With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, “What do you do with a problem like Maeda?”
The Athletic tells us today that Maeda doesn’t want to relieve, partly because his contract is built around him being a starter but (probably) more because he’s been a starter his entire life and doesn’t think of himself as anything else. The Dodgers don’t bluntly say “pitch better, then” but you get the sense that’s what they feel. As we’ve seen the last couple of years, he starts most of the year and then is moved to the bullpen in September and October.
The strategy has proved effective for the Dodgers. But the approach vexes Maeda. It damages his pride and trims his paycheck. He has vocalized his frustration to Dodgers officials. After an unsuccessful attempt last winter to renegotiate his incentive-laden contract, which lasts another four years, Maeda remains steadfast in his desire to start. His agent, Joel Wolfe, reiterated that during a meeting with Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman this week.
“Kenta wants to make 30 starts, 32 starts during the season,” Wolfe said. “He would prefer not to be constantly shuttled to the bullpen and back. He doesn’t like it.”
[Friedman] suggested if Maeda could improve against left-handed hitters he could solidify his place in the rotation.
“We think there’s actually more room for him to be even better, which we’re going to work with him on trying to tap into,” Friedman said. “And if he’s able to take that next step, not only do I see him in the rotation, I can see him potentially starting playoff games, if we’re fortunate enough to make it into October. He has been really good. And we think there’s another gear in there.”
I don’t blame the guy for wanting his role defined and set in stone; in my experience most people prefer that. And while Maeda has gotten some of the pay from the incentives in his contract, he’s certainly not maxing them out.
Maeda received a $25 million guarantee across eight years, with $10 million per season available in incentives.
The problem for Maeda is that those incentives were related to milestones achieved by starters, like starts made and innings pitched, and the Dodgers have chosen to use him as a reliever in September for the past three years. In 2016, when Maeda was a full-time starter, he earned $7.25 million in incentives, according to Spotrac. That number fell to $4.25 million in 2017 and then $3 million in 2018, before rebounding to $5.4 million this year.
Maeda was lights-out against right-handers in 2019; only Max Scherzer was better among ERA qualifiers in weighted on-base average. Against lefties, however, he was 36th of 88 pitchers in that ranking.
The problem doesn’t seem intractable, but it’s not a small one either. It will be interesting to see how the two sides resolve it.