If the last few days of baseball have taught us anything, it’s that the world’s most talented players don’t always receive enough cooperation from their bodies to stay on the field long enough to get the job done. We saw that this weekend when Mark Mulder’s torn Achilles sadly cut short his comeback before it could even begin, and we saw it late last week when Franklin Gutierrez announced he’d be sitting out 2014 due to a recurrence of the intestinal issues that have plagued him for years. If it feels like it’s only a matter of time until we hear about Grady Sizemore’s next injury, well, it probably is.
For the last two years, Michael Pineda has been on that list too. In the 25 months since Seattle traded him to the Yankees as part of a deal for Jesus Montero, Pineda has thrown as many big league pitches as you or I have: zero. He has spent zero days on the active 25-man roster, thanks to a torn shoulder labrum suffered in his first camp with the team, an injury often known as a career killer for pitchers. Considering that Montero is now a Triple-A first baseman, Hector Noesi has been sub-replacement for Seattle, and Jose Campos has been injured and yet to get out of Low-A for the Yankees, this is perhaps the best definition of a lose/lose trade in recent baseball history.
You knew all that, but what’s interesting now is that nearly two-and-a-half years after he last pitched in the bigs, Pineda claims he is “100 percent healthy,” and prepared to battle the likes of Vidal Nuno, Adam Warren and David Phelps for the final spot in the Yankee rotation. With how much uncertainty is ahead of that final group in New York — Masahiro Tanaka is an unknown until he proves he isn’t, Hiroki Kuroda is 39 and CC Sabathia’s 2013 struggles have been well-documented — any boost Pineda can offer at this point will be quite welcome.
We don’t know if he’ll even make it through the spring healthy, much less show enough ability to get hitters out to prove to the Yankees they should let him back on a big league mound in a game that counts. (He does still have a minor league option remaining.) But we do know this:
- Pineda was briefly very, very good, and
- Very few pitchers have successfully made it back from labrum tears
Remember, for that one season in 2011, Pineda was outstanding. As a 22-year-old rookie, he didn’t look at all out of place alongside Felix Hernandez at the top of Seattle rotation. Among the 94 qualified starters that year, Pineda’s strikeout percentage of 24.9 was better than all but five others, right between Justin Verlander and Tim Lincecum, back when Lincecum was still a stud. He was so good that year that when Seattle flipped him for Montero — who was of course still highly-regarded himself — it was arguably a deal tipped in the favor of the Yankees. 22-year-olds who can miss bats like that don’t come along very often (since the strike, only Kerry Wood, Rick Ankiel and Jose Fernandez had better K/9 marks as a rookie 22 or younger), and when they do, they don’t get traded. Over the last 100 years, exactly one rookie pitcher has thrown at least 150 innings with at least a strikeout per inning and fewer than three walks per nine: Pineda.
Pineda was once a guy who had a fastball that touched the mid-90s and a slider that could make the great Chipper Jones look like this:
Pineda threw the slider 857 times that year, and allowed a line against of just .175/.220/.294 off it when he did.
Of course, that’s all in the past now. After the trade, Pineda arrived at camp overweight before injuring his shoulder, and the history of labrum tears for pitchers is just awful. I was going to investigate just how awful, but I don’t need to — two years ago, my friend Jay Jaffe did just that in the wake of the original news about Pineda. At the time, Jaffe identified 67 pitchers who had similar injuries. (Though not necessarily identical, since every pitcher has their own unique concerns, and some were combined with other woes.) 20 of them never made it back to professional baseball, and several of the ones who made it back to the minors but not the bigs are the who’s-who of names you don’t want your young pitcher to be associated with, like Mark Prior and Brandon Webb. (We’re still waiting to see what becomes of more recent pitchers, like Danny Hultzen.) That said, it’s not impossible. Jaffe found 11 pitchers who had returned well enough to throw at least 400 innings (through 2011), and we’re talking about some big names there — Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Chris Carpenter and Anibal Sanchez among them, although as Jaffe noted, Clemens’ injury was slightly different from Pineda’s, and every shoulder injury is of course its own unique animal.
We don’t know what category Pineda will end up falling into, but he did manage to get back into 10 rehab games at three levels last summer, starting just over 13 months following surgery. At the risk of scouting a stat line, a 41/14 K/BB mark in 40.2 innings is certainly encouraging, as were June reports that he was getting his fastball back up to the mid-90s again. We can see how he looked in this clip from a June 25 start for Double-A Trenton against Erie, and while the quality of the competition can’t be ignored, we’re at least seeing some swing-and-misses:
Of course, Pineda left an August 2 start with “shoulder stiffness” and didn’t pitch again, which Brian Cashman explained away as letting Pineda rest after so many months of rehab, while also saying he “finished the year healthy.” Now Pineda is throwing in camp and we should see him on the mound in games in the next few weeks, with an early report from Buster Olney indicating that the Yankees are “quietly encouraged and excited” about Pineda’s velocity, though of course take that for what it’s worth.
Maybe he’s done, doomed to bounce around the minors for years trying to reclaim that past glory with a shoulder that won’t let it happen, although the fact that he didn’t injure his rotator cuff is a mark in his favor . Maybe he’s just done as a starter, and may prove more useful to the Yankees in short stints out of the bullpen. (Even when Pineda was flying high in 2011, the charge against him was that he was a two-pitch pitcher, with a valuable slider and fastball but a poor change.) Either way, Pineda is attempting to do something that very few pitchers have done successfully, and that’s interesting regardless of who is trying it. Considering how great Pineda was in that one healthy season, and how high-profile that failed (to date) trade was, he’s one of the more fascinating stories of the spring, no matter whether you support the Yankees or not.
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