Kenta Maeda Has No Time for Learning Curve in Dodgers' Depleted Rotation

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2016

Los Angeles Dodgers' Kenta Maeda, of Japan, catches a baseball as he warms up during a spring training baseball workout Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Here’s what is certain about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation: Clayton Kershaw. Things that are questionable about Los Angeles’ starting pitchers include everything else.

The team allowed Zack Greinke to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks this winter. Brandon McCarthy, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, is on the 60-day disabled list and is joined by flamethrower Frankie Montas, who has a rib injury.

Then there’s Kenta Maeda, signed this offseason from Japan, who couldn’t have more pressure on him to perform well in 2016. The Dodgers expect to win their fourth straight National League West title, and Maeda’s performance this season will be a huge determinant.

With the big bucks from their television deal, the Dodgers could have spent the money to get Greinke to stay. So, reasonably, they have to believe Maeda is capable of carrying the banner as the team’s No. 2 starter.

But with so many injuries to guys expected to contribute, Maeda won’t be able to ease into his first year of Major League Baseball. To ensure the Dodgers don’t fall behind early in the race, he will need to perform right away.

Though they couldn’t have forecasted the injuries, it appears as if the Dodgers are confident that Maeda can do just that. Recent moves they have made suggest as much.

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In February, the team finalized a $30 million deal with Cuban right-handed pitcher Yaisel Sierra, according to Doug Padilla of ESPN.com. That same report said that he’s likely to pitch out of the bullpen this season, though the team will stretch him out as a starter in spring training.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Again, if the Dodgers had concerns about Maeda’s adjustment to Major League Baseball, they may have spent that money to bolster the rotation. Or they may have forced Sierra into the starting rotation as insurance, even though he projects as a reliever.

The Dodgers starting rotation also features Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood. They are both guys with as much concern as upside. Kazmir had a 2.38 ERA with the Oakland A’s before being traded to Houston last season and disappointing in an Astros uniform. But he also has an injury history that, at 32, is a concern.

Wood has flashed top-of-the-rotation ability. But after being traded from the Atlanta Braves to the Dodgers last season, he posted a 4.35 ERA in 12 starts with Los Angeles. There’s a need for Wood to play well early, too. But it seems he’ll be given more of a grace period than the hyped Maeda.

As wacky as it may sound, other than Kershaw, Maeda might be the team’s most reliable starter. So he currently figures as the rotation’s No. 2.

Obviously, with no major league experience, there’s little to forecast how Maeda, 27, may play as a rookie. But his numbers in Japan, at minimum, suggest that he is able to maintain a consistent level of play.

Since the 2010 season, Maeda hasn’t had an ERA higher than 2.46 while playing in the Japan Central League. It may not be Major League Baseball, but he should be credited for his performance in a high-level professional setting.

There’s also a financial incentive that should motivate Maeda to disregard any notion of a rookie learning curve.

Maeda signed an eight-year, $100 million contract with the Dodgers this offseason. But only $25 million—or $3.13 million per year—is guaranteed. While a deal this incentive-laden may be unorthodox for a major league player, it provides the additional motivation Maeda may need to develop quickly.

If he plays like a No. 2 pitcher, he will get paid like one.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Right now, given all the injuries and questions about other Dodgers pitchers, Maeda is the only one who can eliminate any uncertainty. Kershaw will do his job, sure. But the team can’t rely wholly on its ace.

After all, he only pitches once every five days.

It’s possible the Dodgers could get lucky the first few months of the season, remain as healthy as they are now and watch Kazmir and Wood bolster the rotation. If that’s the case, Maeda’s performance may not matter as much.

But all the unknowns surrounding the Dodgers rotation won’t be answered on Day 1. Or even in the first month of the season.

Maeda has to be the guy to perform the moment the season starts. It’s clear the Dodgers are counting on just that.

He is a rookie in name only. Maeda needs to pitch like a veteran, and that needs to begin the day he throws his first major league pitch.

Seth Gruen is a national baseball columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @SethGruen and like his Facebook page.

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