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In Trading for Kenta Maeda, the Twins Are Finally Acting Like a Contender

Largely lost in the shuffle of last week’s Mookie Betts trade was Minnesota’s inclusion in the deal. But by shoring up its pitching staff, the team finally seems to be taking its offensive talents seriously.

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Over the past two weeks, the baseball world has been awash in discussion over the most controversial and impactful trade of the offseason: the Mookie Betts deal. An MVP and a Cy Young winner changed hands. Two titanic franchises shuffled their rosters. The Dodgers cemented themselves as the best team in the National League, while the Red Sox poured soup down their shirts.

But one frankly underdiscussed aspect of the trade remains: What does this mean for the Minnesota Twins?

While the Dodgers are more willing to spend money for premier talent than the Red Sox, they were still wary of paying the luxury tax. To avoid doing so, they initially attempted to offload veteran starter Kenta Maeda to the Twins, and in return, Minnesota put pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol into the tombola. But when the Red Sox raised concerns over Graterol’s medical history, the three-team deal was reimagined as two bilateral trades: one to send Betts and David Price to Los Angeles for Alex Verdugo and a package of prospects, and another swap centered on Graterol and Maeda.

Boston’s rationale here is blindingly obvious, if somewhat ill-considered, and the Dodgers sacrificed some money and some potential future returns for lots of value in the present. But the Twins’ involvement is fascinating because it’s the kind of trade, well, the Dodgers or Red Sox would ordinarily make—shipping a talented but risky prospect out for a veteran who can help in the playoffs.

Technically, the trade involved several pieces: The Twins got Maeda, minor league catcher Jair Camargo, and $10 million in cash, while the Dodgers received Graterol, minor league outfielder Luke Raley, and a compensation pick, no. 67 in the 2020 draft. Raley and Camargo are makeweights. Before the trade, FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen rated Raley as the 35th-best prospect in the Minnesota system; after the trade, he ranked Camargo 37th. It’s possible that one or both could play in the majors someday—Raley in particular, since he made it to Triple-A in 2019—but the chances of either turning into an impact player are vanishingly small.

The draft pick is a little more useful. Over the 55-year history of the June amateur draft, less than half of the players picked 67th overall have made the big leagues, but a few—Jordan Zimmermann, Wally Joyner, Ron Guidry, Rick Reuschel—turned out to be valuable major leaguers. Moreover, in 2019, the 67th pick in the draft came with a bonus slot allowance of nearly $1 million. That means the Dodgers could either play it straight and pick the 67th-best player on their board come June, or use that money to entice their other draft picks to sign. The pick itself is not worth trading Maeda for, but it’s not nothing.

The core of this deal, though, is a one-for-one swap between 100-win teams, both of which intend to challenge for a World Series in 2020 and the seasons to come. Graterol is an extremely risky proposition, not just because he’s a young pitcher, but because he already has balky medicals (the ones that scared Boston off him in the first place) and the effort level required for his delivery carries substantial risk that he won’t be able to start. Even if he can’t start, though, there’s a nontrivial chance that he could be the Dodgers’ best reliever by October.

Graterol made his major league debut last September, just days after he turned 21, and in 10 total appearances last season he showed positively electric stuff. Graterol’s fastball tops out at north of 100 miles an hour and scurries in on right-handed batters’ hands like a frightened elephant calf to its mother. He balances that out with a slider that comes in around 90 miles per hour and breaks hard in the other direction. If Graterol is a one-inning reliever, well, imagine peak Craig Kimbrel’s repertoire, but tilted 90 degrees.

Unfortunately, despite his youth, Graterol has already missed a season due to Tommy John surgery and suffered further setbacks due to shoulder injuries—and this much was public before the Red Sox got spooked.

That’s a big part of the reason Graterol is such a polarizing prospect. When the Red Sox forced the Dodgers and Twins to renegotiate the trade, Los Angeles ended up getting Graterol and sending infielder Jeter Downs—a relatively safe second base prospect—and minor league catcher Connor Wong to Boston. There’s a compelling argument to be made that the Dodgers are better off. While Longenhagen ranked Downs 47th on his global top prospect list and Graterol all the way down at no. 113, Baseball Prospectus had Graterol 32nd and Downs off their top 101 altogether. It all depends on how you define risk, and how much risk you’re willing to tolerate.

The Twins have insulated themselves against that downside by selling high on potential—and in so doing, they’ve shored up what had previously been a fatal weakness.

Maeda is a steady mid-rotation starter—in four seasons of big league action, he’s posted a total ERA+ of 105 and never deviated more than a few points from that career norm—who was never quite good enough to crack the Dodgers’ playoff rotation. Saying that Maeda isn’t as good as Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, or peak Yu Darvish isn’t exactly a dig, and he’ll be a shoo-in for a hypothetical playoff rotation in Minnesota.

Every time I’ve written about the Twins this offseason, I’ve mentioned that they started Randy Dobnak in a playoff game in Yankee Stadium. And as much as I’d like to stop beating that particular dead horse, there is no more succinct and revelatory way to express what a problem Minnesota’s rotation was last season.

With Michael Pineda serving a PED suspension, the Twins went into last year’s postseason with a rotation of José Berríos, Jake Odorizzi, and a bunch of question marks. That just isn’t good enough to advance in the postseason anymore; even “weak” World Series rotations of the 2010s had either more depth (the 2015 Royals) or more front-end star power (the injury-ravaged 2016 Indians), and both of those clubs were backstopped by phenomenal relief pitching, which last year’s Twins did not have.

Maeda has been reliable and healthy throughout his career, and has immense postseason experience, albeit mostly in relief. Now, Minnesota’s hypothetical playoff rotation consists of Berríos, Maeda, Odorizzi, and one of Homer Bailey, Rich Hill, or Pineda. That’s not quite up to par with what the Rays, Astros, or Yankees can trot out, but it’s credible for a playoff team, particularly one with as much offensive firepower as the Twins.

The most likely outcome for this swap is that the Dodgers and Twins both benefit, the former by swapping a starter they couldn’t use for a young impact reliever, and the latter by offloading a tantalizing but risky prospect for a known quantity that should help shore up a weak rotation.

Out of all the pieces involved in this deal, though, Maeda may benefit most thanks to his unique contract structure. Maeda’s deal pays him a base salary of $3 million a year through 2023, plus a $1 million assignment bonus every time he’s traded; the $10 million in cash the Dodgers are sending along covers most of the $13 million in guaranteed money left on Maeda’s deal. The rest of the contract comes in incentives for games started and innings pitched. Because of that structure, Maeda was essentially losing money every time the Dodgers shuttled him to the bullpen in August. With the Twins, however, Maeda will pitch as much as his body can bear, and a season of 32 or more starts and 200 or more innings would be worth more than $10 million on top of his base salary. That’s a lot of cash to spend on meat raffles and lutefisk, should Maeda choose to embrace local cuisine.

By inserting themselves into this blockbuster deal, the Twins have made a clear bet on their own short-term future as a contender, as well as their ability to evaluate potential and injury risk in their own pitching prospects. Maeda may be a safer option than Graterol, but the deal is decisive and splashy enough to further chip away at the franchise’s reputation for quiet small-market conservatism. And unlike the Twins clubs that built that reputation, the 2020 installment could make a deep playoff run as a result.