Outside of New York Yankees fans, the conclusion of Masahiro Tanaka’s move to the majors probably had the biggest effect on Kenta Maeda and the Hiroshima Carp.
Because as Tanaka heads off to the Bronx, and with the next batch of potential uber-talents — namely Shohei Otani and Shintaro Fujinami — still a ways off from a possible MLB move, the spotlight will now be firmly on Maeda as the next contestant in “Who’s leaving next?,” which Japanese fans will continue to play with superstar players until NPB pulls its head out of the sand and makes the improvements necessary to entice more stars to hang around.
But back to the matter at hand. There will be a great deal of pressure and scrutiny on Maeda as he enters the 2014 season, for reasons both domestic and international.
Maeda was often linked with Tanaka during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and in fact outpitched him. Now he’s alone, at least for now, in the minds of some as the best pitcher in Japan, and speculation will be rampant about whether or not he’ll follow Tanaka to the majors.
Maeda wished Tanaka well after the news broke on Thursday that the right-hander would join the New York Yankees, telling Nikkan Sports, “I think some people felt a lot of anxiety, but I think he can show his strength with the Yankees. In Japan, I’ll do my best to not lose to him and put forth my best effort.”
Maeda’s first order of business this year is to help lead the Carp back to the Central League Climax Series, which the franchise reached for the first time ever last year.
The Carp ace is coming off a 15-7, 2.10 ERA season — a slight step backward from high-level performances from 2010-2012 — and will lead a staff that lost 10-game winner Kan Otake to the Yomiuri Giants through free agency.
Outside of Bryan Bullington, the Carp could field a somewhat youthful rotation, and the onus will be on “Maeken,” the ace, to lead by example.
If he does, and has a productive season, it could make MLB teams, many of whom have scouted him already, stand up and take notice
“He has good stuff,” said one MLB scout. “He has good speed, good breaking balls, good command.
“He’s one of the best pitchers in Japan. But is he worth the same dollar figure as Tanaka? I don’t think he’s worth $100 million. But you never know.
“A team may swoop down and offer him a lucrative contract. You never know. I think he’s major league caliber. I think he has the stuff. He’s not a No. 1 or 2. He’s probably a No. 3 or 4. If a team is stacked, definitely a No. 4 or 5.”
Maeda is 71-50 with 897 strikeouts, a 2.41 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in six seasons. He won’t be mistaken for Tanaka, relying more on control and command of his wide array of offerings.
Maeda has expressed an interest in MLB in the past, but has never put a timetable on any possible aspirations.
Maeda wouldn’t create the type of stir Tanaka did on the market, and as such the particulars of the new posting system likely wouldn’t be much of a hindrance if the Carp were amiable to letting him leave in the near future.
Unless he or the Carp categorically deny the possibility of his leaving anytime soon, Maeda will pitch under a microscope this year as pundits parse his MLB-worthiness. Though that pressure has seemed to work in pitchers’ favor in recent years.
Daisuke Matsuzaka dealt with even more speculation in 2006 and went 17-5, striking out 200 with a 2.13 ERA and 0.92 WHIP for the Seibu Lions.
The same held true for Yu Darvish in 2011, and he finished 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and 276 strikeouts in 232 innings for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Tanaka took it a step further for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last season with a 24-0 record, 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings.
When Matsuzaka left for MLB, Darvish was thrust into the spotlight as Tanaka was after Darvish’s departure.
Now that Tanaka’s gone, it’s Maeda’s turn, and how he fares will be a hot topic for both the Carp and any possible international suitors.