Recent years have seen the Dodgers deploy pitcher Kenta Maeda in something of a fluid fashion, with the Japanese import generally moving to late-season bullpen duty after performing for the first few months of each campaign as a starter. While Maeda has generally flourished while working out of the bullpen, Friday’s report from Andy McCullough of The Athletic indicates that the hurler hasn’t been pleased with his tenuous hold on a rotation spot. Maeda’s dissatisfaction with his role has been communicated to the club and team president Andrew Friedman, who has, in return, issued a challenge to the pitcher to find “another gear” in his performance.
While taking this situation at face value might lead some to assume that the two parties are at an impasse, the sides have, judging from McCullough’s report, maintained an amicable relationship and open lines of communication. Maeda’s agent from Wasserman, Joel Wolfe, is quoted as saying that the idea of a trade has been explored by both sides, but such a possibility remains firmly on the backburner as both team and player figure out a way to accommodate a compromise. While there is a contractual component to Maeda’s concerns, Wolfe was quick to point out that the pitcher’s chief frustration is with his usage and not his compensation.
“He cares more about the role than the contract,” Wolfe said. “But the contract acts somewhat as a limitation because there’s a lot of upside for the Dodgers in limiting his starts.” The contract Wolfe refers to is the one Maeda signed with Los Angeles in advance of the 2016 season, when the right-hander secured an eight-year, $28MM on the strength of a sterling NPB track record.
Owing in part to elbow concerns that dogged Maeda at the time of his posting, that deal featured a $10MM in annual incentives related to games started and innings pitched. Obviously, Maeda’s move to the bullpen in 2017, 2018, and 2019 has severely hampered his chances of securing those sizable bonuses–and that’s before accounting for potential moves the club might make this offseason in an effort to improve its staff.
To be clear, the Dodgers already project to enter 2020 with a rather stacked rotation picture. Friedman recently outlined the club’s plan to enter next season with Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias, and Maeda in the rotation, with youngsters Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin also on hand as rather formidable options. Rich Hill has clearly stated his desire to return to Dodger nation, and the club has been speculatively connected to virtually every significant free agent starter this side of Gerrit Cole.
Obviously, it may prove tough to find Maeda the 30 to 32 starts he desires with such a surplus in the rotation; further complicating matters is the unique value that the 32-year-old has offered in his recent hybrid role. Maeda’s annual moves to the bullpen have been something of a strategic boon for the club, as he’s posted a 3.19 ERA and 3.13 FIP out of the pen since 2017 (compared to a 4.12 ERA and 3.84 FIP as a starter across that same span).
Maeda has also exhibited undeniable inconsistencies across his splits profile, often struggling against left-handed hitters while absolutely trouncing righties. In 2019, Maeda offered a 5.27 ERA against southpaws while holding a 2.96 ERA mark against same-handed hitters; weighted on-base average (.319 vs. .229) painted a similarly imbalanced picture, supporting the notion that Maeda’s annual transformation into a right-handed setup stopper may actually just be the most prudent course of club action.
While the merits of the club’s historical usage of Maeda may be difficult to argue against, it will still be interesting to monitor whether the pitcher’s sentiments play at least some small role in the Dodgers’ approach to the trade or free agent front. The addition of a top right-handed relief option could conceivably lessen the imperative to again shift Maeda’s role again in 2020, whereas a significant free agent starter signing could represent yet another arm to help usher Maeda toward the bullpen in the season’s final months.