The 2016 starting pitcher free agent market might be getting a new entrant in the relatively near future. Kenta Maeda, of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of NPB, has officially requested he be posted for major league teams to bid on. If he is, in fact, posted, Maeda would join one of the most crowded pitching markets in recent memory, which would seem to bode ill for his potential earning power. Or perhaps not; there are certainly going to be clubs that miss out on the big names and may be looking to take a chance on a potential steal rather than recycling players we've already seen fail in the big leagues. It's tough to say, I suppose.
I say if Maeda is posted because his club is under no real obligation to post him, and the Carp are currently in the midst of a move back to relevance and competitiveness after a Pittsburgh Pirates/Kansas City Royals-esque fallow period. They may very well plan on hanging on to their ace pitcher, particularly considering the new construction of the posting process for Japanese clubs. He's under club control through 2017, so it isn't as if this is their last opportunity to post him for the fee, either.
In case you aren't familiar, the new posting format works as follows: there is a hard $20 million cap, and any team willing to put up that posting fee can negotiate with the player. Gone is the Dice-K style bidding war, followed by exclusivity; if you win the bidding outright, you still get an exclusive window, but considering the amount of money in the game right now, it seems fairly safe to bet multiple clubs will meet that $20 million figure on any player with even a decent chance of turning out.
We know the Cardinals are players in the free agent pitching market; they seem more aggressively fixated on David Price than I expected, which would seem to indicate they're serious about addressing the potential shortfall in the rotation come 2016. Kenta Maeda is most definitely not in the David Price category of pitcher, but he's an intriguing fit for a club with money to burn and which has publicly acknowledged a desire for an increased scouting/player procurement presence in Asia.
With all that in mind, I thought we might take a quick look at Maeda himself, and see if we can get an idea of what kind of pitcher he is. Some video:
via Ace Kuroda
a bullpen warm up, via jouny con
and some really nice slo-mo, via yas16t
Let's start with the stuff.
Maeda's fastball is, simply put, nothing to write home about. He gets it up to 93 at times -- and the ~150 km/h readings I've seen in standard NPB footage of him puts him in about the same neighbourhood -- but more commonly sits 88-92, with solid but not overwhelming movement. He throws both a four- and two-seam fastball, leaning on the four-seamer most of the time. He has enough velocity that I don't worry about him falling flat on his face pitching to MLB hitters, but let's face it: this isn't Yu Darvish coming over with one of the best repertoires in the world already.
Where things start to get really interesting is in his secondary pitches. Maeda throws two versions of a curveball, including one he's coax down into the upper 60s at times, similar to the big lollipop that Darvish throws. With a velocity range as wide as 69-94 mph, Maeda certainly has the capacity of throwing off a hitter's timing. He noticeably slows his arm on the low-velocity curve, but the pitch actually comes in so slow it's still deceptive; there are times when it's only a little faster and tighter than an eephus.
Where Maeda is really going to make his money is with the slider and changeup, both of which have honest 60-65 potential, I believe. The changeup features an inordinate amount of break, and also varies in terms of fade, sometimes showing plus armside run and other times tending to drop almost straight down at the plate. Given the prevalance of split-fingered fastballs in Japanese baseball, I wonder if Maeda's grip might be of the split variety or perhaps a forkball-like approach. It definitely moves in that tumbling fashion we see with forkballs and splitters. I frankly love Maeda's change, and of all the things about him it's maybe the pitch I find most encouraging when trying to project him as a major league starter.
As good as the changeup is, and as important as I think it could be for him, Maeda's best pitch at this point is probably his slider. He throws two different versions of it as well; one basically a straight cutter and the other a bigger, tilted breaker. Both are outstanding, and the fact he's able to differentiate between the two really speaks to the level of feel for pitching we're talking about here; Clayton Kershaw gets a ton of credit for being able to separate his slider and curveball without the two running into each other, but Maeda effectively throws three, maybe four breaking-type pitches, depending on how you want to break out his curveball, and each one is quite distinct.
I've said in the past how I prefer to try and make player comps across racial lines, both because it forces me to make a better effort, I feel, if I'm not simply going for a player who looks similar physically, and also because it seems shitty to always just comp tall black outfielders to Daryl Strawberry, or compact white middle infielders to David Eckstein. In the case of Maeda, however, it's very easy to comp him to other Japanese pitchers, not because of the racial similarity, but because his style of pitching is very, well, Japanese. We've seen pitchers like Hiroki Kuroda and Daisuke Matsuzaka come over to the states and have success by throwing hugely varied repertoires, and Maeda isn't that much different. Dice-K at the time he was posted had a little better velocity, pushing into the 95-96 range at times, but succeeded primarily by mixing up to six or seven pitches in every time out. Maeda is a very similar pitcher.
However, if we want to go outside comparables of only his countrymen, I can come up with a couple of interesting names, I think. Maeda throws a very high percentage of offspeed stuff, from a wide repertoire, and leans on changing speeds to keep hitters off a fairly pedestrian heater. In that way, he reminds me quite a lot of Mike Leake, who is also a free agent this offseason at a similar age to Maeda. I think the two pitchers will also occupy a similar spot in a major league rotation, as well; that number four role on a championship club type role is pretty much exactly where I see both of them going forward. Given a choice between signing Leake for market value and posting $20 million to hopefully sign Maeda for a minor bargain, I'm honestly not sure which I would choose.
The other non-Japanese comp that comes to mind for me is another former Reds hurler with long hair and a love for the offspeed: Bronson Arroyo. Maeda doesn't change arm angles constantly on his pitches the way Arroyo did, but he does mix up speeds in a similar way, as well as subtly altering the break on his breaking pitches, to in effect make his repertoire even wider than it is in reality. Arroyo was deceptive with his ridiculous leg kick and ever-changing arm slot; Maeda could be similarly deceptive due to the pause in his delivery that he shares with so many other Japanese pitchers.
Now, for the delivery. I actually like what Maeda does pretty well; certainly better than I do many other Asian pitchers. Japanese pitchers in particular seem to be elbow-lifters; I assume it has something to do with the way mechanics are coached and taught over there. Maeda is no different, unfortunately. However, he gets outstanding extension in his delivery, using his lower body to push well down the slope of the mound, generating both power and deception with his legs. He also has fairly good timing, considering how he gets there; the high-speed video above shows at 0:53 what I'm talking about. I don't like the way Maeda initiates the arm action, but his timing isn't terrible, as it is with someone like Masahiro Tanaka, whose delivery is at least aesthetically similar to Maeda's. It's not an elite level arm action to my eye, as is the case with, say, David Price (or, actually, Mike Leake, who I would bet on staying healthy before I would on 95% of the rest of the league), but it isn't bad. Certainly, Maeda has been extraordinarily durable in Japan, racking up huge innings totals, but the pitching workload in America is just different. How he would hold up to the rigors of MLB is something only time will tell.
My final verdict on Maeda: I think he should succeed in the big leagues, and could slot in as high as a number three in a rotation, but is more likely an innings-eating type in the #4-5 slot. He'll get by mixing up speeds and tons of breaking pitches, as well as excellent control/command and some deception due to some slight funk in the delivery. I don't think he has the velocity to post plus strikeout rates, which limits his ceiling, but I do think his feel for the baseball and breadth of repertoire should help him make it in America. He doesn't possess a true out pitch the way Tanaka does or the pure elite stuff of Darvish, but he does enough things well that I wouldn't shy away from a potential investment in him.
Now, should the Cardinals specifically be interested? Well, honestly, considering the Redbirds currently have a very shaky projected rotation for next season in terms of workload specifically, especially since Lance Lynn went down with his elbow issues, a pitcher like Maeda could be just what the doctor ordered. The real question will be this: is Maeda for whatever the market will bear +$20 million a better bet than someone like Mike Leake, who I think he compares to so well? Given the remarkable depth of pitching on the market this offseason, I think if the Cardinals needed an innings-eater type of pitcher, they could find simpler, probably more economical options than Kenta Maeda. There's maybe some extra ceiling with Maeda, if his offspeed stuff just for whatever reason happens to play up here, but it seems likely to me he ends up in line with several other pitchers on the market this winter who won't require a $20 million investment just to talk to him.
He's fun to watch, though, so there is that.