A stronger Kenta Maeda could put the Dodgers over the top

LOS ANGELES -- Of all the could-have-beens when it came to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 2016 postseason run, one of the most tantalizing to think about is the performance of Kenta Maeda.

The right-hander, who had been so effective for the Dodgers in his rookie season, was unable to muster the type of dominating performance the club could have used when it counted most.

The team's inability to advance out of the National League Championship Series was hardly Maeda’s fault alone. The bullpen wobbled at times in the NLCS and the offense could not muster a breakout day in the series against the Chicago Cubs, aside from a six-run uprising in Game 3.

Holding down the Cubs offense in the NLCS was key. In the games the Dodgers won, the Cubs did not score. In the games the Cubs won, the Chicago offense scored at least five runs in each game, and as many as 10 in Game 4.

Maeda started twice in the NLCS and in both of those games, the Cubs ended the day with eight runs on the scoreboard. He pitched a combined 7 2/3 innings in the NLCS and gave up four runs, hardly an alarming sum compared to what the Cubs would score. But the short starts meant the bullpen had to absorb 9 1/3 innings in his two outings and the group ultimately imploded in both games.

The first sign that Maeda is committed to a stronger 2017 came last week when it was learned that the right-hander is not expected to pitch for Japan in this spring’s World Baseball Classic. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman says other signs are evident as well.

“I know he has been working extremely hard this winter and doing everything he can to put himself in position to put 200-plus innings on his body next year,” Friedman said at the winter meetings last month.

Those last-impression struggles in the postseason are not indicative of the rookie’s 2016 season in total. Maeda made 32 regular-season starts and was the only member of the Dodgers’ opening-day rotation not to wind up injured. And his healthy season came after a failed physical in the offseason that resulted in a restructured, incentive-based contract to join the Dodgers as a free agent.

The myriad of incentives was a boon to both parties. Maeda was able to tack on nearly $9 million extra to his $3 million base salary. And the Dodgers were able to get what they paid for, watching Maeda go 16-11 in 32 starts with a 3.48 ERA over 175 2/3 innings.

Maeda ended up third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, a honor that ultimately was won by Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager.

“I think, in totality, Kenta’s season last year was outstanding,” Friedman said. “I think it was as good as we could have asked for, or expected heading in. I think, as in the case of most anything, him going through it and experiencing it for the first time, puts him in a better position this offseason than last offseason, just in terms of fully appreciating the grind of a major league season, with the playoffs tacked on.”

The key to a winning baseball season is to get as many players as possible to deliver at or above career norms, or what they showed the previous season. Maeda most certainly will be viewed in that light.

“That's one of the things this winter, we talked to Kenta, and he had an outstanding first year,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But it was more about understanding the toll that it took on him and his body, and to build some mass and to put on some weight to be able to handle the workload.

“So as he was open to the different (usage) -- to giving them extra days in between certain starts, the extra time -- I'd like to think that we can kind of do a little bit less going forward, as he's already kind of made that jump into Major League Baseball. We'll see, and we've just got to continue to monitor him as well as our other starters.”

That strategy of extra days between starts was employed to better mimic the once-a-week pitching schedule Maeda was used to in Japan. Reducing that schedule while still expecting him to be strong into October will be a demanding ask.

Friedman said he is in no way a fan of a six-man rotation, unless circumstances dictate it for short bursts, but he might be tempted to use the new 10-day rotation as a way of getting a starter a periodic rest. But the Dodgers will first see how Maeda’s advanced fitness program suits him.

“He had not done much weight training in Japan, so immediately after we signed him he spent a lot of time with (strength and conditioning coach) Brandon McDaniel and they came up with a routine and a schedule for a day after start, and a side day, Day 3, and the day before a start,” Friedman said. “And he was tremendous at following his routine. There were times where it was more aggressive and times where it backed off some, just like we do with all of our starters.

“And because he hadn’t had as much experience with it, it probably wasn’t as much as some of our guys who are accustomed to it and come up through the minor leagues with it. So I anticipate that next year will be a little bit more. And how that manifests itself in terms of his performance every turn, I don’t know. But to me, there is much more upside than downside.”

Declining to participate in the WBC and play for his country is an impressive show of loyalty to the Dodgers by Maeda. And it won’t hurt that Maeda now knows the toll a full major league season takes.

“I know that he left L.A. with the mindset to get stronger and put himself in position to put 200-plus innings on his body, so we will do everything we can to put all of our guys in the best position to succeed,” Friedman said. “And so it will take getting into the season some and see how things are playing out to know. But to the extent that we can take another step forward, that’s great.”