Could the Houston Astros be an option for a particular star pitcher from Japan?
The last time the Astros were in on a pitcher from Japan, general manager Jeff Luhnow lost out to the New York Yankees and their deep pockets. However, this year could be different with Kenta Maeda, the star pitcher from Japan’s Hiroshima Toyo Carp, rumored to be available via the international posting system.
The 27-year old right-hander from Osaka could be a fit for Houston, who was reportedly posted by his parent club in Japan yesterday.
But for the Astros to negotiate with Maeda, the team will first need to place up to a $20 million bid to do so. And other teams will also be allowed to bid and earn the right to negotiate. So, yeah, this could get even more interesting which is contingent on who ponies up the cash, which I think quite a few teams will, at least, the consider the possibility.
Standing at 6’0″ and 154 pounds, and while athletic, Maeda isn’t the most intimidating figure on the mound. But he does project to be a mid-rotation starter in the majors if/when he makes the move to the United States. His fastball tops out at around 94 MPH, but his secondary pitches (change-up, slider, and a 12-6 curveball) make up the rest of what is regarded as a solid pitch arsenal. His slider, in particular, is held in well regard among baseball circles. For example, in an article from Baseball America’s Ben Badler back in 2013, one international director stated that he believes that Maeda has a “good” slider. Badler himself stated in the article that Maeda has a “solid-average” slider. Of course, those thoughts were from two years ago, but the analysis given seems to apply still today.
Even though his pitch arsenal, while solid, isn’t spectacular, Maeda makes up for that with above average command. He can locate all of his pitches for strikes and can generate plenty of uncomfortable swings. And who can forget this at-bat sequence against Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, Yasiel Puig, in the Japan All-Star Series last year.
That kind of command is what led to his success in Japan without owning the overpowering stuff of a Masahiro Tanaka. For example, in 206.1 innings throughout 2015, Maeda struck out 175 batters and walked only 41. It’s clear that he knows how to pitch.
Adding Maeda would bring another talented pitcher to the Astros rotation that should be entering its prime throughout the next few seasons. Maeda himself should also be entering his prime. In fact, he had perhaps his statistical season since 2012 this year when he went 15-8 with a 2.09 ERA/2.14 RAvg and a 1.013 WHIP while starting 29 games in the NPB. And he would, in theory, fit in at Minute Maid Park when taking into account that he only allowed five home runs in all of his starts. Odds are if he allows few home runs then he must not allow many fly balls. Or at least, that is my theory, which could certainly be proven wrong. More data is needed, ground ball percentage for one, to suggest a more concrete analysis.
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However, there is no telling how Maeda will perform in the major leagues no matter where his future home may be. After all, it isn’t a guarantee that he will instantly succeed. There is a human element in baseball that is sometimes forgotten about and moving across the Pacific Ocean could be quite the experience, good or bad.
And that’s not taking into account how his actual stuff will translate into success. If he has issues locating and starts to hang his pitches, which is a supposedly a concern surrounding his curveball, then that could result in less than desirable outcomes.
To tie up, at least, $20 million in a negotiation fee and then the actual contract could make teams wary of how much they are willing to commit to the 27-year old given the unknown factor. And he could very well cost an organization five to six years for upwards of at least $65 million. This excellent article from Eno Sarris of Fangraphs.com provides insight into how much Maeda could stand to make from a major league contract.
Maeda’s workload may also become a concern considering that the most he has pitched is 216.0 innings, which came during the 2011 season. And even though he pitched 206.1 innings this past season, he only pitched 175.2 and 187 innings in the prior two seasons. He may need a season to adjust and enhance his stamina in the majors. But this likely will not be seen as a significant red flag, but it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
At the end of the day, adding a pitcher of Maeda’s caliber would be a noteworthy grab for the Astros. It would enhance the organization’s international appeal in Asia (Yao Ming did the same for the NBA’s Houston Rockets) and provide the team with another pitcher who could help win some games. The Astros seem to be going all-in with their recent acquisition of Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies, why not make another big move? After all, it appears that the Astros window to compete has finally opened; now is the time to take full advantage of this opening.
**Statistics provided by Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference**