Kenta Maeda’s contract has turned into the Tigers’ latest albatross

MINNEAPOLIS — The mound can be a lonely place for the hapless. It is depressing to watch a once-successful pitcher get battered time and time again, nothing left in the tank, a thoroughbred with a bum leg. Fans can yell and vent and call for a roster move, but there is rarely an elixir. There is a human element here, evident each time Kenta Maeda sighs or exclaims or takes a deep breath and lifts his head to the sky as if asking for divine intervention. This game is unforgiving, lacking empathy and unrelenting in its attack on the psyche. These are the things Maeda is battling: the realization he no longer has the juice in his arsenal and the mental consequences of that realization. 

When the ball left the park for the final blow Thursday against the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch immediately rose from the dugout. As soon as Ryan Jeffers touched home plate, Hinch crossed the foul line and strode to the mound. He patted Maeda on the back and removed him from the game.

For Maeda, it was arguably the worst start in a season full of bad ones. His final line was a gnarly combination of crooked numbers: 3 2/3 innings, nine hits, nine earned runs, three walks and three strikeouts.

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Kenta Maeda struggled again, and manager A.J. Hinch identified the biggest concern as the right-hander’s lack of command. (David Berding / Getty Images)

Maeda, signed this winter on a two-year deal worth $24 million, now has a 6.71 ERA. He has already served a stint on the injured list with a viral illness but is, by all accounts, healthy. At 36, his stuff is severely diminished. His average fastball velocity is a career-low 90.3 mph. Opponents are feasting on his slider. His splitter can still be a calling card when he commands it, but hitters are too often able to eliminate the pitch and target his other offerings. Maeda’s strike-throwing has suffered most of this season. And Thursday against the Twins, he could not escape counts even in the instances where he got ahead 0-2.

“There were some soft singles today, there was some hard luck, but there was a lot of hard contact, too,” Hinch said. “They hit all of his pitches. I think it’s middle and miss that hurts him time after time, and those big innings come back to haunt you.”

The time-after-time struggles leave the Tigers with little recourse. They are paying him to pitch, this year and next. They are not going to eat his contract tomorrow. Perhaps they could move him to a mop-up relief role eventually, but right now the Tigers’ bullpen is maligned, and there is no clear upgrade for the rotation. Matt Manning would be the presumable candidate, but he is in Triple A with a 4.96 ERA, working to refine his game again. Beau Brieske could be a candidate to move into the rotation, but that would leave the Tigers without one of the few dependable options in the bullpen. Thursday, Maeda was relieved by Joey Wentz, who has a 6.43 ERA over his past 142 2/3 major-league innings. The Tigers keep giving Wentz chances while pitchers in Triple A struggle to prove their readiness.

“We’ve got to find the command again,” Hinch said when asked if there is a course of action that could make this situation better. “At the end of the day with Kenta, it begins and ends with command.”

The Maeda contract has turned into a serious dilemma without an obvious solution. Often praised for the ability to identify pitchers ripe for optimization, the Tigers front office may have been fooled by upticks in Maeda’s velocity late last season. Even when Maeda has pitched to decent results, as he did five days ago against the Angels, he has not gone deep into games. 

“I think the pitches that I’m making, in terms of the quality of pitches, have gotten better,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “It’s just a matter of execution in certain situations.”

After the Twins trounced the Tigers 12-3 in a weather-shortened game Thursday, Detroit has lost in each of Maeda’s past seven starts. The woes have led to mounting pressure on Maeda, who has cursed when another ball lands on the grass and continues to hang his head after missing spots. He wants to do better. But he has been unable to summon all that is required.

“I just couldn’t hang on to the lead,” Maeda said Thursday. “I feel bad for the team. I feel like I let the team down. I feel like that was the (cause) of the body language.”

Maeda entered this year averaging nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings over his career. This season he averages only 6.8. He expressed hope in regaining the feel for his putaway pitches. But numbers are not necessary to tell this story. The visuals do the trick: The hard-hit balls rocketing into the gaps, the lifeless pitches landing wide of the strike zone, the fielders growing stiff on their feet, the blank looks on Hinch’s face as he grapples with the reality his bullpen will be taxed once again. 

But what do you do? How long can you keep heaving buckets of water overboard?

Those questions keep surfacing every fifth day. Right now, there is no answer in sight.

(Top photo: David Berding / Getty Images)

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