Michael Pineda, the blockbuster trade that wasn’t and the premature rush to judgment
On a gorgeous Monday afternoon in the Bronx, Yankees righthander Michael Pineda was at the height of his game, retiring the first 20 Rays hitter he faced before yielding a double to Evan Longoria with two outs in the seventh inning. Though his quest for perfection fell short, Pineda finished with a 7 2/3-inning, two-hit, 11-strikeout effort in an 8-1 win may well have been the best game of his major league career. It also was the type of tantalizing performance New York dreamed of when it acquired him from Seattle in a four-player deal five years ago and a reminder that even the most exciting trades need years before they can be properly judged.
The 28-year-old's season to date is a microcosm for his entire career, which is at times brilliant, at times dreadful and always hinting at the capability of so much more. On April 5 in St. Petersburg, he faced those same Rays and was cuffed for eight hits and four runs in 3 2/3 innings. In 72 starts from 2014 through '16, Pineda pitched to a 4.10 ERA (101 ERA+) with 9.2 strikeouts, 1.8 walks and 1.2 homers per nine. In 26 of those turns he allowed one run or fewer, and in 26 others, he allowed four runs or more. He had 32 quality starts (six or more innings three or fewer earned runs) and 12 disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched).
Pineda's ability to miss bats with his mid-90s fastball, slider and changeup is the reason New York has been so patient with him. Last year, he had 207 strikeouts, sixth-best in the AL, but his 4.82 ERA was the highest by a 200-strikeout pitcher in the AL in 20 years. At times, he undoes his own good work with poorly-timed lapses; 13 of his 27 homers allowed last year came with two outs, two short of the major league lead, and 13 came with one or two runners on base, a total surpassed by only five pitchers.
Indeed, the gap between Pineda's tantalizing potential and the more frustrating reality is everywhere in the numbers. Of the 87 pitchers who have logged 400 innings over the past three seasons, Pineda’s 3.42 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) ranks 23rd, just below Chris Archer and Carlos Martinez. Yet the 4.10 ERA is 65th among those 87 pitchers. The 0.68 runs per nine gap between his ERA and FIP is the majors' second highest in that span, trailing only Gio Gonzalez.
Some of his woes are mechanical—it's not easy keeping the long levers of a 6' 7″, 260-pound body in sync—and some, by his own admission, are due to lapses in concentration. That explains why when Longoria doubled in what was then a 2-0 game, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and catcher Austin Romine were quick to the mound in order to head off another unraveling. This time Pineda steered clear of that fate, striking out Brad Miller on three pitches to end the inning.
Pineda's 16-strikeout performance against the Orioles in May of 2015 might be the only one of his 102 big league outings in which he pitched better. That's the kind of return the Yankees expected to get more often when they sent heavily-hyped catching prospect Jesus Montero, then 22, and righty Hector Noesi, 24, to the Mariners for Pineda and fellow righthander Vicente Campos on Jan. 23, 2012. Five days earlier, Pineda had turned 23 years old, and he was coming off a season in which he made the AL All-Star team and finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Campos, coming off a season in low Class A and Noesi, who had an unimpressive 4.47 ERA with New York in 2011, were just ballast in the deal. The hype centered on Pineda and Montero, the latter a 22-year-old thumper who was had hit .288/.348/.467 with 18 homers at Triple A and then a torrid .328/.406/.590 with four homers in 61 plate appearances for the Yankees.
That performance would make Montero a top-10 prospect for the third straight year, according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Overshadowing the prowess of his bat, however, were question marks about whether he could catch well enough to play the position in the majors. By dealing Montero, New York—which already had Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli in place, with Romine and Gary Sanchez in the minors—had implicitly given him a no-confidence vote.
The deal quickly looked like a mismatch in the Mariners' favor, and some were ready to call it such. That spring, the Yankees had discovered that Pineda had a torn labrum in his shoulder, an injury that would prevent him from pitching at all until June 2013 and keep him out of the majors until the start of the 2014 season. Montero hadn't done much aside from hitting a couple of April home runs, but the rush to judgment regarding the deal was swift.
As it turns out, Montero flamed out in epic fashion. As a rookie, he hit just .260/.298/.386 to go with his 15 home runs, and his defense at catcher was dismal. He logged an abysmal -5 runs via Defensive Runs Saved, and another -9 runs via Baseball Prospectus' pitch framing metrics and spent more games at DH (78) than behind the plate (55). He finished the year with -0.1 WAR. By Memorial Day of 2013, he had been demoted to Triple A both to shore up his approach at the plate and to begin learning the ropes at first base. That August, he was suspended 50 games for performance-enhancing drug use in connection with the Biogenesis scandal. He showed up to spring training in 2014 a reported 40 pounds overweight, at which point Seattle general manager Jack Zdurencik said he had “zero expectations” for Montero and again farmed him out; when Montero was recalled in mid-June, manager Lloyd McClendon was similarly pessimistic, saying “I never said I had confidence [in him]. I said I need a first baseman. He’s available and that’s who we’re going to put out there.”
Montero played in just six big-league games that year, which ended with a September suspension by the team in the wake of a bizarre incident in which a Mariners cross-checker taunted him with an ice cream sandwich (the scout was fired). After hitting a meager .223/.250/.411 in a second-half 2015 stint with Seattle, he was placed on waivers by the team near the end of spring training in '16. The Blue Jays claimed him, but he spent the entire season at Triple A, hitting .317/.349/.438 with 11 homers. Though he made the International League All-Star team as a DH, he was bypassed for a promotion and drew another 50-game suspension at season's end, this time for a banned stimulant. He signed with the Orioles in January and will presumably serve as organizational depth once the suspension ends. All told, he's now 27 and the owner of a lifetime .253/.295/.398 line with 28 homers and -0.1 WAR.
Campos (one big league appearance) and Noesi (5.44 ERA for three teams) have been as forgettable since the trade as they were the day it was made. Pineda has at least fared far better than the other three in the deal, though that isn't saying much. He posted a stellar 1.89 ERA in 13 starts in 2014, but drew a 10-game suspension for slathering pine tar on his neck and was later lost for three and a half months due to a strained teres major. In '15 a flexor muscle strain sidelined him for a month; after pitching to a 3.97 ERA with a 117/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio, he was lit up for a 5.48 ERA upon returning and finished with a 4.37 mark in 160 2/3 innings. Last year was his first time making more than 28 starts—he made all 32—and while his 10.6 strikeouts per nine topped the AL, it was an uneven campaign, to say the least.
Pineda has given the Yankees 5.7 WAR in 424 innings since the trade, not a stellar return but at least a positive one. Among New York's starters, that value has been surpassed only by Masahiro Tanaka (11.2), which speaks to the flimsiness of the team's rotation and its long odds of contending in 2017. With free agency on the horizon at the end of this season, Pineda has more at stake than most Yankees, particularly in what looks to be another thin market. With more outings like Monday's—not to mention improved health—he’ll be in line for a massive payday, but the odds are that his road to riches won't be that simple. For Pineda, it never is.