After only going 85-77 in 2013 (dramatically outperforming their pythagorean win/loss expectation of 79-83 in the process) despite boasting the ML’s leading payroll ($228.1M), God only knows the New York Yankees needed to shake things up this offseason if they were to return to their accustomed winning ways. Out the door went their top position player by WARP from the year prior, Robinson Cano taking his non-hustling talents to the Pacific Northwest. Unobstructed by the Yankees, so too did the powerful (although free-swinging) center fielder Curtis Granderson leave to earn his fortunes elsewhere – in his case, just across town with the Mets. And of course, the Yanks’ top reliever, and the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, departed too – albeit through the planned retirement route rather than New York’s apathy. In rapid fashion, help arrived via free agency; Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and prize capture Masahiro Tanaka were all brought in by GM Brian Cashman for the princely sum of a combined $438M, while Hiroki Kuroda and Brett Gardner were both extended in the hope of further bolstering a squad also returning from injury the big name likes of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira.
And yet all their offseason activity may be for nought – in the ultra-competitive AL East, such spending may in fact merely have the effect of a plaster on a broken leg; the infield is still a mess. Their outfield is made of glass. C.C. Sabathia, despite his weight loss, looks likely to be the next Roy Halladay-like/Johan Santana-esque breakdown candidate. Alex Rodriguez’s half-man, half-centaur shadow remains looming over the team. The farm system is as unyielding as a pumpkin patch set up in the Sahara. And the team is ancient – all of their projected starting position players are over 30 years old, and the average age of those players is 33.8. The Yankees are going to need help in every area they can find it if they’re to seriously contend once again in 2014. Michael Pineda might just be one forgotten source.
When we last saw Pineda, it was September 2011, and he was in a Mariners uniform. As a 22-year-old, he hadn’t looked out of place aside Felix Hernandez at the top of Seattle’s rotation, posting a 3.74 ERA (3.42 FIP and 3.53 xFIP) over 28 starts after breaking Spring Training with the team, on his way becoming the first rookie to ever throw at least 150 innings with at least a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine. Armed with a 94-97mph heater and a slider off of which opponents hit only .175/.220/.294 (Pineda threw it 857 times), the imposing righty’s strikeout percentage of 24.9 was 6th best among 94 qualifiers, landing him right between Justin Verlander and the version of Tim Lincecum who won two Cy Young awards. He was so good at such a young age, that when New York landed him in exchange for the no. 4 prospect in baseball at the time, catcher Jesus Montero, as well as the RHP prospect Hector Noesi, the industry consensus was that they had got themselves a steal – despite the high price of losing Montero.
But, as no one at the time predicted, so far the swap has been the ultimate lose/lose trade. Montero is now an overweight first baseman in Triple-A Tacoma after bombing out in Seattle, and Noesi has been sub-replacement level; the pair have thus far combined for a total of -1.4 fWAR, 2 last place finishes in the AL West, and about 40 extra pounds this spring. Pineda on the other hand, showed up overweight to his first Yankees Spring Training back in 2012, and promptly tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder; two years later, he’s still yet to throw a pitch in the majors. Literally nothing good has come from the trade, apart from, as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their annual, “the 40-man roster spot the Yankees freed up”. With Montero equally a non-factor in Seattle, Yankees fans couldn’t even direct their trade ire at the Dominican Republic native; the once much-hyped Pineda thus has become quite the forgotten man in New York, as other stories (A-Rod, the 189 plan, retirements), have overwhelmed his absence.
That might soon change. Though he returned to minor league action late last summer (in his 40.2 innings he posted a 9.07 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9), an eye-opening Spring Training has the 6’7 Pineda in line to claim New York’s open fifth rotation spot, and thus back under the spotlight. In beating out David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Adam Warren for the opportunity, the now 25-year-old Pineda has looked every bit the same as his 22-year-old self; he still has the same mechanics, the late break on the slider, and sub-3 BB/9 control, while similarly lacking the quality third pitch to be truly dominant. The man himself has said so much: “I’m the same Michael Pineda.” His fastball velocity has been somewhat down so far, sitting at around 92mph in Spring Training, though it’s not uncommon for pitchers to ramp it up once regular season games begin. The Bronx Bombers best hope he does so, as Pineda figures to be a large factor in their 2014 success.
Though the Yankees’ starting staff looks the strongest element of the team on paper, in reality questions remain at every spot; can C.C. still do it? Will Father Time finally catch up with Hiroki Kuroda? Is Tanaka the next Yu Darvish, or more like Daisuke Matzusaka? Was Ivan Nova’s second-half performance for real? The youthful impetus a fully-recovered Pineda would provide New York would be immense in terms of shoring up some of the squad’s deficiencies, and a pleasant surprise to those who had forgotten him.
A good performance from the ace up their sleeve, after two and a half years of waiting, could be the difference-maker for the Yankees.