Much has changed for Michael Pineda since he was a lanky, projectable 16-year-old who signed with the Mariners out of the Dominican Republic in 2005. The right-hander now stands 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, pops mitts with upper-90s gas, and is considered a potential ace by the prospect pundits: Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein, ESPN’s Keith Law and our own Marc Hulet all rank Pineda as a top-25 farm talent.
The M’s have named Pineda their fifth starter to begin the 2011 season, and the 22-year-old is primed to make an instant fantasy impact. Seattle will be careful with Pineda’s innings, but King Felix’s sidekick has it all — K’s, control, a quality defense and a friendly home ball park.
While Pineda missed much of 2009 due to elbow soreness, he dominated to the tune of 9.7 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and a 2.73 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) in 44.1 innings pitched at High Desert, a park that gives pitchers night terrors in a league (High-A California) that produces plenty of crooked numbers on the score board. This past year, Pineda returned healthy and left a path of destruction in his wake: in 139.1 combined framed between the AA Southern League and the AAA Pacific Coast League, he struck out 9.9 hitters per nine, walked 2.2 per nine and posted a 2.80 FIP.
His stuff, as Baseball America’s Connor Glassey notes, was just as impressive:
He throws a crisp fastball that sits at 93-97 mph and gets as high as 101 with explosive life and occasional heavy sink. He tightened and added more tilt to his quality slider this year, though he can still get under it occasionally, causing it to flatten out. He also did a better job of selling his upper-80s changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball, keeping it down and getting hitters to chase it.
So, Pineda possesses a blistering fastball, an improving power slider and at least a useable changeup. With that repertoire and his history of evading lumber in the minors, he shouldn’t have much problem picking up K’s in the majors: ZiPS projects 7 K/9, Oliver spits out 7.7 K/9 and PECOTA has 8.2 K/9. And, despite his youth, Pineda doesn’t fit the power-armed, control-challenged archetype. He has shown the ability to locate. ZiPS predicts 3.2 BB/9, Oliver 2.5 BB/9 and PECOTA 3.3 BB/9.
As a top prospect able to rack up strikeouts without being a WHIP-killer, Pineda would already be a prized commodity. But he has a pair of built-in advantages as well: strong defensive support and a home park that suffocates offensive production.
The M’s saved a collective 16 runs more than an average defensive squad last year, according to UZR. Seattle’s D should be strong again in 2011. Ichiro continues to make a mockery out of typical aging patterns, and Franklin Gutierrez is gazelle-like in center (though he’ll open the year on the DL with a stomach ailment). Chone Figgins moves back to third base. And while Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan have durability concerns, they form a rangy DP combo.
In addition to the quality defense, Pineda gets to pitch in Safeco Field. Seattle’s home venue does a number on extra-base hits and homers. Safeco decreases HR production nine percent for lefties and 16 percent for righties, dampening overall offensive production by four percent for batters of both hands.
Pineda almost assuredly won’t log a full starter’s workload in 2011. He has that elbow injury in the not-too-distant past, his career high in minor league innings was last year’s 139.1, and the M’s, projected to bring up the rear in the short-stack division, don’t figure to face the decision of whether to push him way past his previous limits in the name of postseason glory. Also, his so-so changeup could make him susceptible to some of the league’s tougher left-handed hitters. But even with innings restrictions and work-in-progress off-speed stuff, Pineda’s a good bet for plenty of K’s and a sub-four ERA during his rookie year.