New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Getting To Know The Yankees 5th Starter Candidates: Michael Pineda

The New York Yankees have spent close to half a billion dollars on roster upgrades and free agent acquisitions this winter. Most believe the team is now done spending anymore money prior to the start of the 2014. That may be true, but as under the radar as general manager Brian Cashman can be at times when negotiating and signing players, we won’t know about a move until it is on the verge of being announced. One of the glaring weaknesses this offseason has been the starting rotation, but with the team re-signing Hiroki Kuroda, and landing the big fish, Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees seem set as far as starting rotation arms go, and there will be an open audition for the fifth and final spot coming over the next few weeks as spring training gets underway. Unless someone like Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana are signed late in the winter, the team will choose from Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno and even perhaps Adam Warren. Over the next few days, I am going to profile each of the fifth starter candidates in detail.

The primary piece to come over to the Yankees in the Jesus Montero deal, Michael Pineda has yet to throw an official pitch in pinstripes. After reporting to spring training in 2012, he suffered tendinitis in his pitching shoulder and was placed on the disabled list. During his rehab, he suffered an anterior labral tear in his pitching shoulder and had it surgically repaired. Upon returning to the team, he was optioned to Triple-A during the 2013 season.

Prior to his trade and injury, he had a pretty solid 2011 season with the Seattle Mariners, striking out 173 hitters in 171 innings pitched. His fastball averaged 94.7 mph during his rookie campaign, and he was selected as an All-Star for the American League. Pineda finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year balloting, and was projected to be one of the up and coming power pitchers in the game. He finished his rookie year with a 9-10 record and an ERA of 3.74. He did pitch in Safeco Field, and his ERA+ was 101.

So what can we expect from Pineda if he is completely healthy? Curt Schilling had the same procedure done early on in his career, and we all know how well that turned out. Both men are power pitchers that put a ton of torque on their pitching shoulders. For Pineda, between Single-A Tampa, Double-A Trenton, and Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, he posted 41 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings pitched, an ERA of 3.32 (1.08 in Tampa, 4.00 in Trenton, and 3.86 in SWB), recorded a 2-1 record in 10 games started, and only walked 14 hitters. One scout who watched Pineda during his rehab this past season had this to say:

 

Pineda’s fastball ranged from 90-95 mph and sat 92-93 mph. It’s heavy and difficult to elevate thanks to Pineda’s size, but I’m sure the Yankees are hoping to see his velocity return to pre-injury levels. The fastball will have natural cut on it at times. Pineda’s slider looked fantastic. He gained better feel for it as his start went on, throwing a few for strikes early in counts but mostly using it as a swing and miss pitch in the dirt. His slider displayed a wide variance of velocity. He threw a few as low as 81 mph, several at 85 mph and even touched 87 mph once (on what was the best individual slider I’ve ever seen in person). Mostly he was 83-84 mph with it, featuring significant late vertical movement. It’s a consistent plus pitch that will flash better, and a true weapon. The changeup is another story. Firm, at 88-89 mph, it doesn’t move much and is more or less just an offering Pineda can use to change speeds and keep hitters off his fastball. He doesn’t use it much and I don’t expect him to when he returns to the Major Leagues.

Pineda has to be the odds-on favorite to win the fifth starter’s job out of spring training. If his velocity and ability to whiff opposing hitters translates to spring training success, the 6’7″, 260 lb. 25-year old could quietly be the surprise of the season for the Yankees. While Montero hasn’t quite worked out for the Mariners, Pineda could very well recover and become a mainstay in the rotation for years to come.The most important thing for Pineda is his health. The Yankees have been criticized for their innings-limits in the past with Joba Chamberlain and talk of implementing an innings plan for Masahiro Tanaka given his heavy workload in Japan. For Pineda, this is where the Yankees might want to watch the odometer, especially as the season wears on. If he shows early season success, perhaps skipping him in the rotation once or twice a month during the summer could help avoid the same fate for him that he suffered during his rookie season of 2011 in Seattle. Pineda is young, coming back from a serious shoulder injury, and could be a vital piece to the rotation for years to come. There is no need to pump 180-200 innings out of him during his first full season back. Joe Girardi needs to play it by feel, and protect a young Yankees’ asset.
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