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Michael Pineda Day

We’ve dissected the Cliff Lee deal like it’s already done, and from both sides of the deal, so let’s continue on in that vein and look at the pitcher that the Mariners are most likely to call up to replace Lee as early as tonight in Seattle. Even if it’s not the Yankees, the Mariners look like they want to trade Lee before the All-Star break to get the most possible value, so Pineda should be up soon.

The green and gray certainly hope that Michael Pineda day doesn’t end up pinata-like, but by all accounts it should be more of a commencement than a trial by fire. The 21-year-old came into the season as the fifth-best Mariner’s prospect by resident maven Marc Hulet’s standards. Here’s what he said at the time:

A beast on the mound at 6’5” 250 lbs, Pineda was let down by his elbow in ’09 as his season was interrupted in mid-May and he did not return until August. The elbow soreness that he experienced is cause for concern going forward, but the right-hander has a bright future ahead of him if he can put the issue behind him. Just 20 in ’09, Pineda posted a 2.73 FIP in 10 appearances (eight starts) in high-A despite playing in a good hitter’s league. He allowed just 29 hits in 44.1 innings of work and showed outstanding control for his age with a walk rate of 1.22 BB/9. His low-90s fastball and good (but inconsistent) slider helped him post a strikeout rate of 9.74 K/9. It will be interesting to see if the organization returns Pineda to high-A in 2010 or pushes him to double-A.

What happened this year is exactly what Mariners fans hoped for and Hulet pointed to as his most important chore this year: Pineda proved he was healthy by not only dominating Double-A on his second attempt (9.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9), but by also mowing down Triple-A hitters after a promotion (12.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9). He looks ready to go.

In fact, looking at his career numbers (8.6 K/9, 2.0 BB/9), it might be tempting to label him a control artist with okay stuff, but it has been his work at the higher levels, and this year, which has pushed him into elite territory as a prospect. If the rankings were to come out today, he might just be first, if only because his lowest strikeout rate above Double-A was this year’s 9.1 at Double-A.

As for how he might fare in the bigs, there are two minor pink flags to consider. First, Pineda did have the elbow injury last year, so he didn’t accrue many innings, and only put up 138.1 innings combined in 2008. He’s already at 96 innings this year, and 120% of 138.1 is 165. Even if this is no hard cap on his innings, it’s reasonable to assume that he won’t put in another 100 innings in the second half and will have his innings limited at some point.

The other minor flaw in his repertoire has been the slight tendency towards fly balls as he’s risen in the minor leagues. His overall groundball percentage is decent (46%), but this year, the numbers haven’t looked as good. This year, 42.3% of his balls have guzzled grass, and at each stop from high-A to Triple-A, his groundball percentage has dropped. A number like his Triple-A groundball percentage (36.6%) would be a problem in the major leagues. Even this pink flag has its own caveat, however, as SafeCo is a safe haven for flyballers. According to StatCorner, the park has a 93 park factor for home runs by right-handers, and that number drops to 87 for lefties.

Given the lack of offense behind him, and the chance that the Mariners limit his pitches as well as his innings, Pineda does not make for a good choice for wins. On the other hand, the park should help him continue to develop, and nothing terrible leaps out from his pristine numbers. He’s a strong pickup in deeper leagues, and if he performs well in his first start against a good offense from New York, he’ll even be relevant in mixed leagues for his strikeouts and ratios alone.