When the New York Yankees traded for Michael Pineda in January of 2012, visions of a future top-of-the-rotation arm floated throughout the Bronx. In 2014, providing 20-plus starts and league-average production would be an accomplishment for the 25-year-old.
Since arriving in New York, Pineda hasn't thrown a pitch in the big leagues. The flame-throwing righty has been teetering between the disabled list and minor league rehab assignments since injuring his shoulder two years ago.
In a perfect world, Pineda would re-emerge as the dominant, rotation-changing force he profiled as during his rookie year in Seattle. Of course, this isn't a perfect world.
As the Yankees prepare for a season of high expectations, Pineda's current and future role cast a shadow over the franchise.
Michael Pineda talking to the media. Wouldn't declare himself the favorite but said "I'm ready compete." pic.twitter.com/r8idp2qpIo— Erik Boland (@eboland11) February 10, 2014
In the long term, health and production from Pineda could change the payroll outlook and allocation of resources for general manager Brian Cashman. In the short term, a facsimile of Pineda's debut season could change the fortune of the 2014 Yankees.
If you forgot just how good Pineda was in 2011, don't be ashamed. It's been a while since the then 22-year-old burst on the scene in Seattle, blew fastballs and biting sliders by unsuspecting hitters and formed a young, dynamic duo with Felix Hernandez.
On the surface, the numbers—171 IP, 3.74 ERA, 3.15 SO/BB—were very solid. Despite a drop in production (5.12 ERA) after an AL All-Star Game invitation, Seattle's young stud managed a fifth-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Accolades aside, it was Pineda's future that became so tantalizing. At the age of 22, when many prized pitching prospects are still in Double-A or working through innings limitations in the big leagues, Pineda threw 171 innings for Seattle. When factoring in his enormous strikeout rate (9.1 SO/9), a rare picture emerged.
Over the course of baseball history, just eight starters have thrown 170-plus innings and struck out at least one batter per inning during their respective age-22 seasons. By joining that group, Pineda laid the groundwork for future dominance.
No, not every name on that list ended up in Cooperstown. Yet, when adding up the career accolades of the seven pitchers Pineda joined, a bright future wasn't hard to predict for Seattle's young ace. The seven pitchers that came before Pineda combined for 546 career victories, 14 all-star appearances and six finishes in the top-five of Cy Young voting.
Clearly, the potential for greatness was in Pineda's right arm. Now, nearly three full years from his debut, it's hard to predict or project anything close to that during the 2014 season.
Yet, injuries and time away from the game haven't stopped first-hand sources from raving about Pineda's talent and potential.
Last summer, during a whirlwind rehab tour, Alex Rodriguez crossed paths with Pineda on a minor league stop. Despite all the vitriol directed at Rodriguez's lack of honesty with the media, few would ever question his baseball acumen.
When asked about Pineda's ability, the three-time AL MVP gushed about what he could still become for the Yankees, per Ian Begley of ESPN New York.
"Michael's a very special kid," Rodriguez said. "In the weight room, he's like a monster, as strong as you get … and I think that will translate, especially when he gets back from his surgery. It's going to take time for him, especially a power pitcher, but I see him next year pitching 94-98, getting back to that velocity."
If that velocity—94.7 mph average fastball during 2011, per Fangraphs—returns, perhaps the Yankees can check off one of Joel Sherman's 'dream season' checklist points. During a column discussing what the Yankees need to go in their favor in 2014, the New York Post columnist suggested 25 starts and high-end No. 3 starter production from Pineda.
Thus far, the returns have been positive from Tampa, Fla. According to Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York, Pineda looked 'good' in a recent bullpen session.
Yankees quietly encouraged and excited about what they see in Michael Pineda-- signs of velocity increase. A big X-factor for them.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) February 14, 2014
In spring, optimism is limitless. Pineda can easily impress Rodriguez in Triple-A, conjure up fun predictions from columnists and catch the eye of a beat reporter at Legends Field. But when the season begins, none of that will matter.
At this point, it's a fool's errand to expect big things from Pineda in 2014. After two full seasons away from the majors—which included just 10 outings in the minors—the burgeoning ace of 2011 has thrown just 40.2 innings of professional baseball since.
Even if Pineda looks sharp and strong during Grapefruit League action, expect the Yankees to ease him back into the rotation. In early April, if off days allow for the No. 5 starter to be skipped, Pineda could be given extended rest. At the All-Star break, the Yankees could rework the rotation to spell Pineda a few starts.
How many starts will Pineda make in 2014?
In theory, Pineda's arm could have handled a jump to a 200-inning workload in 2012. Injury and lost seasons have thrown that trajectory and development into a tizzy. If the Yankees can coax something close to Ivan Nova's 2013 workload (20 GS, 139.1 IP) out of Pineda in 2014, it would be a victory.
When you combine Pineda's talent, 2011 debut, rare class of age-22 stars he joined, Rodriguez's seal of approval and positive reviews from the New York media, a bounce-back candidate can be envisioned.
With this case, it's better to err on the side of caution.
If the Yankees can turn a former phenom into a No. 4 or No. 5 stater in 2014, it's a boon to both their current and future rotation hopes.