The bites out of his paycheck, Kenta Maeda could swallow. It was the blow to his pride and disruption of his routine that made the veteran pitcher’s annual late-season demotions from the Dodgers rotation to the bullpen so tough to stomach.
As Maeda stood in the spring training clubhouse of his new team discussing his annoyance with his shifting role on his former team, the ground beneath his feet seemed more stable.
After four solid seasons as a starter and three dominant postseasons as a reliever, Maeda was traded to the Minnesota Twins for hard-throwing pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol on Feb. 10, a payroll-paring move that helped the Dodgers absorb the hefty contracts of Mookie Betts and David Price.
Maeda, who will turn 32 in April, is expected to fill the third spot in the Minnesota rotation behind Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi. Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said he “fully expects” Maeda to remain in the rotation throughout the season and postseason.
And with the defending American League Central champion Twins coming off a 101-win season and adding free agent slugger Josh Donaldson to a lineup that hit a major league-record 307 homers in 2019, they have aspirations of playing deep into October.
“I was a starter all my life, so to be moved to the bullpen was a little frustrating at times,” Maeda said through his interpreter, Daichi Sekizaki. “The preparation and the mind-set as a reliever were different than a starter.
“I personally want to be a starter all throughout the season, and for [the Twins] to see the value in me as a starting pitcher is really great to hear.”
Maeda, who went 47-35 with a 3.87 ERA in four seasons with the Dodgers, was a victim of his own proficiency and professionalism in Los Angeles.
The eight-year, $25-million contract he signed before 2016 can grow by $10 million a year with incentives for games started and innings pitched, so the moves to the bullpen — Maeda made only 46 starts in 76 appearances in 2018 and 2019 — cost him millions of dollars.
After earning $7.25 million in incentives in 2016, when he was a full-time starter, Maeda earned an extra $4.25 million in 2017, $3 million in 2018 and $5.4 million in 2019.
But Maeda never complained publicly about being bumped to the bullpen, and on a team that often struggled to find enough reliable relievers to build a bridge to closer Kenley Jansen, Maeda filled an important setup role.
“I was a starter all my life, so to be moved to the bullpen was a little frustrating at times.”
In 21 relief appearances over the last three postseasons, Maeda went 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA, striking out 27 and walking five in 22 innings for a team that twice reached the World Series, losing to the Houston Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018.
“Any time I’m on the mound, I don’t want to give up hits, and being a reliever and pitching so well, I think that just increases your value,” Maeda said. “But that happens to be the reason why I’ve been put in the bullpen late in the season.”
The arrangement was great for the Dodgers. Not only did they add a valuable late-inning piece to the bullpen, they saved money. It was not so great for Maeda financially, but whatever frustrations he may have expressed to team executives, he did not relay to the media.
“I play for the team, and team prioritizes over everything, especially in the playoffs,” Maeda said. “I mean, we were going for the World Series championship, so you do anything to contribute to the team.”
Maeda will fill an acute need in the first half of 2020 while the Twins wait for Michael Pineda to serve the final 39 games of a 60-game suspension for using a banned diuretic and veteran Rich Hill, another former Dodger to recover from elbow surgery.
Hill, who suffered a partial tear of his ulnar collateral ligament last season, had a “primary repair” procedure in October in which Dr. Jeffrey Dugas of the Andrews Sports Medicine Center in Birmingham, Ala., wrapped a collagen-dipped internal brace around the damaged ligament.
Hill, who signed a one-year, $3-million deal that includes $9.5 million in performance bonuses, is a month into his throwing program and expected to return in June.
“It’s basically like super-stitches,” Hill, 39, said of the internal brace. “This fibrous tissue they put in there, they say you could pull a car with it, so it’s really strong. They reattached my ligament, and my throwing has been going extremely well. Everything is going in the right direction.”
Hill and Maeda love the direction the Twins are headed. Minnesota added a 37-homer hitter in Donaldson to a lineup that returns five players — Nelson Cruz (41), Max Kepler (36), Miguel Sano (34), Eddie Rosario (32) and Mitch Garver (31) — who hit at least 30 homers last season.
Donaldson, the 2015 AL most valuable player with Toronto, is also a huge upgrade defensively at third base over Sano, who will move to first base. The Twins have a dynamic young leadoff hitter in Luis Arraez and blazing speed at the bottom of the order in Byron Buxton.
“One through nine, everybody can hurt you,” said Garver, the team’s catcher. “We’re a dangerous team. I don’t think a lot of teams really want to play us.”
The rotation will be deeper when Pineda and Hill return. The back of the bullpen is stout with closer Taylor Rogers and setup men Trevor May and Tyler Duffey. The Twins are hungry to prove they’re better than the team that was swept in the 2019 division series by the New York Yankees.
“I think this is a World Series roster, and we have that World Series mind-set,” Hill said. “I’ve been fortunate to be a part of great teams in L.A. the last four years, and that’s a clubhouse I’m close with. I’ll be pulling for those guys from a distance, and hopefully we get to play them this year. That would be great.”