Kenta Maeda will undergo elbow surgery next week, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters (including Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com). It won’t be known exactly what procedure Maeda will require until he goes under the knife, but it’s possible he’ll need a full Tommy John surgery.
Obviously, Maeda’s timetable will depend on the kind of procedure he ultimately undergoes. If Maeda does require a complete reconstruction, that would probably rule him out for the entirety of the 2022 season, since Tommy John surgeries typically require rehab timelines of fourteen-plus months. Even a surgery of lesser severity could threaten his readiness for the start of next season.
For instance, Astros left-hander Kent Emanuel had an undetermined amount of ligament damage in his elbow at the time he underwent surgery in June. As with Maeda, it wasn’t clear at the time whether Emanuel would need a full reconstruction. During the operation, it was determined that he didn’t need to undergo TJS, but the procedure he did undergo still came with a nine-month recovery timeline. That’s just one example, and it’s not a given that Maeda is facing the same options Emanuel was. But it’s illustrative that even avoiding Tommy John surgery in these situations could still require a significant recovery period.
The Twins are playing out the string for the rest of 2021, so the effects of losing Maeda for the remainder of this season are relatively minimal. His absence potentially extending into 2022 would be devastating for a Minnesota team hoping to return to contention next season. With José Berríos traded to the Blue Jays before this summer’s deadline, Maeda is by far the most accomplished member of Minnesota’s starting staff.
Michael Pineda is slated to hit free agency this offseason, leaving Bailey Ober, Charlie Barnes, Griffin Jax, Lewis Thorpe and Randy Dobnak as the other starters controllable into 2022. That’s an unproven group insufficient for a hopeful contender. Prospects like Jordan Balazovic or Joe Ryan could pitch their way into the mix at some point soon, but starting pitching already looked to be the biggest area of need for Minnesota this winter. Even if Maeda doesn’t require Tommy John surgery, the front office will have to proceed through the offseason without the comfort of seeing their top in-house pitcher having logged any game action after an elbow procedure of some note.
It’s a disappointing end to the toughest season of Maeda’s six-year big league career. The right-hander consistently posted above-average numbers between 2016-19 with the Dodgers. Minnesota acquired him over the 2019-20 offseason and he had a career-best campaign in last year’s shortened season. Maeda worked to a 2.70 ERA over 66 2/3 innings, earning a runner-up finish in AL Cy Young award balloting.
Maeda couldn’t replicate that success this season, as that ERA ballooned to a career-worst 4.66 over 106 1/3 frames. The 33-year-old has seen significant declines in strikeout and ground-ball rates relative to last season, which looks like a bit of an outlier. But Maeda’s strikeout and walk numbers are still solid, and his 3.97 SIERA suggests he’s at least still a quality arm as he was for his couple seasons in Los Angeles.
If Maeda is forced to miss significant time in 2022, that’d come with serious financial consequences. His original eight-year deal with the Dodgers was heavily incentive-laden because of the L.A. front office’s concern about his medical outlook. Maeda is guaranteed just $3.125MM annually, with millions of dollars in bonuses available via games started and innings thresholds.