TODAY: Negotiations between Maeda and the Tigers “have intensified in recent days,” according to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi (X link).
NOVEMBER 24: Free agent right-hander Kenta Maeda reportedly has “serious” interest from the Tigers but a reunion with the Twins is still possible. Jon Heyman of The New York Post reports that both the Tigers and Twins are interested in Maeda, though there’s nothing to indicate his market his limited to just those two clubs.
Maeda, 36 in April, has a long track record of being an effective major leaguer, with an earned run average of 3.92 in 190 games dating back to 2016. The last few years have been fairly inconsistent, with high highs and low lows. In 2020, he posted an ERA of 2.70 in 11 starts during the shortened season, finishing second to Shane Bieber in Cy Young voting. But his ERA jumped to 4.66 the next year and he ultimately required internal brace surgery, a variant of Tommy John, on his throwing elbow.
He was able to get back on the mound in 2023 and finished the year with a 4.23 ERA, though that figure disguises how good he actually was. In his fourth outing of the year, he was pummelled for 10 earned runs in three innings against the Yankees and went on the injured list due to a triceps strain right after. He returned in June and put up an ERA of 3.36 the rest of the way, striking out 29% of opponents while walking just 7%. Any pitcher will look better if you ignore their worst start but it seems fair to conclude that Maeda wasn’t 100% healthy in that nightmare outing against the Yanks. Despite his age and recent inconsistency, MLBTR predicted he could get a two-year, $36MM contract based on his strong second half and previous track record.
That the Twins are interested in a reunion makes sense on a couple of fronts. At the end of the 2023 campaign, they lost not only Maeda but also Sonny Gray to free agency, subtracting two key pieces from the rotation. Chris Paddack returned from his own Tommy John rehab and could perhaps soften the blow of those departures, but the starting rotation is clearly weaker than it was not too long ago. Paddack should slot in somewhere with Pablo López, Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober, giving the club four solid options. Louie Varland had some home run troubles in the majors last year but showed enough potential there and in Triple-A that he could be considered a reasonable fifth starter. But he still has a couple of options and just 94 innings of big league experience to his name, making it sensible to bump him down to the sixth spot.
The club has also generally avoided long-term contracts for free agent pitchers since Derek Falvey took over as the club’s primary baseball decision maker after the 2016 season. They did give a four-year extension to López but the largest contract they’ve given to a pitcher apart from that was the two-year, $20MM deal for Michael Pineda back in 2019. Multiple reports in recent weeks have suggested that the demand for starting pitching is incredibly high, but Maeda’s age will prevent his market from going too crazy, which would suit the M.O. of the Twins.
It might also work with their specific financial concerns, as uncertainty around their broadcast rights is seemingly going to cause a reduction in payroll. They had an Opening Day payroll of $154MM in 2023, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, but could potentially wind up in the $125-140MM range in 2024. Roster Resource estimates that they are already at $125MM, which perhaps doesn’t leave a ton of room for an estimated $18MM salary for Maeda. But they also have a potential surplus of position players and could perhaps free up some extra cash that way.
Jorge Polanco is making $10.5MM in 2024, with a $750K buyout on a 2025 club option. Max Kepler is making $10MM and is slated for free agency after. Christian Vázquez has two years and $20MM left on his deal. Kyle Farmer is projected for a salary of $6.6MM in his final arbitration season. Those players have all either been in trade rumors or speculated as candidates, with the club having enough position player talent to theoretically move someone and still have a strong core. If the club ends up flipping one or more of these guys, it becomes easier to see them fitting Maeda into the budget.
Ultimately, Maeda is probably just one of many options the Twins are considering. Similarly, while the Tigers and Twins have been specifically connected to Maeda, it seems fair to expect that there are far more clubs at the table. The fierce competition for rotation help has led to roughly half the league reportedly checking in on pitchers from Yoshinobu Yamamoto to Seth Lugo, while even Noah Syndergaard is drawing interest despite a nightmare season in 2023.