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MLB free agent prediction: Who will sign Kenta Maeda?

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The Japanese right-hander won the NPB version of the Cy Young last year, but will teams pay him like an ace or a fourth starter?

Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

There was every reason in the world for the Hiroshima Carp to keep Kenta Maeda. The team hasn't won the Central League since 1991, and they finished just six games back in 2015. Maeda is their star, the reason fans want to watch. Think of how White Sox fans would stab you with a knitting needle if you tried to take Chris Sale away, even in the bad years, and you have some idea. With the new posting rules, all the Carp had to gain was $20 million.

Which is $20 million more than they would have got next year, when Maeda would have been an unrestricted free agent. So, the storm clouds move back in over the Carp, who are working on a solid quarter-century of pain.

And the clouds part over the Dodgers, who are clearly going to sign Maeda! Sorry, did I skip right to the prediction part? I mean, it's just so obvious. With Scott Kazmir, the Dodgers would add a solid starting pitcher. With Maeda, they would add a solid starting pitcher filled with intrigue and mystery. It would be a way for the fans to dream a bit, which isn't the reason the Dodgers should be interested. But the reason the fans could dream a bit is because Maeda is the last pitcher left with unknown upside, which most certainly is why the Dodgers should be interested. Which is why they'll most certainly sign him.

Right?

First we should explore exactly what we should expect from Maeda in the majors. He'll be 28 next season, and he's a two-time Sawamura Award winner, including 2015. He's always had excellent command and control (1.9 walks per nine innings), but his strikeout rate was just a tick above average last year. It's easy to be seduced by the last six ERAs he's posted ...

  • 2.21
  • 2.46
  • 1.53
  • 2.10
  • 2.60
  • 2.09

... but we've moved beyond using raw ERA as an important predictive or descriptive tool, right? And after I stop staring at those ERAs, I'll be ready to move on with you. Just give me a couple of minutes. Light a candle on your way out.

But, no, you're right, that's a superficial and dangerous look at a pitcher who has never appeared in the majors. Luckily Eno Sarris did most of the heavy lifting over at FanGraphs, first looking for a comparable pitcher to Maeda, then looking at what kind of contract he might command. The one-sentence abstract of both articles: He's either Rick Porcello or Jordan Zimmermann, and he'll probably get paid somewhere between the two. That is terrifying and encouraging at the same time.

The Dodgers don't need a Porcello. In retrospect, they probably should have outspent the Tigers for Zimmermann. This is a broad, broad spectrum.

And while it's easy to be impressed with the raw run-prevention numbers, it's worth noting that 20 different pitchers in the NPB had an ERA under 3.00 with 10 starts or more. Maeda allowed just five homers in 206 innings, which is otherworldly, except just five hitters in the Central League hit 20 homers or more, including Jose Lopez and Kosuke Fukudome. It's 1968 in Japan every year, give or take. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

Which means it's probably better to trust the seasoned eyeballs of scout-types who know what they're doing. The most extensive video we have is of Maeda at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but it seems pretty harsh to judge him based on March velocity readings, especially considering he was pitching in miserably cold San Francisco fog. It's clear, though, that he doesn't have the regular mid-90s fastball of Masahiro Tanaka, which would explain the gap in their NPB strikeout rates. If he succeeds at an All-Star level, he'll do it with guile. Here's the list of 2015 All-Stars. Now find the right-handed starters who made it there with guile alone. It'll take a while.

Still, I'm always scared we're underrating guile and deception. Chris Young can't throw harder than 86 mph. Bartolo Colon is a 42-year-old BB-8 droid, and he's still getting outs. Why should we spend so much effort looking at what a 28-year-old, award-winning pitcher can't do? You can see how well Maeda hides his ball in this video of his delivery in slow-motion, and there's an argument to be made that the easiest path to success in the NPB isn't with a strikeout-first mentality. He could get to the majors, realize these goofballs will swing at anything, and thrive.

Or he could be Rick Porcello, but not as consistent.

Still, I'm bullish on Maeda, if only because I remember the yawns when the A's won the bidding rights to Hisashi Iwakuma and couldn't reach a contract with him, as well as the yawns when the Orioles signed Wei-Yin Chen. Both pitchers lacked exciting, overpowering stuff, and no one was sure how that would translate to the majors. Both pitchers have been quite successful, even though command was their best tool. Maeda's stuff is probably underrated by now, as everyone still has nice things to say about his slider and change.

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The ideal

Well, the Dodgers, sure. They have the need, both in a baseball and PR context. But think of all the teams that could sure use one more starting pitcher. Drew Hutchison was an All-Star at home and one of the worst road pitchers in baseball history. How much should the Blue Jays count on him? As long as the White Sox are spending and dealing to improve, how about one more potential-laden starter behind their imposing front three? The Pirates could go with a rotation that includes Ryan Vogelsong, Jeff Locke and Jon Niese ... or they could stun baseball with the biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history.

I mean, as long as we're making stuff up.

The likely

There are a lot of teams that would project better with Maeda in the rotation. The Dodgers are just one of them. If I had to make an if-money-were-no-object power ranking of who could use Maeda the most, it would go something like:

  1. Pirates
  2. Dodgers
  3. Orioles
  4. White Sox
  5. Tigers

But money is an object, and there's only one of those teams with a lot of it and a clear focus on starting pitching. So, the Dodgers are clearly the likeliest destination.

Prediction

Diamondbacks, six years, $72 million (not including $20 million posting fee).

The Dodgers are so obvious, there needs to be a mystery team. We'll use the same one from the beginning of the offseason, then. The Diamondbacks probably don't have the money to do this again, but I didn't think they had the money to sign Greinke in the first place. And if you're going to blow up the world to trade for Shelby Miller, why stop there?

It would absolutely rankle Dodgers fans, of course. The last, best remaining option for the Dodgers if they want to hold onto their draft picks would be Kazmir, who is probably less risky. It wouldn't exactly be a wild scenario for Kazmir to outpitch Maeda in 2016 on a much shorter contract, so this could be a blessing in disguise. It certainly wouldn't be as splashy, though.

(An aside: It's almost 2016, and we're describing Scott Kazmir as a safe, reliable option. What a world, what a magical world.)

A lot of teams could use the upside and promise of Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers have the clearest need and best fit. Whenever the stars align like that, bet on the field. The mystery team is lurking in that field. Waiting. Patiently waiting.

Previous, incorrect free agent predictions:

Jeff Samardzija
Zack Greinke
David Price
Ben Zobrist
Jason Heyward
Johnny Cueto
Chris Davis
Justin Upton
Yoenis Cespedes

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