Twins ace Kenta Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery today, manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters (including Betsy Helfand of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press and Do-Hyoung Park of MLB.com). The operation involved the placement of an internal brace in Maeda’s elbow that apparently has a chance to expedite the recovery timeline. While Tommy John rehabilitation typically takes around fourteen months, Baldelli suggested Maeda could return in between nine and twelve months time. A more definitive timetable will be apparent a few months from now.
It’s not a particularly surprising development, as Baldelli acknowledged that a Tommy John procedure was a possibility when he announced that Maeda would be going under the knife last week. Nevertheless, it’s unquestionably disappointing for a Minnesota team that — even in a best-case scenario — will have to navigate at least half the season without their top pitcher.
Even if everything progresses well, it seems unlikely Maeda will be able to return before next season’s All-Star Break. A nine-month shutdown would keep the right-hander from throwing until early June. He’ll need at least a few weeks to build up arm strength once he’s cleared to begin throwing and will have to embark upon a lengthy minor league rehab assignment.
Losing Maeda makes the Twins’ attempt to compete in 2022 all the more difficult. While Minnesota was widely expected to contend for the American League Central entering this season, the team started dreadfully and played their way out of the playoff picture almost immediately. They enter play tonight 58-74, placing them at the bottom of the division with a -100 run differential.
The rotation has been perhaps the biggest reason for that massive underperformance. Offseason pickups Matt Shoemaker and J.A. Happ didn’t pan out. Maeda and Michael Pineda both dealt with injuries. José Berríos was great but was shipped off to the Blue Jays at the deadline. That leaves Minnesota relying on an unproven starting staff for the stretch run with plenty of opportunity for the younger arms to earn a spot in next year’s season-opening rotation.
Only Bailey Ober appears to have locked down one of those spots thanks to a strong rookie year. Prospect Joe Ryan — acquired from the Rays in the Nelson Cruz trade — is making his big league debut tonight. Griffin Jax and Randy Dobnak have generally disappointed this season, and the Twins are also giving looks to soft-tossing journeyman Andrew Albers and reliever-turned-starter John Gant. Pineda, who is currently on the injured list, will be a free agent at season’s end. Prospect Jordan Balazovic might get his first MLB call at some point over the next couple weeks.
Rebuilding that rotation will be the top priority for the Twins’ front office this winter. Minnesota will have plenty of payroll space over the offseason but virtually no certainty in the starting staff. They figure to be very active players in a free agent market that’ll features Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Robbie Ray and Carlos Rodón at the top of the class and also includes notables like Anthony DeSclafani, Zack Greinke, Corey Kluber, Justin Verlander, and Alex Wood. With much of a quality position player group still in place, the rotation was likely the big-ticket issue for the Twins even before Maeda’s injury.
Missing a substantial chunk of time will come at a pretty significant financial cost for Maeda. The 33-year-old’s contract is heavily incentive-laden due to concerns the Dodgers’ front office had about the results of his physical. Maeda is guaranteed just $3MM annually (with additional $150K roster bonuses each season) through 2023. He unlocks a $1MM bonus for reaching his fifteenth and twentieth starts of each season, with additional incentives available based on starts.
Maeda also picks up $250K for reaching ninety innings each year, with additional $250K increments locked in for each ten innings accrued thereafter — maxing out at 200 frames. Until a more definite timetable is revealed, it’s impossible to know precisely how much Maeda will lose because of the surgery. It at least seems as if he’ll miss out on the majority of his earning upside in 2022 as a result of today’s operation.