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Blue Jays potential free agent targets: Kenta Maeda

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As the Blue Jays look to bolster their rotation, Japanese NPB star Kenta Maeda represents a risky middle-tier option

The Toronto Blue Jays are continuing their pursuit of starting pitching after the Jesse Chavez trade, and despite the droning of David Price fluff rumors, it still remains likelier that any free agent signing will come from the middle tier of talent and contract finances. This brings us to Kenta Maeda, the Nippon Professional Baseball star from Japan who has recently asked that his team, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, post him for MLB negotiations.

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The Carp are expected to make their decision on the posting by next week, which would lead to them placing a release fee of no more than $20 million on Maeda. It’s safe to assume that the team would use the max number if and when Maeda is posted. Being a more mysterious free agent to the North American audience, we’ve expectedly seen a spike in curiosity as the Maeda questions have rolled in.

While he is not the front-end arm of a Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka, he could profile as a very good number three starter in the MLB and his contract should reflect that. The projection of a five-year, $60 million contract on top of the $20 million release fee from MLB Trade Rumors lines up well with most estimates that you’ll find, and it would be surprising to see the average annual value of his deal exceed that number by much. Again, this puts Maeda in a more comfortable spot for the Blue Jays. 

His stats with Hiroshima are clearly impressive, but MLB evaluators and general managers have often been forced to learn the hard way that foreign production does not always transition smoothly into the America (and Canadian!) game.

Maeda is a 27-year old right-handed thrower who stands 6’0″, 154 pounds. That can be a red flag from the word “go”, and we’ve recently had a similar conversation regarding Jesse Chavez and how his slight frame can lead to fatigue later in the season. To me, that’s a serious worry. Regardless, it’s encouraging that Maeda has been able to put up consistently high inning totals, which we’ve yet to see from Chavez.

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On the mound, reports out of Japan over the past few years seem to suggest that his fastball has seen a bump in velocity. He typically sat around the 88-90 MPH mark, but has recently rested more in the mid-90s and touched 94 MPH, though not with any consistency. His command, especially with his fastball and lesser-used two-seamer, is largely viewed as being a plus.

Past that, Maeda does offer a slider but Baseball America’s Ben Badler isn’t particularly impressed by it, ranking it a “50 to 55” on the 20-to-80 scale and noting that it has a habit of hanging. Maeda also throws a hard cutter and a changeup which rests in the low-to-mid 80s. Several scouting reports list this as an average pitch for Maeda, but I’ve also heard multiple scouts mention that as one of Maeda’s higher-potential pitches when it’s on.

The most unique offering from Maeda is a molasses-slow curveball, one which Badler compares to the likes of Barry Zito or former John Gibbons victim Ted Lilly. That can be a dangerous game against MLB hitters, but one of Maeda’s strengths lies in the depth of his arsenal and the options that he enables himself to have. With quality control on all of these pitches, they are able to be used creatively in most counts.

Interest in Maeda will be high, especially given the widespread need for pitching around the Majors and the recent success of several Japanese and Korean players. The rumblings all along have been that Rogers ownership would be open to a financial bump for the “right situation”. Is Kenta Maeda really the player they’d like to push those chips in on, though?

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Under Alex Anthopoulos, I might me more inclined to think so. Perhaps Shapiro and his newfound finances in Toronto will be equally interested in the international pitching market, but it remains an unknown. Maeda, himself, remains an unknown, which does not seem to be Shapiro’s favorite thing.

The up-front investment would also complicate things on the Blue Jays end, though the $20 million release fee wouldn’t be considered a direct addition to the 2016 payroll alone. So while the role and dollars could very well fit the Blue Jays, I see Shapiro preferring a more known commodity. This isn’t to say the Jays would not place a bid, but across the league, I feel there would be at least one organization more aggressive in their pursuit.

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