The Tigers have “serious” interest in free agent righty Kenta Maeda, reports Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press. The club views him as a possible veteran stabilizer for a young rotation and also hopes a potential Maeda deal would help to “establish themselves in the Japanese pitching market” in the future, Petzold writes.
Following Eduardo Rodriguez’s decision to opt out of the remaining three years on his contract, Detroit’s starting staff currently projects to include Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Reese Olson. Righty Sawyer Gipson-Long, 26 next month, posted solid results in his first four MLB starts last year but struggled in Triple-A as well. Relievers Joey Wentz, Beau Brieske and Alex Faedo have all made starts in the majors but struggled in a rotation role. Last year’s Rule 5 pick, Mason Englert, survived the season on the 40-man roster but could head to Triple-A to begin the year. No one else on the Tigers’ 40-man roster has meaningful experience as a starter in the Majors.
Some form of veteran pickup is needed, and Maeda somewhat quietly had a stronger season than many realize in 2023. This past season was the veteran righty’s first full year back from Tommy John surgery, and he gave the Twins 104 1/3 innings of 4.23 ERA ball with strong strikeout and walk rates of 27.3% and 6.5%, respectively.
However, Maeda’s end-of-season numbers are perhaps disproportionately impacted by one catastrophic start. On April 26, with the Twins playing host to the Red Sox, Maeda was shelled for 10 runs in just three innings. He landed on the injured list immediately after that outing and wound up missing nearly two months due to a triceps strain. That day’s 89 mph average fastball was his lowest of the entire season. It seems fair to presume that he was not pitching at close to full strength that afternoon.
Maeda’s return from the injured list included five shutout frames against the same Tigers who are now showing interest in him, and from that point forth he was one of the league’s more effective starters. In his final 88 1/3 innings, Maeda turned in a sharp 3.36 earned run average while fanning a hefty 29% of his opponents against a 7% walk rate. He’s still a soft-tosser by today’s standards, but the 91.2 mph he averaged on his heater following his return from the injured list is still 2.2 mph faster than the 89 he averaged in that meltdown against the Yankees. Maeda also averaged 5 2/3 innings per start down the stretch, showing a bit more ability to work through a lineup than many of the five-inning arms that populate today’s rotations.
It’s been generally quiet thus far on the Maeda front, with few teams prominently linked to the 35-year-old righty. Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said after the season that he wouldn’t rule out reunions with any of his team’s free agents, Maeda included, but Minnesota is also expected to trim payroll by $10-20MM amid uncertainty regarding the team’s future television rights. Trades of Kyle Farmer, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and/or Christian Vazquez could create some extra leeway for Minnesota to pursue a reunion with Maeda, but there’s no indication it’s a serious consideration at this time.
Despite the lack of chatter surrounding Maeda to this point, however, he figures to draw wide-reaching interest. Beyond the excellent run following his triceps injury this season, the righty was the runner-up finisher in 2020 American League Cy Young voting and has long since established himself as a viable mid-rotation presence. In 866 1/3 career big league innings between the Dodgers and Twins, Maeda sports a 3.92 ERA, 26.7% strikeout rate and 7% walk rate. His postseason resume includes another 41 2/3 frames of 3.24 ERA ball.
As for the Tigers, there’s virtually no free agent they can’t pursue from a purely financial standpoint. Javier Baez is the only player on a guaranteed contract beyond the 2024 season, and next year’s payroll currently projects at $74MM. That’s nowhere near 2017’s franchise-record $200MM Opening Day payroll, and while that outlay was committed under the late Mike Ilitch, even under his successor and son Chris, the Tigers have trotted out a payroll as high as $135MM (2021).