The Phillies Should Pass on Kenta Maeda
The Hiroshima Carp of Japan’s Central League will post right-hander Kenta Maeda, as Jason Coskrey pointed out on Twitter on Thursday. Interested teams will have to submit a $20 million posting fee for the right to negotiate with Maeda. Teams which fall short in the bidding war will have their posting fees returned. The $20 million will go to the Carp as compensation; it is not considered part of Maeda’s actual contract.
There has been a run on starting pitching in free agency lately, with Jordan Zimmermann, David Price, Zack Greinke, John Lackey, and Jeff Samardzija all coming off the board. With some salary boundaries now defined and some competition out of the picture, Maeda should draw a fair amount of interest. Some have suggested that the Phillies, firmly in the next phase of their rebuilding process, should pursue Maeda. They should instead stand pat on this particular international talent.
At FanGraphs last month, Eno Sarris looked for a major league pitcher to compare to Maeda. Based on pitch arsenal, it turned out that Aaron Nola was the closest comp. And, hey, we like Nola. The Phillies selected Nola in the first round, seventh overall, in the 2014 draft and he was already polished enough to make his major league debut when play resumed after the All-Star break. Over 13 starts spanning 77 2/3 innings, the 22-year-old right-hander yielded 31 runs (3.59 ERA) on 74 hits and 19 walks with 68 strikeouts.
That’s a pretty solid season, and if Maeda could reliably post a 3.50-ish ERA, the Phillies would be in decent shape. Maeda was dominant in his eight seasons in Japan, owning a 2.39 ERA with 1,233 strikeouts and 319 walks in 1,509 2/3 innings. Solid numbers, but pitching against Japanese hitters is comparatively much easier than facing major league hitters. Using Clay Davenport’s translations, Maeda’s 2014 stats don’t look as elite:
- Japan, 2014 (Real): 187 innings, 2.60 ERA, 161 strikeouts, 41 walks, 12 home runs
- Davenport translations: 180 2/3 innings, 4.09 ERA, 110 strikeouts, 51 walks, 14 home runs
The biggest difference, as you can see, is the strikeout rate. For every nine innings, Maeda would average about 5.5 strikeouts according to Davenport as opposed to his 7.7 average in Japan in 2014. His walk rate doesn’t change all that much at 2.5 and 2.0, respectively. Here is a list of pitchers with K/9 and BB/9 plus or minus 0.5 of Maeda’s translated rates in any of the past five seasons:
It’s not an enthusing list, the bottom of which includes some very familiar faces. Those who made multiple appearances on the list include Vargas, Guthrie, Saunders, Leake, Dickey, and Porcello. Leake represents the best of the best on the list, so what the Phillies would be looking for from Maeda would be a Leake-like performance on a consistent basis. Last month, MLB Trade Rumors predicted Leake would command a five-year, $80 million deal. If we use that as a proxy for Maeda, is it really a wise gamble to bet $80 million on a 110 adjusted ERA (ERA+)? That’s essentially the performance of a #3 starter.
The Phillies, as a result of their recent TV deal, are swimming in money and they currently have about $55 million committed to six players with three pending arbitration cases and a plethora of pre-arb players. Their payroll reached as high as $177 million on Opening Day in 2014 and the luxury tax threshold is $189 million. The Phillies don’t have to settle for second-tier free agents. Granted, next year’s free agent class includes Stephen Strasburg and a whole lot of nothing, but it’d be wiser to either go big — which would have meant signing David Price, for instance — or do nothing at all until the front office gets a chance to see how the minor league system pans out once the top prospects reach the majors.
Maeda is an interesting pitcher and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him defy the lukewarm expectations in the majors. It would also be thrilling to see the Phillies make a significant investment in foreign talent. They shouldn’t just toss money at anybody, however.