According to reports, the Hiroshima Carp will post their ace Kenta Maeda today, allowing him to seek a contract from an MLB club. The right-hander may negotiate with any team willing to submit the expected $20 million fee, and several should be, given his age - 28 - and his elite-level success in Japanese baseball. Maeda earned his second Eiji Sawamura Award (NPB's Cy Young) in 2015 with a 2.09 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 206.1 innings. MLB Trade Rumors predicts a five-year $60 million deal, on top of the posting fee, which would put Maeda's total cost below recent signees Jordan Zimmerman and Jeff Samardzija and close to the asking prices of Mike Leake and Wei-Yin Chen.
Scouting reports, like this one from Minor League Ball's Scott Mowers and this from Baseball America's Ben Badler, have cautioned that despite his impressive numbers, Maeda is not a pitcher who wins with electric stuff. He projects as more of a three or four in a big league rotation. He has a low-90's fastball that isn't on par with the overpowering Yu Darvish, and his breaking pitches don't share the filthy late action of Masahiro Tanaka's splitter. Maeda's bread and butter is pinpoint control that lets him change speeds and locations. He features at least five different pitches - a four-seam fastball, a low-80's slider, a slow curve, a change-up and a sinking two-seamer - but he'll probably need to cut one or two of those in the majors. This video is a career highlight reel, and it doesn't contain anything more recent than 2014, but it provides a peek at how Maeda finishes hitters off.
One thing you notice here is that Maeda seems to get plenty of outs in the strike zone, which is a welcome contrast to another Japanese pitcher the Yankees signed with somewhat pedestrian stuff in Kei Igawa. The best hitters in the world won't chase enough junk to a build a career that way. Maeda hits both corners and changes planes - you see opponents swinging and missing at breaking pitches in the dirt and fastballs up around the letters. Still there's nothing that's really jaw-dropping. At the 2:25 mark, Maeda gets taken deep (not sure why this is a "highlight") on what looks like a hanging slider. That's something he'll have to limit, especially if he winds up pitching at Yankee Stadium. As a control pitcher he'll need to emulate guys like his 2015 Hiroshima teammate Hiroki Kuroda who, as Yankee fans know well, had an excellent six-year MLB career with the same approach. Maeda's been extremely consistent in Japan, managing ERA's of 2.60 or better in six straight seasons. Seven consecutive walk rates of 2.0 are also a great sign, as is a tidy career home run rate of 0.7, although Hiroshima's home park, Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium (yes, that's what it's called) is more pitcher-friendly than anything you'll find in the AL East.
A major concern for teams checking in on Maeda will be health. He's made 26 or more starts nine straight years, but never more than 31, where a full season in MLB usually ends with 32 or more. The NPB season is 146 games, not 162, and more off-days mean longer layoffs between starts for pitchers. They also build up innings at a younger age. Maeda threw 193 frames in 2009 at 22, and at 1,509 for his career, he's ahead of David Price, two years his senior, who's considered a workhorse in the US. These could all be reasons why several elite NPB starters who have transitioned to MLB, including Darvish, Tanaka and Daisuke Matsuzaka, have had serious arm woes within three years. On top of all that, Maeda is listed at six feet and 154 lbs, so the Yankees would have to hope the giants in their rotation don't mistake him for lunch. We've seen relatively diminutive pitchers do well in the majors often enough that it's not a deal-breaker, but they do often burn out early. If he signs a five-year deal, Maeda will be asked to stay effective through age 32.
Where exactly would Maeda fit in the Yankees rotation? Brian Cashman's been steadfast in calling starting pitching his primary need, but that need is more for a one than a three or four. Sabathia isn't getting demoted or cut, so finding a spot for a new starter would be at the expense of Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda or Luis Severino. Maeda over any of those guys isn't an automatic improvement. The Yankees could go with a six-man staff. That would benefit not only Maeda and Tanaka, who they already try and get extra days for, but also Pineda and Severino who are still building up innings, and Eovaldi, who finished last season on the DL with elbow inflammation. They were reluctant to take the six-man plunge in 2015, though, so there's no reason to believe they'd do it now, especially since it would mean ultimately replacing a low-cost long reliever on the roster with a more expensive starter.
Despite the various concerns, it's easy to see why an international talent like Maeda might be more attractive to the Yankees than an equivalently-priced MLB vet. Sure, his floor is lower than Leake's or Chen's but his ceiling is much higher. In theory, $80 million spent on Maeda would cost less than the same amount put toward an established pitcher, since posting fees don't count toward average annual value and the luxury tax. Even if the next collective bargaining agreement raises the tax apron enough for the Yankees to skirt under, paying Maeda less per year would give them more leeway to sign other players.
If Maeda can limit walks and homers in the majors the way he always has in Japan, odds are he'll find success. Other pitcher-seeking big markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles, though, might be better places to do that. Maeda is an intriguing opportunity for the Yankees, but he's one they'll probably pass on.