th, 2014

So, if Maeda does come to play in the United States, what can we expect?

According to a tweet Jeff Passan sent out during the WBC, an anonymous scout said that he/she saw Maeda as a "4th starter in MLB" at best, citing his fastball velocity. His fastball generally sits around 90 MPH, which is not overpowering for a right-handed pitcher, but tops out a few miles per hour higher, which is generally more than enough velocity to get major league hitters out. The right-hander complements the pitch with a variety of secondary offerings: According to Clint Hulsey, MLB Advanced Media algorithms have identified seven different pitches, while Patrick Newman's NPB Tracker data has identified five.

Maeda throws a slider that averages roughly 80 mph. While generally below average in terms of velocity, the pitch has a lot of movement to it. Jered Weaver throws a slider with similar velocity, but with excellent results thanks to its movement. PITCHf/x data show Maeda's slider as having more movement than Weaver's, potentially making it an above-average major league pitch. Maeda's curveball is also a slow pitch, averaging 70 mph. It has elite vertical drop, and almost as much movement as his slider. Because he throws from a three-quarters release point, Maeda telegraphs the pitch by bringing his release point up to get the necessary vertical movement to make it effective. While he doesn't necessarily get a lot of swings-and-misses with it, he is able to place the pitch with excellent precision despite its movement, resulting in the pitch consistently being thrown for strikes. Maeda also uses a changeup that, at times, looks like his best pitch because it induces some very ugly swings. Averaging slightly over 80 mph (giving it a roughly five-to-ten mph differential compared to his fastball), the pitch has similar movement to Mike Pelfrey's split-finger change. Rounding out Maeda's pitching repertoire is—depending on what pitch tracking algorithm is more accurate—a shuuto, a sinker, and a cutter.

In studying Maeda's PITCHf/x data, Hulsey noticed that the right-hander seems to be aware that he does not have overpowering stuff and, as such, comes to the mound with a definite game plan. Maeda keeps the ball away from hitters' power zones, keeps them off-balance, throws pitches in counts you wouldn't expect them to be thrown in, relies more heavily on his breaking pitches and off-speed offerings than his fastball, and generally makes up for his lack of natural talent with exceptional tact and guile. This would seem to be a definite plus for Maeda from a scouting perspective. Rather than succeeding against inferior hitters with below-average stuff, only to struggle against superior hitters, he should be able to adapt and continue using the approach with which he is familiar.

Scouts and evaluators have cited his height and weight as a red flag, and a potential cause for concern. Maeda stands an even 6 feet tall and for most of his career has been listed at 160 pounds, both of which would be on the relatively small side in MLB. It should be noted that Maeda purposefully put and kept on extra weight during the 2012 offseason, showing up to winter and spring training camps at roughly 180 pounds. Few MLB pitchers have weighed as little as Maeda's listed weight—but 180 pounds, while light, isn't unheard of. Among others, current pitchers Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum, Mike Leake, and Sonny Gray all are about six feet tall and weigh roughly 180 pounds, as were all-time greats Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. Not that any of that particularly matters, as Glenn Greenberg found that there was very little correlation between height and weight, and effectiveness and durability in his article "Does a Pitcher's Height Matter?" in the Fall 2010 SABR Baseball Research Journal.

Maeda's slight frame has also caused some concerns about injury risk, especially when combined with the total amount of innings he has logged. Between ages 20 and 25, Maeda has thrown roughly 1,115 innings of work, and that doesn't account for the higher pitch counts or longer bullpen sessions that Japanese pitchers are allowed to undertake. Only a handful of contemporary pitchers in MLB have thrown that many innings between their ages 20 and 25 seasons: Felix Hernandez threw 1,304 innings between 2006 and 2011, Clayton Kershaw threw 1,180 innings between 2008 and 2013, CC Sabathia threw 1,165.1 innings between 2001 to 2006, and Jeremy Bonderman threw 994.2 innings between 2003 and 2008. While Kershaw and King Felix have not yet experienced any real kind of adversity, both Sabathia and Bonderman had the later stages of their careers limited by elbow and shoulder injuries. Fellow Japanese pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Masahiro Tanaka also logged a similar number of innings between 20 and 25: Matsuzaka threw 1,057 and Tanaka threw 1,085. While generally durable in NPB, both have experienced injury woes since coming to the United States.

Maeda reminds Patrick Newman of NPBTracker fame of Kenshin Kawakami, insomuch as he also succeeded with a 90 mph fastball and a variety of off-speed pitches, with no major standout pitch. Though Kawakami's MLB experience was limited, he was a solid mid-rotation pitcher in 2009, throwing 156.1 innings with a 107 ERA+. With age, health, and overall better stuff on his side, it does not seem like a reach to believe that Kenta Maeda can produce similar or better results in MLB.

Does he make sense for the Mets?

So, first things first: Will Hiroshima post Kenta Maeda? We already know that Maeda is interested. Perhaps the first sign was the public spat between he and his team in 2012 regarding his salary. Though he and Hiroshima had no problems earlier in his career—the pitcher became the fastest Carp to reach the ¥100 million mark (roughly $1 million) back in 2010—the team suddenly tightened its purse strings in 2012. Despite being the Central League ERA champion (1.53) and missing winning his second pitching Triple Crown by one win (14, trailing only Yomiuri Giant Tetsuya Utsumi) and one strikeout (171, trailing only Hanshin Tiger Atsushi Nomi), Maeda was only given a ¥50 million raise (roughly $500,000), bringing his 2013 salary to ¥200 million (roughly $2 million). Maeda protested, noting that the Carp seemed to be using evaluation methods that were inconsistent with those used in the past and that downplayed his 2012 accomplishments and success. He held out briefly, eventually agreeing to a ¥210 million salary during a second round of negotiations; but the fact remained that Hiroshima purposefully sought to underpay their ace, creating tension and bad blood.

Right before the 2013 WBC, Maeda mentioned that his experience in the tournament might color his opinion. "I only know Japanese baseball. I might enjoy facing MLB players at MLB stadiums, or I might not," the right-hander said. "It would be nice if I can expand my world with the WBC. It is all experience. It will depend on how I am feeling after it is all done." He was mum on the subject after returning from the competition, but made his desire public in December. After meeting with team officials at Mazda Stadium and agreeing to a  ¥280 million contract—a ¥70 million yen raise, eclipsing Hiroki Kuroda's ¥250 million salary as the most in team history—the former Sawamura Award winner let it be known that he was indeed interested in coming to North America to play with an MLB team. "It would be a lie if I said I did not want to go," Maeda said when asked. "It's something I have thought about for quite some time. The feelings grew stronger after I had a decent outing during the WBC. I do not know how things will go, but I would like to go when I am in a good place. I only have one baseball career. I do not want any regrets. This is not something I can do if I want, so I will continue to discuss things with the organization." Before the 2014 season began, the Hiroshima ace reiterated,

"When it was Nomo, I never thought about it for myself. But then Darvish and Iwakuma went, and when I saw them go, I got the blurry image in my head. Then I pitched in the WBC and that blurry image turned into, ‘I want to pitch there.' I decided ‘I want to go there too' when I heard the news about Tanaka maybe getting posted to the Majors. We're the same age and he's a pitcher that pushes me to do better. I will do my best so that I can go [to the Majors] with people around me cheering for me."

So, what did the Carp think of Maeda's announcement? Most of those asked understandably had little of substance to add. Carp manager Kenjiro Nomura said, "I think it is very important and wonderful for a baseball player to set high goals.  It will be tough on the team if he leaves. But, we have at least one year with him so we will let him to his thing. I cannot say ‘Go' or ‘Stay.' It is his career; he should do as he pleases." Kiyoaki Suzuki, a senior team official, said, "We understand that as a player he would like to make this challenge. We talked about when would be a good time for him to go, considering our team, players and the fans." Team owner Hajime Matsuda said, "I will accept it as a dream, but right now, there are no plans to accept. If the excitement among the fans gains momentum, then there might come a time we have to think about it. Of the twelve NPB teams, we are furthest from a championship. If we can have an overpowering season in all regards, then perhaps."

Realistically, though, regardless of how well or poorly the team does in 2014, posting Maeda would probably be in the best interest of the club. The posting fee that the team would receive in exchange for releasing the pitcher's rights—likely close to the maximum $20 million allowed—would be a major boon to the financially starved organization. The Carp are one of the few NBP teams to not have a true corporate sponsor infusing them with funds. While the "Toyo" in the team name denotes Mazda (the company's official name was "Toyo Kogyo Co., Ltd." until 1984), the automaker owns only 34% of the team, making it a minority shareholder. The Matsuda family (the descendants of Jujiro Matsuda, the founder of Mazda) are the primary owners, possessing a 60% majority share. Though certainly well-off themselves, they do not have the financial power to provide the team with funds like the corporate sponsors of other teams can and do—and it shows. The Carp rarely sign domestic free agents and regularly get priced out of keeping developing stars. The team hasn't finished above .500 since 2001, and owing to a strong division, regularly finish 20 or more games out of first place.

Coming on the heels of Masahiro Tanaka's record-breaking seven-year, $155 million contract, Kenta Maeda is likely to generate enough interest to ink a sizable, if not slightly inflated, contract. Though he isn't on the same level as recent émigrés Darvish, Iwakuma, or Tanaka, Maeda has the potential of being a solid-to-above-average mid-rotation pitcher. He is no Tanaka, however, and talent evaluators are aware of that, so don't expect any team to equal or exceed what the Yankees paid for their star pitcher. The life and structure of Maeda's contract could be similar to Tanaka's—including allowances for moving, housing, interpreters, no-trade clauses, and opt-out clauses—but the dollar values will most certainly differ. That is not to say that Maeda will get peanuts, but rather that it is unlikely that he makes the $22 million dollars per year that Tanaka will make for the majority of his contract.

In theory, the Mets could afford the kind of contract that Maeda will likely sign. Despite being relatively cash strapped, the Mets signed Curtis Granderson, Bartolo Colon, and Chris Young to contracts totaling roughly $30 million dollars. By reallocating money coming off of the books, in Alderson's own words, either through expiring contracts or trades, the team could find the necessary $15 million or so that it would need to pay Maeda. With the relative wealth of quality pitching the team currently has, would acquiring the Japanese ace be a wise use of the limited funds that might be freed up?

At first glance, it would seem almost superfluous. Matt Harvey will return to the mound next season. Bartolo Colon is under contract for one more year, barring a trade. Jon Niese, Dillon Gee, and Zack Wheeler all seem to have established themselves as mostly reliable pitching options. Rookie Jacob deGrom experienced a breakout Rookie of the Year-type season and can be expected to return to the mound next year. In addition, youngsters Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Steven Matz, Gabriel Ynoa, and Matthew Bowman are all entering the later stages of their minor league maturation and will soon be ready to contribute at the major league level in some fashion.

Without adding an additional name to the mix, the 2015 pitching rotation is crowded. It's true that, as both sayings go, "you can never have enough pitching" and "there is no such thing as a pitching prospect;" but something has got to give. Trading excess starting pitching for position players that address team needs seems to be the most intuitive fix to this very fortunate problem. Given their MLB experience or potential as prospects, some or all of those named above may be able to bring back significant returns to the Mets, either as individuals or in packages. Were the Mets to sign Maeda, he could probably fill in for most any of those starters without too much, if any, drop in performance