FORT MYERS, Fla.
It’s a Japanese baseball tradition that dates back a half-century, since the Yomiuri Giants’ championship dynasty of the 1960s and ’70s. The Giants began issuing uniform No. 18 to the ace of their pitching staff, and ever since, on teams all over Japan, wearing that number conveys an implicit stature and respect on a pitcher.
That’s why, like previous major leaguers Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda, new Twins righthander Kenta Maeda had it written into his first MLB contract that he would wear No. 18 while with the Dodgers. And it’s why he’s so happy that Mitch Garver contacted him through the Twins earlier this week to offer up the number in Minnesota, too.
“Hey, if it means he’s going to pitch like an ace, I’ll give him a lot more than that,” Garver, who switched to No. 8, joked Thursday, shortly after meeting his new teammate.
Maeda beamed at the mention of Garver’s sacrifice — “He’s a great player, and just to have that gesture as a welcoming for me to be part of the Twins is awesome,” the pitcher gushed during a morning news conference — but then again, Maeda was smiling all day.
After arriving in Fort Myers a day earlier, the newest Twin reported to camp, underwent a series of physical exams, answered questions for both American media members and a dozen Japanese reporters and TV crews, and shook hands with dozens of new friends in the Twins’ clubhouse.
Among them was manager Rocco Baldelli, who emphasized to Maeda in a one-on-one meeting, and later to the media, that he is committed to making the Twins’ trade pickup comfortable and effective in unfamiliar surroundings.
“He welcomed the opportunity. … He knows what he’s doing. This isn’t [a case] where we are bringing someone in and the idea is to make a ton of adjustments,” Baldelli said. “Pencil him in there as someone we feel really good about going out there and starting for us.”
That last part is important. Maeda said he is happy to continue his career on a team that he believes will extend his string of four consecutive trips to the postseason, but he’s clearly ecstatic over the role the Twins intend to assign him: Starting pitcher.
Maeda chafed at the Dodgers’ late-season decision in the past three seasons to move him to the bullpen for September and the playoffs, a role that cost him innings, enjoyment and a substantial amount of money in performance bonuses.
Starting for the Twins is “not necessarily a guaranteed position,” Maeda said through interpreter Daichi Sekizaki, “but it’s been discussed.”
Well, more than discussed. “I can’t speak to the Dodgers’ specific reasons for his usage. I would tell you this: We think he’s a starting pitcher. He’s a guy who can really impact our rotation,” said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations. “Clearly we believe that’s where he’ll fit for us.”
Fitting in might be more difficult off the field than on, in fact. Maeda, only the second Japanese player to wear a Twins uniform after Tsuyoshi Nishioka a decade ago, has never pitched in Target Field, and has never set foot in Minnesota. He, his wife and their two children are leaving Los Angeles, the largest enclave of Japanese culture in the U.S., for a city with comparatively little.
“In that sense, that’s something to discover, go out and [have an] adventure,” Maeda said. He plans to research Japanese restaurants in Minneapolis, but for now, “all I know is that it’s cold.”
His teammates have plenty of warm feelings about adding him to the staff. Catcher Alex Avila, who hooked a Maeda fastball into the Dodger Stadium seats for a home run in a March 30 game last season and then struck out in his next three at-bats against the righthander, said he has a lot of respect for Maeda’s mix of fastballs, changeups and sliders.
“He’s got a sneaky fastball. He’s deceptive. Even though it’s not mid- to upper 90s, it feels that way as a hitter,” Avila said. “You almost have to get ready like you’re facing 95, just from his delivery and his mechanics. And then he lives on the edges with that slider, a real good one. He’s gotten me a few times on that.”
The 31-year-old righthander, under contract for the next four seasons, learned he was likely coming to the Twins on Feb. 4, when word of a possible trade first leaked. But the deal did not become official until Monday, the day before camp opened. His agents tried to keep him updated while the teams worked out the details, but “they said we’re not actually 100 percent sure,” Maeda said. So he remained in limbo for a week, working out near his home in Los Angeles and waiting for official word.
Now that he’s got it, he’s eager to get to work. Maeda will throw his first bullpen session on Friday, Baldelli said, and then be slotted into a regular schedule of workouts leading up the start of preseason games later this month.
Amid all the glad-to-be-heres, though, Maeda did express one regret about the trade. “Hitting is part of my strength,” said Maeda, who homered in his first major-league game and last year piled up 12 hits and a .250 batting average. “Kind of sad I won’t be hitting. But that’s OK.”