The Dodgers finally made a pair of moves to address their thin rotation, signing Scott Kazmir and NPB star Kenta Maeda to free-agent deals.
Through the first two months of the off-season, the Dodgers’ attempts to retool their pitching staff were notable more for what fell apart—attempts to re-sign Zack Greinke, sign Hisashi Iwakuma, and trade for Aroldis Chapman—than what came together. But over the past 10 days, Los Angeles has finalized two major moves, signing both 31-year-old-lefty Scott Kazmir and 27-year-old Japanese righty Kenta Maeda to creative multiyear deals. With the team finalizing the latter move and introducing Maeda to the media on Thursday, the impact of these additions is worth a closer look.
Maeda, who turns 28 on April 11, spent the past eight seasons pitching for the Hiroshima Carp of the Japanese Central League, where he earned All-Star honors five times and won the Eiji Sawamura Award—Nippon Professional Baseball's equivalent of the Cy Young, but given to just one pitcher from either the Pacific or Central League—twice, in 2010 and '15. For his career, he's posted a 2.39 ERA with 7.4 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine, and in 2015, he led the Central League in wins (15) and ranked second in innings (206 1/3), third in strikeouts (175) and fourth in ERA (2.09). In addition to his experience in the NPB, he pitched for the Japanese national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, throwing a combined 10 shutout innings against China and the Netherlands in the pool rounds and taking the loss against Puerto Rico in the semifinals despite allowing just one run in five innings, and making the all-tournament team.
The Dodgers, who must also pay the Carp a $20 million posting fee for Maeda's rights, signed the pitcher to a unique contract that guarantees him just $25 million over eight years but is loaded with incentives. Via MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, in addition to a $1 million signing bonus, Maeda is guaranteed a flat $3 million per year. He'll receive $150,000 each year for being on the Opening Day roster, $1 million each for reaching the 15- and 20-start thresholds, $1.5 million each for reaching the 25-, 30- and 32-start thresholds, $250,000 for every 10-inning increment from 90 to 190 innings, and $750,000 for reaching 200 innings. A 32-start, 200-inning season would thus net him $13.15 million, giving the contract a maximum value of $106.2 million. The deal, which matches the since-traded Matt Kemp's eight-year contract as the longest in franchise history, contains neither an opt-out nor any no-trade protection.
The structure of the contract reflects the Dodgers' concerns about the slightly-built (6'0", 154 pounds) Maeda's durability and health. Through an interpreter, Maeda acknowledged at his introductory press conference that the physical he provided to interested teams showed "irregularities" in his elbow; via Gurnick, "Neither [Maeda] nor club officials would elaborate, but the strong suspicion is that he will need Tommy John reconstruction at some point." Dodgers president of baseball Andrew Friedman said that Maeda currently is "totally asymptomatic" and that both he and the pitcher have no doubt that he'll be a significant part of the 2016 staff.
Via MLB.com's Michael Clair, Maeda offers impressive control of an 89–92-mph fastball that can touch 95, with four-and two-seam varieties, but his best assets are his offspeed pitches, namely a 12-to-6 curve, an impressive slider and a "Bugs Bunny" changeup that "dips, dives, ducks and has so much arm-side movement, it looks like it blew out a tire on the way to the plate." Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that scouts view Maeda as a potential No. 4 starter and quoted one as saying of his slider that he can "throw it in a teacup," but that Maeda needs outstanding command to be successful.
Maeda acknowledged becoming part of the Dodgers' long tradition of Japanese pitchers by noting that, at age seven, he tried to copy NPB-to-MLB trailblazer Hideo Nomo’s tornado windup, and by choosing the same uniform number (18) that Hiroki Kuroda, his teammate on the Carp last year, wore with the Dodgers from 2008 to '11. Interestingly enough, those are two of the more successful and durable Japanese hurlers to come stateside, accounting for eight of the 23 3.0-WAR seasons—those of an above-average starter or an outstanding reliever—and seven of the 10 200-inning seasons such pitchers have posted in the majors; Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish have managed just one apiece.
Health has been an issue for those notable Japanese pitchers. Shoulder problems have dogged Iwakuma, though it's not known if they were behind the failed physical that sunk the three-year, $45 million deal he signed with the Dodgers in early December; he later agreed to return to the Mariners via a one-year, $12 million deal. Matsuzaka and Darvish have both undergone Tommy John surgery since coming stateside, with the latter missing the 2015 season. Masahiro Tanaka, who came to MLB from NPB in 2014, has failed to reach the 200-inning mark in his two seasons with the Yankees and pitched through a partial tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, suggesting that at some point, he too could go under the knife.
Maeda—who will have to adapt from a six-man rotation to a five-man rotation, not to mention a slightly larger ball and bigger opposing hitters—joins a Dodgers rotation that aside from Clayton Kershaw (who led the NL with 232 2/3 innings this past year and has topped 225 in four of the last five years) has all kinds of health and durability concerns. It could also include four lefties at the start of the year: Kershaw, Kazmir, Brett Anderson and Alex Wood. Kazmir (more on whom below) has reached the 180-inning mark in each of the past two seasons but has just two other years in which he's qualified for the ERA title: 2005, his first full season in the majors, and '07, his only season topping 200. Anderson, who joined Kershaw and Greinke as the Dodgers' only starters to reach 30 starts or qualify for the ERA title last year, set a career high with 180 1/3 innings in 2015, the first time since his '09 rookie season he had thrown more than 115 at the major league level. Wood is coming off a career-high 189 2/3 innings, but concern about his mechanics is believed to be one reason why the rebuilding Braves traded him in late July despite his age (he turns 25 on Jan. 12) and years of club control remaining (he has one more year before reaching arbitration eligibility).
Meanwhile, among their other rotation options, lefty Hyun-jin Ryu is coming off arthroscopic shoulder surgery that cost him the entire 2015 season. Righty Brandon McCarthy is due back at midseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery last May 1, four starts into his four-year deal. Righty Mike Bolsinger threw a total of 156 innings between Triple A and MLB last year but averaged just 5.2 innings in his 21 starts for the big club. The team also has a wealth of near-ready pitching prospects, including 19-year-old lefty Julio Urias (80 1/3 innings in 2015), 23-year-old righty Jose De Leon (114 1/3 innings) and 22-year-old righty Frankie Montas (127 innings, including 15 with the White Sox), each of whom could wind up in the big-league rotation, or at least on the staff, at some point in 2016.
Thus, Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi are betting more on strength in numbers than on any pitcher besides Kershaw carrying a particularly heavy load, though Kazmir does at least offer the promise of some bulk. In a 2015 season split between the Athletics and Astros, he threw 183 innings with a 3.10 ERA, 3.98 FIP and 7.6 strikeouts per nine en route to 3.3 WAR. He did fade down the stretch, however, failing to reach five innings in four of his six September starts for Houston and getting rocked for a 6.52 ERA and 2.5 homers per nine in 29 innings. Since making just one start for the Angels in 2011 and being out of the majors entirely in '12, he has posted a 3.54 ERA, 3.61 FIP and 8.1 strikeouts per nine in 92 starts totaling 531 1/3 innings, an average of 177 per year.
Kazmir will earn a flat $16 million per year, though according to Cot's Contracts, half of that is deferred for three years without interest, "reducing present-day value to an average of $44,954,652 under MLB calculation and $45,335,913 per the MLBPA." The contract also allows Kazmir to opt out after the 2016 season to seek a better deal in a free-agent market that won't be nearly as stacked as that of this winter, when Greinke, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann all drew contracts worth at least $122 million; Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake got $90 million and $80 million, respectively, as well. That won't be the case next off-season, when Stephen Strasburg is the only pending free-agent starter likely to wind up in that range even if a 35-year-old James Shields opts out of his deal with the Padres.
The Dodgers, who officially finished the year with a record $291 million payroll and a $43 million luxury tax deal, balked at matching the $206.5 million Greinke was guaranteed by the Diamondbacks and couldn't find a price point that suited them on any of the other aforementioned hurlers. While the Maeda and Kazmir deals carry some risk, together they amount to a guaranteed commitment that—including the posting fee of the former and the full three years of the latter—is right around what Samardzija alone received from the Giants but covers more than twice the number of years. Their depth and flexibility leaves open the possibility that Los Angeles could still trade somebody from the above group to fill another need, whether in the rotation or the bullpen, either before Opening Day or by the July 31 trade deadline. It's taken a while for the team's off-season plan to unfold, but the Dodgers' plan is starting to come into focus, and they may have other tricks up their sleeves.