Kenta Maeda has an unusual MLB contract that any hourly wage-earner can understand: The size of his paycheck depends upon how much he works.
The trade that could deliver Maeda to Minnesota at the cost of top pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol did not become official Wednesday. But the Twins are eager to begin working with their new starting pitcher, and they believe, thanks to his contract, that Maeda will want to pitch — and pitch a lot — for his new team.
“Kenta wants to make 30 starts, 32 starts during the season,” Maeda’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told The Athletic in November after meeting with Dodgers President Andrew Friedman to plead his client’s case. “He would prefer not to be constantly shuttled to the bullpen and back. He doesn’t like it.”
No wonder. In a sport full of guaranteed contracts that stipulate a specified salary no matter the results, Maeda’s compensation is like an ala carte menu, and can vary wildly based upon how much he is used. In effect, the Dodgers for the past four years, and now perhaps the Twins for the remaining four years on his contract, eventually pay the Japanese righthander practically by the start and by the inning, like diners adding to their bill by ordering side dishes.
It might seem like a reasonable, if unusual, way to pay a player, particularly one whose health raised questions even as the Dodgers paid a $20 million posting fee to the Hiroshima Carp to sign him in January 2016. But tying his paycheck to games started has proved to be an annual frustration for Maeda, who has remained healthy and durable — only Clayton Kershaw has thrown more innings for the Dodgers in the past four years.
What’s the problem? In each of the past three seasons, the Dodgers have moved Maeda to the bullpen in August or September, and he’s remained there throughout the postseason. He’s pitched well in those situations — Maeda has a 3.19 ERA as a reliever, and 1.64 out of the pen in the postseason — but doesn’t like pitching in relief. His contract also can raise questions about the motives behind removing him from the rotation, something the Twins will have to consider with the strikeout specialist.
“He cares more about the role than the contract,” Wolfe insisted in that Athletic story. “But the contract acts somewhat as a limitation because there’s a lot of upside for the Dodgers in limiting his starts.”
Maeda’s contract guarantees him an annual salary of $3 million, a bargain price for a pitcher who already has 47 victories, and another $150,000 for being on the Opening Day roster. But Maeda has more than doubled his salary each year by meeting incentives.
The 31-year-old Maeda earns an extra $1 million when he makes his 15th start of the season, and he collects another $1 million at 20 starts. His 25th, 30th and 32nd starts add another $1.5 million bonus to his pay. And starting at his 90th inning, he receives an extra $250,000 for every 10 innings he pitches, a fee that rises to $750,000 for his 200th inning.
By that math, Maeda collected $8.75 million in incentives in 2016, when he remained a starter all season and made 32 starts, giving him a total salary of $11.9 million. His paycheck dipped to $7.25 million the following season, and just $6 million in 2018. He was paid $8.4 million last year.
Friedman found a trading partner in the Twins, a team trying to plug holes in its rotation and likely to keep Maeda in that role. The match seems like a good one for both sides. It also came with a sweetener for Maeda: a $1 million bonus for being traded.