Could Kenta Maeda be the Tigers’ key to signing a huge Japanese free agent?

Aug 23, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Minnesota Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda (18) pitches
Aug 23, 2023; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; Minnesota Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda (18) pitches / Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Given the recent proliferation and success of Japanese players in MLB, it’s hard to believe that Kenta Maeda is only the third to ever compete for the Detroit Tigers, and the first since 2000. In the Tigers’ first free agent signing of the season, they swiped Maeda from a division rival on a two year, $24 million contract after talks ramped up quickly after Thanksgiving. He’s a fine signing on his own, but could he also be Detroit’s way into a much more competitive market surrounding another Japanese free agent in Yoshinobu Yamamoto?

Maeda will be joining Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize — two current Tigers pitchers all but guaranteed to be part of Detroit’s rotation — leaving plenty of room open for fallbacks in Matt Manning and Reese Olson or for new signings. The Tigers have been connected to Lance Lynn and Seth Lugo, but by actually putting pen to paper with Maeda, they could be endearing themselves to Yamamoto, who the Tigers have shown interest in and who has already expressed a preference for playing on a team with other Japanese players.

This particular piece of news immediately excited Cardinals fans when outfielder and Yamamoto’s WBC teammate Lars Nootbaar were spotted golfing together. It seemingly gives the Mets, who have Kodai Senga and more of a history with Japanese players than any other team, more of a leg up. It could even give some crumbs of hope to the Blue Jays, the Red Sox, and the Cubs, among others.

Could the Tigers be tempting Yoshinobu Yamamoto to Detroit with Kenta Maeda signing?

But Maeda, in particular, is an interesting way into the Yamamoto conversation, and his signing displays a real, material investment in Yamamoto when it matters the most. Maeda is a veteran who could act as a guide for Yamamoto during his first years in American baseball, and they both have great histories of success in NPB. In 2010, Maeda became the youngest ever Triple Crown winner in NPB history at 22; Yamamoto just barely missed out on dethroning him when he won his first Triple Crown in 2021, at 23 years old. They’ve both won the Eiji Sawamura Award, awarded to NPB’s top starting pitcher, multiple times, and have competed for Japan in the WBC.

It could also demonstrate the kind of foresight, aggression, and flexibility in spending on free agent signings that Tigers fans have been hoping to see from their front office. If getting Maeda is only one piece in a much larger plan to bait Yamamoto to Detroit, and that plan works, the Tigers get a veteran who will hopefully be able to give the team his all in what will probably be his last two years in MLB, and they get a superstar starter who would spend the most optimal years of his career in Detroit.

The worst case scenario here isn’t actually bad, and it’s still cause for hope: the Tigers get a talented and experienced pitcher to fill out their rotation. The best case scenario — well, it almost seems to good to be true, but hopefully signing Maeda is the first step in the Tigers’ work toward making that scenario a reality.

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