Recovering Twins welcome Maeda back, seek healthier season

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, right, talks with fans during an autograph session at the team’s annual fan fest at Target Field, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Kenta Maeda first takes the mound for Minnesota in the 2023 season, his wait between appearances will have passed 19 months.

The Twins are more than eager to return the right-hander to their rotation, part of a welcome-back theme surrounding this team entering spring training after an injury-wrecked 2022.

“The time flew by relatively quickly,” Maeda said recently through a translator, reflecting on his rehabilitation from Tommy John elbow surgery. “But you never know. The first pitch that I throw on the big league mound, I might get so nervous I might drill someone. So watch out.”

Maeda flashed his dry sense of humor as he spoke in Japanese to reporters at the team’s annual fan festival at Target Field on Jan. 28. He declared his arm “100% ready” for camp, which formally begins for Twins pitchers and catchers on Thursday morning in Fort Myers, Florida.

Maeda last pitched on Aug. 21, 2021. He had the ligament replacement procedure 11 days later. He could’ve been back in game action last September, but once the Twins faded down the stretch they decided to be cautious and keep him sidelined until 2023.

The AL Cy Young award runner-up in 2020, Maeda slumped to a 4.66 ERA in 21 starts in 2021 before the injury became too much. Last year, there was no opponent batting average or strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate, only an opportunity to reflect on his strategy while building up his overall body strength to be ready to go without limitation this season.

“There was so much discomfort prior to the surgery. Obviously, right after surgery there are limitations to movement, but now everything is free, whether that’s throwing a baseball or just doing daily stuff,” Maeda said. “Everything feels free.”

Fellow starting pitcher Chris Paddack, who had just arrived in Minnesota in a trade with San Diego, joined Maeda on the Tommy John recovery track after only five starts. Paddack won’t be back until midseason, much like top position player prospect Royce Lewis in his comeback from another repair of a torn ACL.

The major injuries are largely unpreventable. The smaller-scale issues are what dogged the Twins in 2022, enough of a concern that they changed head athletic trainers and hired Nick Paparesta away from Oakland. Paparesta traveled to meet in person with several players this winter.

“It’s easy to say that when a guy has a particular issue that the return plan should be prescribed the same way for everybody with the same issue,” president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “Well, some guys have different tolerances. Some guys are able to play through certain things. So Nick getting to know the players, that’s going to be important.”

Alex Kirilloff will have the most-watched wrist in camp.

The 2016 first-round draft pick’s ascendance to the heart of the batting order has been severely hampered by his health. Each of his first two major league seasons have been halted by surgery on the wrist, a vital joint for any hitter.

After a series of setbacks, Kirilloff opted last August for a shortening procedure that involved an intentional breaking and then shaving of the ulna bone to decrease the friction around it. The 25-year-old, who could wind up as either the regular left fielder or first baseman, said at TwinsFest he’s aiming for a mostly normal spring training with minimal restriction.

“I’m kind of just taking it day by day. But it does feel good, and I’m very optimistic,” Kirilloff said. “They cut my bone so there’s definitely some aches and stuff to go along with that, but from a pain standpoint it feels good.”

Second baseman Jorge Polanco’s ailing knee limited one of the team’s true iron men to just 104 games last season after he appeared in 94% of the games over the previous three years.

“Sometimes we play hurt, with a little bit of pain or something. But that kind of injury was something I couldn’t play through,” Polanco said, later adding: “I have been working on it almost every day. I’m ready to go.”