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Kenta Maeda is ‘a starting pitcher first and foremost’

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Kenta Maeda proved to be a valuable force in relief for the Dodgers during their postseason run, but the plan heading into 2018 is for the right-hander to be a starting pitcher. Until he’s not.

“Our thought and mindset going into next season is to view him as a starter who also has the capability of being an well above average reliever,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Tuesday. “Whether that’s at different points during the year, or hopefully if we’re able to get to the postseason, I don’t know. But we view him as a starting pitcher first and foremost.”

Maeda made 57 starts in his two years with the Dodgers, including 25 in 2017. He posted a 4.22 ERA and 4.07 FIP in 134⅓ innings this season, with 140 strikeouts and 34 walks.

Barring any other free agent signings or trades, Maeda figures prominently in the Dodgers’ rotation, along with Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, Alex Wood, Hyun-jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy. Those six pitchers combined to make 141 starts in 2017, ranging from 16 (McCarthy) to 27 (Kershaw). But that didn’t stop the Dodgers from acquiring Yu Darvish at the non-waiver trade deadline, and likely won’t hinder them from pursuing more starting pitching this winter.

Darvish, now a free agent, said he’d like to return to the Dodgers.

“We’ve spent some time talking to Yu,” Friedman said. “Yu came in and fit in extremely well within the fabric of our clubhouse. He really hit it off with a lot of the guys, and Rick Honeycutt. He competed every fifth day and enjoyed being around, and his teammates enjoyed having him around.”

Darvish, despite his dismal World Series, is one of the most attractive free agent targets on the market, and might command more than the Dodgers are willing to pay. Which makes having Maeda around very valuable.

“Kenta has contributed a lot out of the rotation. It’s not that easy to find guys who can basically take the ball every fifth day and contribute the way he has,” Friedman said. “That being said, in the playoffs there was another gear and it was special coming out of the pen.”

Maeda relived four times during the regular season, and nine more times in the postseason. The results were impressive.

Kenta Maeda 2017 splits

Starter 126⅓ 525 6.3% 24.8% 4.35 1.164 .238/.291/.429
Reliever 18⅔ 71 4.2% 28.2% 1.45 0.804 .179/.225/.269
Postseason included

The complicating matter here is Maeda’s contract, one of the most team-friendly deals in baseball. He still has six years left, with a base salary of $3 million per season.

Maeda can earn up to $10.15 million in incentives each season, including $150,000 for making the opening day roster. The other $10 million each year is only achievable with a starter’s load, with bonuses starting at 90 innings and 15 games started.

He earned $8.9 million in incentives in 2016, and $4.9 million in 2017.