Michael Ynoa is finally pitching

It’s been an incredibly long time coming, but Michael Ynoa finally made a start in a full-season minor league last week. He’s even scheduled to make another one on Wednesday.

If you’ve been following prospects for less than a few years or aren’t a fan of the Oakland A’s, you may not be familiar with Ynoa, a 6-foot-8 right-hander currently pitching for the Beloit Snappers of the Low-A Midwest League. At 21, he’s slightly old for the league, although it wouldn’t be noticeable if he had been drafted from a four-year college. But Ynoa wasn’t drafted. He signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 16 for a then-record $4.25 million in 2008.

Those numbers alone may not cause much raising of the eyebrows. Sure Ynoa got a lot of money, but 16-year-olds get millions of dollars from organizations all the time. But what makes back-to-back starts by Ynoa in Beloit this month so noteworthy is that after just 42.2 innings of work over five years, Ynoa appears to be healthy and taking regular turns in a full-season rotation for the first time in his career.

Since signing for a record bonus in 2008 (an amount which, even as the salary structure in baseball skyrockets, has been surpassed only twice since), Ynoa has battled injuries that have taken two full seasons from him and have stunted his development to an almost catastrophic point. His signing was considered a major coup for the low-budget A’s; Ynoa was generally considered to be the best Latin American pitching prospect since Felix Hernandez. Expectations were immediately high for Ynoa, including his own. He believed he could be in the majors in two years, despite having played just 15 games of baseball to that point in his entire life. Somewhere, Sidd Finch is smiling wryly.

But the A’s have not been smiling. The plan for Ynoa was to ease him in to professional baseball with 75 innings in 2007, although their plan was to have him jump directly to the domestic short-season Northwest League. Many Dominican and Venezuelan prospects play their first pro season in the summer league in their home country. Still, an assignment to the Northwest League rather than the Arizona summer league would have signaled confidence in Ynoa.

But it never happened. Ynoa’s 2007 season ended before it started when he experienced elbow soreness while working in extended spring training in June of 2007. He didn’t have surgery, and the A’s described the injury as “elbow tendinitis,” but it cost Ynoa the entire season.

His 2010 season got delayed in the spring because he had wisdom tooth issues. That’s not a baseball related injury, but it does serve as a reminder as to just how young an individual we were dealing with here, despite his millions in the bank and equal number of expectations.

His professional career finally got started in the middle of 2010, but lasted just a week and a half, spanning three appearances and nine innings. Pain in his elbow returned, and this time Tommy John surgery was inevitable. That procedure knocked out the remainder of his 2010 season and the entire 2011 campaign.

The A’s and Ynoa entered the 2012 season hoping to begin him on the schedule they had set out for him when he was 17, aiming to have him throw somewhere around 75 innings. Muscle soreness in his shoulder, however, yet again delayed the start of his season. Ynoa eventually got on the mound over the summer, recording 30.2 innings between the Arizona Rookie League and the short-season New York-Penn League.

The results, now that there finally were some, were mixed. Normally, the A’s would have just been happy to see Ynoa out on the mound, but they had a decision to make. If they didn’t add him to the 40-man roster during the offseason, Ynoa would be exposed to the Rule V draft. A player who had been unable to stay healthy for more than two months and to that point had walked more than six batters per nine innings as a professional was unlikely to be selected and even less likely to stick on a major league roster all season, but his talent and name recognition could still have been enticing enough for a team to take a chance. Or so the A’s believed when they added him to their 40-man roster after last season.

Which brings us to the present. For the first time as a professional, Ynoa made it through a spring healthy and ready to begin a season on schedule. In his first start for Beloit, Ynoa threw three innings, walking two and striking out one while allowing an earned run. It was an unremarkable start other than that Ynoa was the one making it, and that he plans to adhere to his schedule to make more.

The good news for the A’s is that he’s still just 21 and will be all season. The A’s will have to take their time building up his innings counts and will have to be extra patient with him, but there is now some optimism that, now that he’s on the 40-man roster, he could be ready for the majors before the team is forced to use all of his minor league options.

For now, it’s one start at a time for Ynoa. The results in the games will eventually become the focus, perhaps sooner rather than later, but for now, it’s just a good sign for everyone involved that he’s finally on the mound where both he and the A’s planned for him to be.

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