It’s been nearly five months since Twins righty Kenta Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery, and while a September Tommy John procedure often wipes out the following season for a pitcher, Maeda recently told reporters in Japan that he’s aiming for a return this September (link via The Manichi). At present, his recovery appears to be on track, as Maeda revealed he’ll begin playing catch sometime in mid-February.
Maeda, 33, struggled through groin and elbow injuries last season before ultimately going under the knife on Sept. 1. He had an internal brace put into his elbow, which manager Rocco Baldelli said at the time of the surgery could help to expedite the righty’s recovery. There’s obviously a long way to go before it’s clear whether a 2022 return is an actual possibility, but Maeda says it’s “not a zero percent chance” that he can return late in the year.
Acquired in a 2019-20 offseason trade that sent Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers, Maeda was nothing short of brilliant in his first season with Minnesota. The 2020 campaign, of course, was shortened to a 60-game slate, but Maeda made 11 starts and finished second in American League Cy Young voting. That season saw him pitch to a 2.70 ERA with career-best marks in strikeout percentage (32.3%), walk percentage (4.0%), ground-ball rate (49.0%), swinging-strike rate (17.2%) and opponents’ chase rate (40.8%).
This past season was another story entirely. Maeda made 21 starts but tallied just 106 1/3 innings with solid but diminished strikeout and walk rates (24.9% and 7.1%, respectively). His fastball velocity dipped by about a mile per hour, and the elite hard-contact suppression he showed in 2020 trended back toward league-average levels. Along the way, Maeda had multiple IL stints and was the subject of some trade-deadline chatter before finally requiring surgery.
Even though Maeda wasn’t at his best in that injury-plagued 2021 campaign, his absence will nevertheless be felt by a Twins team that still has a dire need for starting pitching. It’s doubtful that Maeda’s surgery would’ve altered the decision to trade Jose Berrios to Toronto in return for a pair of highly touted prospects, but the Twins surely thought they’d have Maeda leading their 2022 staff at the time that deal was made.
Instead, Minnesota entered the offseason knowing that Maeda and Berrios were out of the picture — and also recognizing the possibility of free agent Michael Pineda signing elsewhere. Despite the glaring nature of that rotation deficiency, they’ve yet to really address the matter. Minnesota took a $5MM flier on right-hander Dylan Bundy, hoping they’ll be able to get something closer to the former Orioles/Angels hurler’s 2020 results than his 2021 output, but that’s the lone move the team has made to deepen the staff.
Bundy will join a rotation that should include towering right-hander Bailey Ober, who quietly posted a solid rookie season with a downtrodden Twins club in 2021. Rookie Joe Ryan, an Olympian with Team USA and the centerpiece of the trade that sent Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay, had a strong September debut with the Twins and looks all but assured a spot as well. Baseball America rated him among the game’s Top 100 prospects just last week.
That said, the Twins sat out the free-agent market for virtually all of the top names — barring Carlos Rodon and Clayton Kershaw, who remain unsigned — and will now likely turn to the trade market and/or add another veteran from the lower tiers of the market. (There was some mutual interest in a Pineda reunion late in the season.) Getting Maeda back into the fold in September would be a boon, but for a team whose owner plainly stated the club would not rebuild after a disappointing 2021 season, the lack of activity to date has been rather surprising.