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No rush to move Kenta Maeda to the bullpen

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Walker Buehler made his starting debut for the Dodgers on Monday night, and we all saw the hype surrounding him is real – high-90s fastball, hammer curveball, nasty cutter/slider. We also saw he still has some things to work on – mainly, command of all his pitches.

It’s easy to fall in love with premium stuff and want to find a spot for the 24-year-old in the current Dodger rotation. But with Hyun-Jin Ryu pitching almost like the Ryu of old and Alex Wood still doing Alex Wood things (despite diminished velocity), it seems many fans want to move Kenta Maeda to the bullpen. Ironically, they want to do it after he has one bad inning in a start, which is the role in which he’d play out of the bullpen.

Let’s pump the brakes on that for a moment.

Maeda, he of the 3.10 ERA and rotation-leading 1.80 FIP, has already made one relief appearance and this season and went two weeks between his first start (5 IP, 0 R, 10 K) and his second start (2⅔ IP, 5 R, 2 K). In his last two starts, he has 17 strikeouts, issued three walks and allowed five runs in 11 2/3 innings. Not Max Scherzer by any means, but plenty good to remain in an MLB rotation. Oh, and not only is he getting results, he’s also the hardest-throwing non-Buehler starter the Dodgers have, as he’s averaging 92 mph on his fastball this season.

Yes, Maeda had a successful stint in the postseason as a reliever last year, but it’s too early in his career to relegate him to the bullpen for almost no reason. With Maeda, the production is known: He’s going to be a quality pitcher, miss bats and not walk a ton of hitters. With a guy like Buehler, the ceiling is almost limitless, but he’s far from refined and far from a sure thing. For a team with championship aspirations, it’d be risky betting on the unknown. The Dodgers have done it in recent years with Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Julio Urias and others, but this situation feels a bit different.

Also, there’s the issue of Maeda’s contract. He’s paid a base salary of $3 million over the eight years. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • $250,000 for every 10 innings pitched after, and including, 90 IP (up to 200 IP)
  • $1 million for starts 15, 20, 25, 30 and 32

If he’s pitching as a reliever full-time, it’s unlikely he hits the innings incentive and, obviously, no way he hits the games started incentive. It’s something Daniel Brim has talked about at length at Dodger Digest and on Twitter. The Dodgers wouldn’t be contractually obligated to renegotiate his contract, but it’d be a bad look if they didn’t at least do something.

The odd man out here really should be Rich Hill, if we’re basing decisions on results. But that’s not going to happen (nor should it, right now) because he’s scheduled to start Monday for the Dodgers after his stint on the disabled list. And the sentiment seems to be more about convenience (or something else) than results.

Some of this is “shiny new toy” syndrome with Buehler. Some (most) of it is a vast under-appreciation for Maeda and his ability as a starting pitcher. Buehler is just going to have to wait a little longer for his opportunity. Ryu could regress, Hill could get hurt again, Wood may struggle if his command falters a bit and if his velocity of first-half 2017 doesn’t return and even that Clayton Kershaw guy could get hurt. While Maeda might be the most convenient player to shift to the ‘pen, it doesn’t make a ton of sense – especially right now.

This is the “problem” with too much depth. Some more talented, yet unpolished, players will just have to wait for their opportunity. Until then, let’s not forget how good Maeda has been this season, but in his Dodger career. Jettisoning him to the bullpen now for reasons doesn’t make a ton of sense.