How Good Is Kenta Maeda, the Latest Mystery Ace to Jump into MLB Scene?

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterDecember 29, 2015

Japan's Kenta Maeda pitches during the first inning of a semifinal game of the World Baseball Classic against Puerto Rico in San Francisco, Sunday, March 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

When Kenta Maeda took the mound for one of his final starts with the Hiroshima Carp, about three dozen major league scouts made their way to Koshien Stadium to watch. That's three dozen, as in more than 30, meaning on that September afternoon, some big league teams had more than one set of eyes watching the 27-year-old right-hander.

And that was for just one of Maeda's 29 regular-season starts in 2015.

"He's probably been scouted as much as any [Japanese pitcher]," one American League scout said last week. "I don't think there's any mystery."

Oh, but yes there is.

Some major league team is likely to give Maeda a whole bunch of money in the near future, and the first question everyone will be asking is whether he's worth it. He may not be the ultimate unknown, but signing him isn't really just like signing David Price or Zack Greinke, or even Mike Leake or Yovani Gallardo.

Even in the modern baseball world, where you can look up Maeda's Japanese professional stats on Baseball-Reference.com and where there's a Kenta Maeda channel on YouTube featuring highlights and interviews, we still don't really know how eight seasons of success in Japan will translate when he's pitching in the United States.

We will soon know which team is going to take that chance, because the posting system that provides big league teams with the opportunity to take Maeda also gives them a Jan. 8 deadline to sign him. The Carp will then get $20 million from that team.

That team could well be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have a long history of international signings and haven't exactly hidden their interest in Maeda. After he visited Los Angeles earlier this month, reporter Joseph Kim tweeted this picture of the Dodger Stadium video board:

Joseph Kim @blackwings2011

Is this a hint for Maeda deal with #Dodgers? These were shown on the screen at Dodgers stadium on December 16th https://t.co/RUgEWIPfvg

Plenty of other teams like Maeda, too, including those of two scouts who have seen him regularly and shared their reports with Bleacher Report. A Japanese professional baseball executive also weighed in, and all three men were offered anonymity because they were offering opinions their clubs would prefer they didn't share publicly.

The two scouts, one from an American League team and one from a National League team, were in general agreement that Maeda will be a solid major league starter who will fall a little shy of ace status. In terms of starters who have come from Japan, think Hiroki Kuroda or Hisashi Iwakuma rather than Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish.

"A solid mid-rotation guy," the American League scout said. "If you're expecting him to be a 1 or a 2, I don't think that's fair to him."

"A prototypical blue-collar starter," the other scout, who works for a National League team, said. "Think of a guy who might go 13-9 or 14-10."

The Japanese executive shot a little higher.

"I see him as being as good as Tanaka in MLB," the executive, who doesn't work for the Carp and has no financial stake in how Maeda does, said. "And he might not take much time to transform into a solid starting pitcher."

Maeda throws a fastball normally clocked between 89 and 93 mph, but the NL scout said he's seen 94 or 95 mph at times, "if he needs it." He throws a cutter and a changeup that showed improvement late this season. He's a strike-thrower, with only 41 walks in 206.1 innings this past season for the Carp, and both scouts praised his athleticism and said he holds runners.

The one concern, the AL scout said, is how Maeda will adapt to pitching on a major league schedule. Starting pitchers in Japan normally start only one game a week, whereas in a typical major league rotation, a pitcher will often be asked to pitch on just four days' rest.

The adjustment can be significant. The New York Yankees still try to give Tanaka extra rest when they can. Darvish said in 2014 he would prefer a six-man rotation, per David Waldstein of the New York Times.

"I like everything about [Maeda]," the AL scout said. "But my biggest concern is that he's been pitching once every seven days. His stuff plays every seven days. Will it still play every five days?"

Those concerns didn't keep the Yankees from giving Tanaka a seven-year, $155 million contract, on top of the $20 million posting fee. The Texas Rangers signed Darvish under the old posting system, paying a posting fee of almost $52 million and then giving him a six-year, $56 million contract.

Tanaka and Darvish throw harder than Maeda, and both were seen as having "strikeout stuff" that scouts say Maeda lacks (although he did fan 175 batters in his 206.1 innings in Japan).

"He's a better pitcher than Darvish, but he doesn't have Darvish's stuff," the NL scout said. "But he's certainly as good as Iwakuma or Kuroda."

That wouldn't be bad. Kuroda didn't come to the major leagues until he was 33, but in seven seasons, he had 79 wins and a 3.45 ERA. Iwakuma, who was 31 when he jumped to the Seattle Mariners, is 47-25 with a 3.17 ERA in four seasons.

He agreed to a three-year, $45 million free-agent contract with the Dodgers before a failed physical caused the team to back out of the deal. Even then, he re-signed with the Mariners on a contract that only guarantees him one year and $12 million but could end up going three years, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.

Iwakuma has had injury issues dating back to his time in Japan. Maeda had some shoulder issues in 2014, according to reports in Japan, but none in 2015. In any case, he averaged more than 200 innings a year over his final seven seasons, which is impressive because Japanese teams play 143-game seasons and rotation usage limits starters to around 30 starts.

Besides his consistency and durability, Maeda earned respect in Japan for what the executive called his "plus-plus intensity." And while the scouts rated his stuff as good but not great, Japanese hitters voted his slider as the best in the league, in a recent survey by Fuji TV.

"The guy simply can win," the executive, who is also familiar with American baseball, said.

The guy also proved his interest in competing at the highest level by asking the Carp to post him after each of the last three seasons. The team declined the first two times but agreed to make him available to major league teams this winter.

Because of the constant rumors he would be posted soon, dating back at least to when Maeda pitched for Japan in the World Baseball Classic in March 2013, teams have followed him closely.

He shouldn't be too much of a mystery to them.

Now, hopefully, he's not quite as much of a mystery to you, either.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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