Let’s talk about the most famous Yankees pitcher to never pitch in the Bronx. After the blockbuster trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Mariners (for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi), Yankees fans and analysts alike were imagining the C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda one-two punch in the starting rotation. A pair of 6 foot 7 inch giants on the mound on back to back days? It seemed destined to send the Yankees to the playoffs. Unfortunately, Pineda went down with tendonitis brewing in his pitching (right) shoulder, which eventually led to an anterior labral tear, costing him both the 2012 and 2013 seasons. But this year, he should return, and there is reason to believe he could be better than before.
What Yankees’ fan would ever have thought Curt Schilling could benefit the Bronx Bombers? He pitched against the Yanks during two separate playoff series in 2001 and 2004, ending the Yankees’ championship hopes during both series. But he serves as an example for Pineda. After an excellent 1992 season (which included a 2.35 ERA), Schilling became a number two option in the Philadelphia rotation, only to suffer an anterior labral tear that required surgery. After the operation, his next four seasons included 38 complete games, 62 wins, and two seasons of at least 300 strikeouts before moving on to the Arizona Diamondbacks and defeating the Yankees in the 2001 World Series.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is Mark Mulder, a former second overall pick in 1998. After winning 97 games in his first six seasons with the Athletics and Cardinals, Mulder blew out his shoulder in 2006… forever. After his labral tear, he pitched in only six more games (with a 10+ ERA) before retiring in 2008 at age 30. Interestingly, Mulder was not a flamethrower by any means, as his fastball velocity reached the high 80′s at best (Schilling threw in the 90′s).
In terms of pitching style, Pineda is more similar to Schilling; both are right-handed pitchers with high velocity arms. Plus, surgeries have advanced significantly in twenty years. Even though Mulder’s career effectively ended eight seasons ago, I would venture to say Mulder’s particular situation was due to bad luck, especially because Mulder’s skill set couldn’t translate to the bullpen. Schilling started his career in the bullpen, and didn’t have the mental pressure of being only a starter.
Now back to Pineda. Obviously, the Yankees really need him. However, the key to how well Pineda will return is balance. The team must really monitor his numbers this year; expect a strict innings count, somewhere around 170 innings. Assuming he stays healthy, he still hasn’t pitched against Major League hitters since 2011, when Ryan Braun was the NL MVP. It will probably take about three starts for him to start feeling comfortable again. Once he regains his confidence (hopefully, and my gut instinct tells me he will), he will be a decent pitcher. He will not be excellent, but he will be an American League Jeff Samardzija: great speed, but unpolished. Depending on how well the lineup performs, Pineda will finish at roughly 11-9 because he would lose about three starts at the end of the year. His K total should be healthy (pun definitely intended) with 150, and an ERA of 3.90 sounds reasonable. He won’t come back as strongly as Stephen Strasburg did in 2011, but Pineda will be monitored very closely, especially if he pitches well. If Pineda puts up a stinker season, then the Yankees will be more likely to cut ties with him once his contract expires. If Pineda excels, then he is the future. Either way, Pineda will be relied upon by the Yankees over the next few years. With few prospects waiting in the minors, the Yankees really need Pineda to “arrive.”