While much is said about the Dodgers’ limitless payroll and resplendent farm system, perhaps the key to their success is their peerless depth. In the three-plus years of the Friedman/Zaidi era, the roster has been brilliantly constructed in such a way that the team is virtually injury-proof. They have multiple contingency plans at literally every position, aided by the presence of super utility players like Enrique Hernandez and Chris Taylor.
At the moment, even the starting rotation is overflowing with options. After the stellar troika of Kershaw/Hill/Wood, the team is looking forward to the contributions of rookie Walker Buehler and the return of Julio Urias. Even with Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy shipped off to Atlanta in a massive salary dump, there is still depth to spare thanks to the likes of Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling. All the same, there remains a need for another pitcher to fill out the back end of the rotation, and as Kazmir and McCarthy proved, injuries can still take out your best laid contingency plans.
One depth option for the rotation, ostensibly, is Kenta Maeda. On paper, it makes perfect sense, as he was originally signed as a discount alternative to giving Zack Greinke a massive contract. In the 2016 season, to the surprise of everyone, he even managed to post a better regular season line than Greinke.
How should the @Dodgers use Kenta Maeda this upcoming season?
— Dodgers Nation (@DodgersNation) January 29, 2018
In my opinion, moving Maeda back to the rotation at any point would be a huge mistake, for several reasons.
The first reason to keep him in the bullpen is pretty evident: He is vastly better working in relief than he ever was starting. His velocity out of the bullpen is tremendous, and given his slender frame, pitching an inning or two doesn’t tax him as much as 5-7 innings. Furthermore, he clearly relishes it. To this day, my hairs stand on end when I remember him sprinting out of the bullpen in the NLCS against the Cubs, retiring hitters so quickly you would have missed it with a bathroom break. Compare that to how he was torched in game three of the 2016 NLDS against Washington as a starter.
Another key reason Maeda should remain in the bullpen is the departure of Brandon Morrow. While the front office effectively made up for that by acquiring Scott Alexander, Morrow was another invaluable part of last year’s lights out pen, especially in the postseason. As the Dodgers accelerated to the World Series, the Maeda/Morrow tandem made the late innings a no-go zone for opposing batters. Some may consider game five of the World Series a blemish on this claim, but that fell way more on Clayton Kershaw failing to hold two big leads and get past the 5th inning, and the bullpen was unnecessarily overworked as a result before rebounding in game six. Now that Morrow’s gone, subtracting the Maeda half of that equation wouldn’t make any sense.
Lastly, there have been numerous examples of starting pitchers who were converted to relievers, and reached their full potential as a result. Dennis Eckersley is the best example, along with others like Lee Smith, Joe Nathan and Wade Davis. While Maeda was far from a failure as a starter, he is miles superior as a reliever, and in that capacity was indispensable to the franchise’s first NL pennant in almost three decades. He is clearly enjoying this new role, and since he’s now adjusted to the shorter workload of relief, it might not be wise to push him back to 5-7 innings from the outset.
As they say: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.