Yankees 2017 Hopes Could Hinge on Enigmatic Starter Michael Pineda

Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

If talented but inconsistent starting pitcher Michael Pineda lives up to his potential in 2017, the New York Yankees outlook would be completely transformed.

For the second consecutive winter, it seems unlikely that New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will not be able to acquire his white whale, the controllable, young impact starting pitcher the front office has been seeking to solidify the team’s shaky rotation in both the short and the long term.

The Yankees’ highest-ceiling arms in the minor leagues (James Kaprielian, Domingo Acevedo, Albert Abreu, etc.) are at least a year or two away from joining Masahiro Tanaka at the front of the club’s rotation, while most of the  MLB-ready youngsters they do have who are expected to compete for rotation jobs in the spring (Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Jordan Montgomery) seem like fourth or fifth starters at best and, maybe more realistically, long relievers.

With a promising young offense, an excellent bullpen, a standout ace, and plenty of back-of-the-rotation-depth, there is plenty to like about the 2017 Yankees despite the fact that they are “rebuilding.” What they are clearly lacking, however, is a dependable number two starter to slot in behind Tanaka.

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The three most obvious choices to be that guy in 2017 are CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, and Michael Pineda. Sabathia had a nice renaissance last year, but his best days are clearly behind him, and I think all New York can reasonably ask is he’s not one of the worst starters in baseball like he was from 2013-2015. Anything else in the last year of his contract is just a bonus.

Severino was clearly rushed to the majors in 2015, had a little luck, but then saw his lack of polish come back to bite him last year. In an ideal world, he’d go back to Triple-A again and work on developing his changeup into a big league offering so he doesn’t end up a failed starter in the bullpen.

That leaves us with Big Mike as our best reasonable hope to be New York’s number two starter in 2017. That may not be as bad as it sounds. The 27-year-old has shown the ability to completely dominate MLB hitters when he’s on and seemed to turn a corner after an ugly first two months of the season in 2016.

From June 1st on, Pineda pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 3.41 FIP in 122.1 IP, striking out 29.1% of the batters he faced (10.9 K/9) and walking 7.5% (2.8 BB/9). We can’t pretend April and May didn’t happen, but it’s not like this dominance was a complete fluke. We’ve seen Pineda be a lights-out starter in the past, so it’s not unrealistic to think he could get back to being that guy considering he’s still in his prime years.

The big righty put together his second straight healthy season, setting career highs in starts (32) and innings pitched (175.2), and putting the back and shoulder problems that plagued him from 2012-2014 even further in his rear view mirror.

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If Pineda can continue to stay healthy and replicate his second-half success over a full season in 2017, he could almost single-handedly turn the Yankees’ biggest potential weakness into a strength, and put them in a good position to make a surprise run at a postseason berth in 2017.