Tigers add Maeda on 2-year, $24 million deal

November 28th, 2023

The Tigers found the veteran starter they wanted with a familiar foe from the other side of the division. Right-hander , whose four-year tenure with the Twins included several stingy performances against the Tigers, is headed to Detroit after signing a two-year contract that the club announced on Tuesday. The deal will pay Maeda $14 million in 2024 and $10 million in '25.

The addition fits the kind of short-term deal that has worked well for Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris in his time signing players between Detroit and his previous stint as Giants general manager. It’s also a sign of belief in the upside of the 35-year-old Maeda, whose return this past season from Tommy John surgery showed strong underlying numbers beyond his 6-8 record and 4.23 ERA over 21 games for Minnesota.

“We wanted to add a veteran presence in our rotation that could both help us win games and influence our young starters,” Harris said. “Kenta does a lot of things very well. He’s a plus-strike-thrower. He has multiple swing-and-miss secondary options. He’s an excellent competitor. He’s a great teammate. He does a lot of things that we really like. He does a lot of things that we hope rub off on our young starters.”

Though Maeda suffered a sub-.500 record for the second time in his seven-year Major League career in 2023, he allowed 94 hits over 104 1/3 innings with 28 walks and 117 strikeouts. His rates of 2.4 walks and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings were better than his career averages and ranked among the top quarter of MLB pitchers, according to Statcast, while his 8.1 hits per nine innings ranked slightly worse than his career 7.7 H/9. His expected ERA of 3.77 -- based on the quality and quantity of contact against him -- ranked in the top third among MLB hurlers.

“We’ve been impressed with his entire body of work in his career, but the last 17 games after he came back from the injured list in June really stood out to us,” said Harris, noting Maeda's 29 percent strikeout rate and 7 percent walk rate in that span. “In addition to that, his velocity crept back up to pre-injury norms in August. We felt like that was a really good sign for him coming off of surgery, and we hope that momentum will carry into 2024 and 2025.

“So as soon as we noticed those things, in addition to all the other things that we’ve always liked about Kenta, we realized he’d be a good fit.”

The Tigers saw Maeda’s post-surgery repertoire first-hand in three meetings last season. After a right triceps strain in late April sidelined him for two months, he returned from the injured list on June 23 at Comerica Park with five scoreless innings on three hits -- all singles -- with two walks and eight strikeouts, including five of his 11 swings and misses off the splitter and half of his 14 called strikes on sliders. He took a hard-luck loss in Detroit on Aug. 10 with six innings of three-hit, one-run ball, with a Riley Greene homer off Maeda’s slider accounting for the damage. The Tigers hit him around for three runs on seven hits in four innings six days later in Minnesota, including homers from Greene and Spencer Torkelson.

“There were some pitches that I came back in [to the clubhouse] and looked at them, and they were right on the white line [of the strike zone],” Greene said after the Aug. 10 outing. “He was really good.”

Said Harris: “If you look at our young rotation, we have a lot of stuff in the rotation. Now I hope that we can lock in our command. Watching Kenta work every day, I hope our young starters notice that command, sequencing and using the whole zone can really allow your entire mix to play up. Kenta has been doing it his whole career.”

Set to turn 36 just after Opening Day in 2024, Maeda is still finding ways to tinker with his arsenal. When Maeda first came to the Majors in '16, he was throwing each of his half-dozen pitches at least 10 percent of the time. In '23, Maeda had slowly simplified that approach where three different pitches -- his splitter, slider and four-seamer -- were thrown at least 25 percent of the time. With a 31.9 percent usage, Maeda’s splitter became his most-used pitch for the first time in his career.

“He doesn’t throw a ton of fastballs,” manager A.J. Hinch said after Maeda’s June gem, “so you’re going to have to be disciplined to his split-slider combo. And all of our guys had a hard time handling those pitches.”

Opposing hitters batted just .182 off Maeda’s splitter this past season with a 35 percent strikeout rate, both in line with previous success Maeda had with the pitch. By contrast, Maeda’s slider -- his most heavily-used pitch in 2020 and 2021 -- was a bit worse, with 10 home runs allowed, a .550 slugging percentage and a 27.6 percent whiff rate, the lowest strikeout rate he has posted with that pitch for his career. Spending his second season back from Tommy John surgery working with the Tigers’ pitching instruction group could help get that pitch back to his previous standards.

“We have some ideas that can help Kenta,” Harris said. “I think his combination of command, the depth of his mix and his natural feel for spinning the ball gives us more opportunity to make some adjustments. However, I will note he’s already a very successful starting pitcher. If he does nothing but show up next year, he’s still going to be really good for us.”

In the process, a successful tenure and good experience for Maeda could open new opportunities for the Tigers. Maeda, who became a star in his native Japan before signing with the Dodgers in 2016, is the first prominent Japanese pitcher to sign with Detroit since Hideo Nomo spent the 2000 season in the Tigers rotation, supported by Masao Kida in the bullpen. The team pursued select players since then with no success.

“We targeted Kenta because he’s a very talented starter that can help us win games,” Harris said. “In addition, we’ve taken steps toward rebranding this organization as a place that players want to play. I think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 12 months, and we still have a lot of work to do on that front.

“But Kenta is the first Japanese player we’ve had in a long time, which is a huge opportunity for us to make Detroit feel like home for Kenta and his family. If we can do that, we’re going to get a better version of Kenta next year, and the Tigers are going to win more games. And if, in addition to all of that, creating a first-class experience in this organization for Kenta and his family, if that inspires other Japanese players to want to come to Detroit and play here, that’s great.”

Maeda would be by far the oldest member of the Tigers' rotation barring any additional signings, joining 20-somethings Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Reese Olson, Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo and Sawyer Gipson-Long. The previous reigning veteran in Detroit’s rotation, Eduardo Rodriguez, is a free agent after opting out of his contract at the start of the offseason. Harris said the Tigers will continue to pursue starters on the market, reiterating a long-held philosophy from his predecessors that there is no such thing as too much pitching.