Maeda set for season-ending surgery

RHP's 2022 season murky with expectation of Tommy John

August 28th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins starter will undergo season-ending surgery on his right elbow next Wednesday, manager Rocco Baldelli announced.

The exact nature of the procedure has yet to be determined, and will depend on what Dr. Keith Meister, the orthopedic surgeon, finds in Maeda's pitching arm on the day of the operation. Maeda's current expectation is that he will undergo Tommy John surgery, which would sideline him for the entire 2022 season.

"Depending on the ligament condition, there may be a surgery, a procedure that allows me to come back in a shorter rehab time," Maeda said Saturday through interpreter Dai Sekizaki. "So if that were to be the case, I’ll be lucky, but I’m prepared to go full-on rehab for the upcoming season."

Maeda said he first started feeling discomfort in the elbow towards the end of April and never saw it abate as it carried through in his final start of the season last Saturday in New York. He noted that the "ligament condition isn't the best" in his elbow, and though he received some advice that he might be able to continue pitching without surgery, Maeda said he opted for the procedure with the hopes of elongating his career.

He will undergo the procedure in the Dallas area and plans to remain there for part of the rehab process.

"Having a surgery is never the thing that anyone wants to be doing, but he is comfortable knowing that this is the best thing for his career, and he’s comfortable with what’s going on," Baldelli said.

The Twins won't be able to offer even a rough idea for Maeda's return timeline until they learn more on the day of the procedure.

No matter what, Maeda's 2021 season is over, and part of the reason why his 4.66 ERA in 21 starts didn't live up to the lofty standards set by his runner-up finish for the 2020 American League Cy Young Award is because he's been pitching through arm issues for much of the season, culminating in the need for this surgery.

"Obviously, it’s not the most ideal way to finish the season," Maeda said. "The elbow condition wasn't always there throughout the season. It’s been a tough grind. And if you look at the result, that explains what it was like inside my elbow. Tough season throughout. And then when I was informed of the possibility of surgery to fix this issue, I was really surprised and a little sad to hear it, to be honest."

Maeda's strikeout rates were down, his walk rates were up, his WHIP was way up, and his fastball velocity was down a full tick from 2020, dwindling from 91.6 mph last season to 90.6 mph this year -- all indications that something was wrong.

"It’s not like one pitch caused the pain initially, but as of recent outings, it’s been tough for me to throw my four-seamer, and as you guys can probably tell, there had been games where my four seam stayed around 86, 89 mph," Maeda said. "That’s a decline on my velocity. That pitch in particular was tough for me to throw."

The 33-year-old made his final start last Saturday in New York, when he exited after throwing eight consecutive balls in the fifth inning due to what was described at the time as "right forearm tightness." He also spent time on the injured list in May and June with right adductor tightness in his groin area, but his return from the IL was delayed in part due to discomfort in his arm.

The need for eventual surgery was something that had been speculated when Maeda first came to the United States for the 2016 season, when he said that his physicals had detected some "irregularities" in the elbow and's Ken Gurnick reported that there was a "strong suspicion" that Maeda could require Tommy John surgery at some point.

Despite all that, Maeda remained both durable and effective without any arm issues in his first five MLB seasons -- though that makes the timing of this surgery tougher in that a possible Tommy John at this point could sideline Maeda until 2023, his age-35 season, which is also the final season of his eight-year contract.

"Obviously, I don’t think it was in the best condition [in 2016]," Maeda said. "However, I never felt any pain or discomfort. Up until this point, I was able to pitch strong for the past several seasons, and even in the current condition, there’s been five, six years' worth of work done on that ligament. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s gotten any worse. But it’s not like the ligament is completely torn to a point where I can't pitch."

Maeda said that he's not as worried about the age factor, considering he doesn't rely on his velocity for his success -- as pointed out by his doctors -- and he feels that he's in better physical condition than most players his age. He said that he'd been told that he could come back with his elbow even stronger than before.

If Maeda were to miss part or all of the 2022 season, it could have a significant impact on the Twins' offseason, considering his possible absence would mean that none of Minnesota's five starting pitchers from Opening Day would be set to return next year. That could make it much tougher for the Twins to mount a quick return to contention -- and they might need to adjust accordingly.

But it's too early to think about that, because for now, all of these considerations are simply what-ifs. All Maeda and the Twins can do for now is wait -- and that uncertainty will loom large until Wednesday.

"He’s very mentally tough, strong and got a mature mentality in so many different ways," Baldelli said. "The more you worry really about things that you have no control over, the more difficult it is sometimes. It’s hard not to think about it when you’re going to have a surgery.

"Dr. Meister is excellent at what he does, and he is going to know exactly what to do when he takes a look at Kenta and makes his decisions, and we have full trust in him."