It seems like only a few yesterdays ago that the Dodgers signed Scott Kazmir to add another live arm to their staff. A fewer yesterdays ago news broke that L.A. was also adding Japanese star Kenta Maeda to the rotation. The Maeda news was far from surprising, given the Dodgers’ need to have as many pitchers with pulses as possible, and there’s a genuine non-zero chance that Maeda is going to pitch well enough to succeed in MLB. What’s surprising about the Maeda deal is, well, the terms of the deal itself.
If Kazmir’s first-year opt out was strange, Maeda’s contract is downright confusing. First reported by Christopher Meola and confirmed by Joel Sherman, Maeda’s contract runs for eight years but only has a base salary of $25 million. Most of his potential earnings will be tied up in incentivized money relative to his workload, and those incentives could reach $10-$12 million each year.
Assuming that Maeda gets his $10 million every year, he could end up being paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $105 million, if not more. For an untested but talented and mature arm in this pitching-infatuated market, that nine-figure number is entirely reasonable. The matter at which Maeda has to arrive at that number is wildly unconventional. No other major league starter that is currently signed to a guaranteed deal (basically every starter that’s signed an extension or has reached free agency and signed a big league deal) has his income so inherently tied to his health. Because baseball’s incentivized money is tied to workload and not performance (thank you collective bargaining agreement) Maeda only gets paid what he’s truly worth on the open market if his arm doesn’t blow out or his rotator cuff doesn’t go up in smoke.
Of course, Maeda was never truly on the open market. He had to be posted by his team in Japan, the Hiroshima Carp, and then teams had to pay the $20 million dollar posting fee for the right to negotiate with him. The Dodgers are one of a select few teams comfortable with dispensing of $20 million for the mere right of being able to place a call to Maeda’s agent. One would think that they’d have been willing to toss an especially player-friendly contract Maeda’s way to make sure that they secured his services.
That’s not what happened, of course. Maeda’s deal is incredibly team-friendly. It’s easily the most team-friendly eight-year deal ever, and even that description doesn’t do it justice. If Maeda misses a full season with an injury, the Dodgers only have to pay him $6 million to sit on the bench, rather than the $22 million that would be owed to Masahiro Tanaka in the same instance. There’s no opt-out clause similar to the one Tanaka will have the chance to exercise following the 2017 season. Maeda will be pitching for the Dodgers from ages 28-35, the prime of his career. Maeda is massively gambling on himself with this contract.
He has good cause to, of course. Maeda is coming off a season that saw him throw 206.1 innings of 2.03 ERA ball and win the Sawamura Award, Japan’s version of the Cy Young Award. He set a career low in HR/9, and added a changeupthat he’s used to devastating effect. His fastball velocity doesn’t blow anyone away, but Maeda’s the same sort of super-junkballer that Tanaka is without the heinous wipeout stuff. He is unlikely to be the ace-quality pitcher that an uninjured Tanaka is, but he should be more than serviceable.
There are plenty of more than adequate foreign players waiting to make their eventual jumps to the highest level of competition. Maeda’s deal may very well effect their pay levels. It’s quite a leap from Tanaka’s 7/$155 million and opt out to Maeda’s NFL-style incentivized mess. It’s not as if there’s a massive difference in talent levels between the two pitchers. Tanaka is certainly better, and he’s younger than Maeda but the difference isn’t exactly Clayton Kershaw and Jerome WIlliams. Unless something unsightly arose on Maeda’s physical, the Dodgers and Maeda’s representatives at the Wasserman Media Group may have just set a doozy of a precedent for future international signees.
This is the kind of contract that would send the MLBPA into a blind rage. It’s the kind of contract that the MLBPA has fought so hard to prevent. The deal gives future international players less of a base to work from, and could easily lead to them missing out on money that they very much deserve. When super-pitcher Shohei Otani comes to the big leagues, will he be paid what he’s worth?
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Maeda’s reportedly odd contract is due to a medical issue, and we’ll find out soon enough whether or not that’s the case. Yet in what’s been a fascinating offseason, the Maeda deal is the strangest transaction yet. It’s something we’ve never seen before, and definitely worth keeping an eye on.