If the New York Yankees are going to rise to the top of the American League East in 2014, roster surprises and impact performers must emerge. With every positive step through Grapefruit League play, starting pitcher Michael Pineda looks more and more like a pitcher to dream on.
The 25-year-old righty, who is attempting to make it back to the majors after two lost seasons due to shoulder issues, continues to impress in spring training. After an excellent first outing on March 7, Pineda took to the mound against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday to rave reviews, per Erik Boland of Newsday.
"Very impressed," a veteran scout told Boland. "The Yankees should be pumped."
Once again, strikeouts, command and health accompanied New York's front-runner for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
Due to missing two full years, the need to build up stamina and only tossing 40.2 professional innings since the end of the 2011 season, it's unfair to expect Pineda to become a 200-inning rotation anchor this summer.
Before Pineda's latest outing, Yankees manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that his young starter may not be able to toss an entire season or be counted on for bulk innings if he heads north with the team as a member of the rotation, per Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York:
"Hypothetically, let's just say he was a starter at some point, you'd have to adjust, because you're not going to get 200 innings out of him," Girardi said. "I know they've talked about it. I'm sure if it becomes a factor and he's part of our club, we're going to have to see how it works."
However, realistic expectations are for April and May. During the often monotonous nature of spring training games, simulated contests and pitch-by-pitch breakdowns from beat writers and scouts, a picture of greatness can be formed in the collective minds of fans.
Beyond jokes about players arriving to camp in the best shape of their lives, excellence during exhibition games has always served as an intriguing backdrop to preseason predictions and expectations. Clearly, nothing Pineda does in Tampa, Fla. can make the Yankees believe that the pitcher of 2011 will re-emerge in the Bronx this summer.
It will take months of production to turn astute and analytical baseball minds into Michael Pineda believers.
For fans, much less is required.
If you've watched or listened to any of the spring training coverage from Steinbrenner Field, you've witnessed a swelling belief in Pineda emerging. The image of another double-digit strikeout performance on a sun-soaked afternoon in New York has probably crossed your mind once or twice.
With a nod to fair and accurate expectations, there's nothing wrong with dreaming on Pineda's arm.
In baseball—especially when it comes to hard-throwing, high-end pitching—dreaming is part of the allure of the game.
Health is fickle, arriving and departing without any notice for fans, executives or media members. While it's prudent to reserve judgement on a healthy player remaining injury-free, it's also par for the course to be skeptical of an injury-prone player returning to top form.
That's part of the reason to hesitate on Pineda. If he couldn't reclaim his status as a big league pitcher in 2013, there's no guarantee he can this summer or in the near future. And yet there's encouragement from his latest outing: success without perfection.
In 2011, during the then-22-year-old's rookie season in Seattle, velocity, command and dominance were evident on almost a start-by-start basis. Projecting how he could pitch without immense talent and health was irrelevant. Now, it's part of the equation for any fan or scout.
If Pineda returns to his old form, results will likely follow suit. If he doesn't recapture a high-90s fastball, there's still a chance he can strikeout more than a batter per inning.
With pitching phenoms, greatness is fleeting on a yearly basis. As any baseball fan—particularly one in Seattle or someone who studies teams around the league—saw in 2011, Pineda had the chance for greatness. With every positive step this spring, the potential for a return to that form continues to reveal itself through outs and pain-free innings.
If the Yankees are going to emerge from the shadow of the World Series champions in Boston, overtake the brilliance of Tampa Bay's front office and hold off a slew of potential 90-win teams in the American League postseason race, they'll need surprises to emerge from the roster.
That could mean bounce-back seasons from Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira or CC Sabathia. It could mean a dominant rookie year from Masahiro Tanaka.
Or, if you're a believer in what spring has shown thus far, it could mean Pineda's re-emergence into a young star on the mound.
Can Michael Pineda recapture his form of 2011?