MINNEAPOLIS -- Kenta Maeda underwent a successful Tommy John surgery on Wednesday in the Dallas area with Dr. Keith Meister, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli announced.
This wasn't the best-case scenario for Maeda and the Twins, as the option of a lesser procedure with a shorter timetable for recovery remained on the table until Meister had a chance to assess the damage in Maeda's right elbow, but it's the outcome that Maeda himself had anticipated leading into the surgery, which will sideline him for the rest of the 2021 season and at least much of the '22 campaign.
"It was a successful day," Baldelli said. "We’re very happy with what we’ve heard from [head athletic trainer] Michael Salazar and the doctors, and we’ll learn more as Kenta begins his rehabilitation process."
Here's everything you need to know about Maeda's surgery, his possible recovery timeline and what this could mean for the 2022 Twins.
Is Maeda out for the entire 2022 season?
While that would typically have been the assumption for a Tommy John surgery this late in the year, Baldelli said there's "no way to know at this point" whether Maeda will be able to return to the Twins in 2022, but president of baseball operations Derek Falvey is "hopeful for sure" that the right-hander will see the mound next year.
Here's why: As part of Maeda's Tommy John surgery, Meister added an internal brace to the area, a newer development in the field that Baldelli said could potentially cut Maeda's recovery timeline from the standard 12-16 months down to a more abbreviated 9-12 months. A nine-month recovery would get Maeda to next June, while 12 months would make it next September.
Considering Maeda just had the procedure, it's too early to speculate on where the right-hander could fall on that timeline, and Baldelli said that they will likely have a better feel for what that could look like in the first three months of Maeda's recovery.
"Obviously, these things, you have to see how the rehab goes," Falvey said. "If everything goes according to plan, I'm hopeful that he's pitching some point next year. But we won't know that now for a number of months."
Why was there uncertainty leading into Maeda's procedure?
None of the involved parties -- the Twins, Maeda or Meister -- knew exactly what procedure would be carried out on Wednesday until Meister had a chance to examine the inside of Maeda's elbow and make a determination as to the course of action. MRI exams alone didn't reveal the extent of the damage, so everyone had to wait and see.
"That's why, at the front end, there was the possibility for brace repair or the possibility that we could end up with a more significant repair and the brace," Falvey said. "So we ended up with the latter option, not the former."
According to Maeda, the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm wasn't torn to the point of his being unable to pitch. Damage to the UCL doesn't always equate to an inability to pitch, and Maeda noted that he actually had the option of avoiding the surgery, resting and pitching through the issues -- as he did for five full seasons following his arrival in the United States in 2016 with known issues to the ligament.
Why have surgery at all, then?
Maeda is looking at this with the long view. Yes, he'll be 34 when he returns to the mound (possibly even 35, if he misses all of next season), but he's trusting in his fitness and in the fact that he doesn't rely on his velocity to seamlessly step back into his pitching career upon his return.
"If I look in the long run, I can pitch for maybe five years," Maeda said before the procedure. "If I had not taken the surgery route, I don’t think it would be possible to achieve that goal. That’s the reason behind why I decided to go with the surgery."
What does the Twins' rotation look like now?
To replace Maeda and Charlie Barnes (optioned to Triple-A St. Paul), the Twins called up No. 6 prospect Joe Ryan, who was acquired in the July 22 trade that sent Nelson Cruz to Tampa Bay, and activated Randy Dobnak from the 60-day injured list. They join Bailey Ober, Griffin Jax and John Gant, though it appears as though Michael Pineda could reclaim one of those spots -- possibly Gant's -- upon his return from an oblique injury.
How does Maeda's injury affect the plans for 2022?
Regardless of how quickly Maeda recovers, there's no way he'll be in the starting rotation to open the 2022 season. That means that none of the five starters that began this year in the rotation will be slated to return -- and filling all five of those slots on a more permanent basis will be a tough task for a club that also has many holes to fill in the bullpen.
If the Twins hope to make a push for contention next year, the offensive pieces certainly look to be in place -- the lineup, when healthy, has never really been the issue this year -- but the evaluation of Ryan and others in September will be significant in helping the Twins determine whether they'll be able to find the pitching to match it.
Ober has already emerged as a potential building block, with his mastery of a new slider helping him find consistent results over the last month. Jax hasn't yet found that, and two top prospects who the Twins hoped to see in the Majors by now -- Jhoan Duran and Josh Winder -- are both down with injury, leaving a good deal of uncertainty.
The lack of Maeda as a stabilizing -- and cost-controlled -- force to helm that rotation certainly makes this a more daunting challenge considering the uncertainty and youth that exist elsewhere. That's not to mention that, if the Twins feel they might not have the pieces to make a 2022 push on the pitching staff, the idea of trading players like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Taylor Rogers and Tyler Duffey could be very viable options in the offseason to gear up for 2023 and beyond.
As for now, they know they need pitching -- and the loss of Maeda accentuates that. How much more pitching could they need? They'll look to September to learn more.
"We know that’s an area we’re going to need to spend some time and fill out, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen," Falvey said. "That’s never been something that we haven’t had to have a conversation about. I remember even at the end of 2019, having this same dialogue. But I would say we’re going to evaluate that when we get to October."