When the Derek Falvey and Thad Levine made one of the most significant trades of their tenure by dealing pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol (then 21 years old) to the Dodgers for Kenta Maeda, a veteran a decade older than Graterol, the biggest fear among Twins fans was that they were shipping out a lot of upside for a solid but unspectacular return.
But the 2020 season, as abbreviated as it was, showed there are multiple types of uncovered potential: for Graterol, it relates to age. For Maeda, it has to do more with opportunity.
Despite solid numbers from Maeda in two seasons as primarily a starter in 2016 and 2017, his first two after coming over from Japan, the Dodgers deployed him as a combination reliever and starter in 2018 and 2019. The Twins saw in his peripheral numbers — low hits, high strikeouts among them — the possibility that he could be far more than rotation filler in the right situation.
And to be fair, the Dodgers’ pitching needs are different than the Twins’ needs. They went on to win the World Series — with plenty of starting pitching even after trading Maeda and with Graterol playing an important relief role while throwing 100 mph as easily as some of us put on socks.
But even in the shortened 60-game season Maeda also showed there was untapped upside for the Twins as well. Not only is he on a VERY team-friendly contract through 2023, but more importantly he pitched VERY well in 2020.
Maybe owing to the nature of his reputation or just the strangeness of this season overall with so many external distractions, just how good Maeda was probably flew under the radar.
We were served a good reminder on Monday. The American League released the three finalists for its Cy Young winner, and Maeda was one of them. Now, he almost certainly will not win. Cleveland’s Shane Bieber is the prohibitive favorite, and Toronto’s Hyun-Jin Ryu — also a Dodgers pitcher in 2019 — is the third finalist.
But no Twins pitcher has finished in the top three in Cy Young voting since Johan Santana won the award in 2006. And no Twins pitcher other than Santana has been top three since Brad Radke’s 20-win season of 1997 (when he finished a distant third, but third nonetheless, behind Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson).
Santana was the Twins’ last true ace — and perhaps not surprisingly, of the two playoff games the Twins have won between 2003-present (against 21 losses) he was the starting pitcher in both.
Maeda is nowhere near Santana’s company yet, given that Johan won two Cy Young awards. But Maeda did deliver five shutout innings in his first Twins playoff start in Game 1 vs. Houston this year.
He came out of the game with a 1-0 lead and having thrown 91 pitches, but with the Twins still needing to get 12 more outs. They ended up losing 4-1.
Still, his 2020 season — 6-1 record and 2.70 ERA in 11 starts, with at least five innings and 2 or fewer runs or 6 innings and 3 or fewer runs allowed in all of them, plus that strong postseason outing — provides the framework for a modern day No. 1 starter.
It would be nice if he worked deeper into games more consistently, but an average of 6 innings per start (as he did in 2020) is better than league average and doesn’t take him out of the “ace” conversation like it might have a generation ago when the expectation was that a dominant starter might work 8 or even 9 innings.
I’d like to see Maeda repeat those averages over a full 162 game season — and have more than just one Twins postseason start — before we get too carried away.
But for now, it looks like the Twins got just as much upside from their veteran as the Dodgers got from their rookie in last season’s swap.