Maeda opens door for return in Twins' 'pen

July 13th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Could a potential late-season boost to the bullpen come from within?

still isn't fully committing to the idea that he'll be back on the mound for the Twins in 2022. But the ‘20 American League Cy Young Award runner-up acknowledged on Wednesday that if his recovery from Tommy John surgery brought him all the way back to a big league mound by September, it would "most likely" come in a relief role.

"Given the timing of the season, late season, for the potential comeback, it's much less likely to come back as a starter," Maeda said through interpreter Dai Sekizaki. "Obviously, I'll start in the Minor League rehab starts. But to pitch at the big league level as a starter, that's probably unlikely. So most likely [it will be] out of the 'pen if I were to even come back this season."

That recovery has gone according to schedule to this point, Maeda said. He started throwing bullpen sessions at the start of July and ramped up to a 30-pitch, all-fastball session before Tuesday's series opener against the Brewers at Target Field. His goal on Tuesday was to touch 85 mph on the radar gun -- and he did that.

He's not yet throwing at full strength as he acclimates back to the mound, and he estimated that his most recent bullpen session came at 80 percent effort. He'll continue to work in the Twin Cities through the All-Star break and plans to fly to the Twins' Minor League complex in Fort Myers, Fla., following the Midsummer Classic.

In August, he hopes to progress to facing some live hitters and throwing a few live batting practice sessions before beginning his rehab starts, if he stays on schedule without any setbacks.

If all goes well, Maeda still isn't ruling out the possibility of a 2022 return, though it wouldn't come before September, he said. He also indicated that the Twins' standing at that point in the season could impact his decision.

"I think it really comes down to how I'm pitching in the rehab starts, where the team is," Maeda said. "The team's doing really well with our record this year, so I think it's going to be a long season going forward. I like to pitch, but I guess we'll reassess when that time comes."

It's tough to put any expectations on Maeda's possible late-season return as a reliever, and it's safer to temper those expectations for now. There's still much rehab to go, and considering Maeda has had a lengthy buildup from Tommy John surgery he underwent last Sept. 1, he could need more rest between outings than traditional relievers, which would limit the potential for his usage and make it more difficult to keep him on the roster before the limit expands to 28 players in September.

But there is a shot at some upside. And if he's anywhere close to his pre-surgery form and the arm holds up, he could be an intriguing wild card in relief considering both the Twins' pronounced need in their bullpen and Maeda's lengthy track record of success in such a role when the Dodgers would often flex him out to relief in September and October.

In 34 career regular-season relief appearances, Maeda has allowed a .656 OPS to opponents (compared to .674 as a starter) and owns a 3.19 ERA as a reliever. Maeda also owns a 1.64 ERA in 21 career postseason appearances in relief.

The Twins will worry about that if and when the time comes. It's tough to count on anything of the sort -- but the possibility seemingly remains open for now.

“I don’t want to get too wound up before we get to that," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We want to let Kenta stick with his program and come back at the right pace. That being said, if it all works out, I’ll be ecstatic to write his name in there and send him out there to pitch for a couple innings.

“Is that possible at this point? I think it’s possible. Is it a certainty? I don’t think there are any certainties about guys that are coming back from surgery. So I think everything is going as well as we could hope at this point, which is nice. He seems like he’s in a really good spot, so we’ll take that."