By Jon Weisman
Bolstering their starting rotation, the Dodgers have signed 27-year-old right-hander Kenta Maeda to a contract. Not just any contract, but an eight-year contract.
“We are excited to be bringing Kenta Maeda into the Dodger organization,” Dodger president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “We have had the chance to scout him extensively in Japan and on the international stage and believe he has all the tools to be a successful Major League starting pitcher. We were honored to hear of his strong desire to be a Dodger and that only added to our motivation to bring him on board. We look forward to Kenta adding another chapter to the Dodgers’ global legacy and to him strengthening our ballclub in the years ahead.”
Listed at a slender 6 feet, 154 pounds, Maeda follows a line of pitchers from Japan including Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Takashi Saito and Hideki Kuroda. He has a 2.39 career ERA in 1,509 2/3 career innings with the Hiroshima Carp of the Japan Central League, striking out 7.4 batters per nine innings.
By comparison, Kuroda — who also pitched for Hiroshima, from 1997-2007 — had an ERA of 3.69 and 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings when he joined the Dodgers at age 33. Kuroda went on to have a 3.73 ERA (3.59 FIP) in his first season with Los Angeles and 3.45 ERA (3.55 FIP) in four seasons.
In 2015, Maeda’s ERA was 2.14 in 206 1/3 innings — his seventh consecutive season with at least 175 innings. He was fourth in the league in ERA and third in strikeouts, and won his second Sawamura Award, the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award.
“While Maeda has been successful, don’t go looking for a blazing fastball,” writes Michael Clair of MLB.com. “It normally sits between 88-92, though he has the ability to heat that up to 95 mph when necessary. His greatest skill is in locating both his four-seam and two-seam, as he walked only 1.8 batters per nine last season.
“Maeda’s best assets are his breaking balls. To go along with his 12-6 curve, Maeda’s changeup dips, dives, ducks and has so much arm-side movement, it looks like it blew out a tire on the way to the plate. It’s enough to have earned the nickname ‘Bugs Bunny’ change.”
Clair adds that Maeda’s commands the slider “like he’s a hypnotist at a work retreat, and the baseball is the gullible volunteer.”
“Maeda combats a less-than-ideal launch angle with plus athleticism that allows him to repeat a high-effort delivery that starts out mirroring (Yu) Darvish’s mechanically almost to a T — but finishes with a (Tim) Lincecum-esque ‘dragline’ which allows him to release the ball later and gives the effect of added velocity (seen here in super-slo-mo),” notes Scott Mowers of Minor League Ball.
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Thirteen months ago, Maeda threw five shutout innings against the team of MLB All-Stars that toured Japan, facing a lineup of included Ben Zobrist, Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau, Yasiel Puig, Carlos Santana, Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar and Dexter Fowler. Maeda allowed two hits (Morneau single, Fowler double) and two walks (Longoria, Puig), striking Puig and Escobar.
With Brandon McCarthy recovering from Tommy John surgery, Maeda is the leading right-hander in a Dodger rotation that currently includes lefties Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, Brett Anderson and Alex Wood. Signs also point to Hyun-Jin Ryu being ready for Spring Training, but the signing eases the pressure of how fast Ryu must return from his surgery.
Maeda will follow in Kuroda’s footsteps by wearing No. 18.
To make room for Maeda on the 40-man roster, the Dodgers have designated 23-year-old infielder Ronald Torreyes (2 for 6 with a double and a walk in eight games as a Dodger) for assignment. After being acquired by the Dodgers from Toronto on June 12, Torreyes had a .348 on-base percentage and .410 slugging percentage in 274 plate appearances for Double-A Tulsa and a .340 OBP/.388 slugging for Triple-A Oklahoma City.