The Minnesota Twins made their first offseason move at the Winter Meetings in Orlando on Wednesday morning, as the team announced a two-year deal with starting pitcher Michael Pineda.
Pineda will make $2 million in 2018 and $8 million in 2019. His signing puts the Twins at 37 players on the 40-man roster, though he’ll almost certainly open the year on the 60-day disabled list, which will open up another spot. The 60-day disabled list opens up an exemption on the 40-man roster, but can only be used during the season.
The 28-year-old righty had Tommy John surgery in mid-July last season, and will likely miss most of the 2018 season. He turns 29 on January 18.
Pineda checks off all the boxes for what one could want in a modern starter — size, stuff, command — with one exception: he’s exceptionally susceptible to home runs. He was a well-regarded prospect in the Mariners system before he was traded in a phenom-for-phenom swap with catcher Jesus Montero heading the other way from the Yankees in the 2011-12 offseason, and then he missed all of 2012 and ‘13 with shoulder issues that started as tendinitis but ultimately led to surgery to fix a torn labrum.
The 2014 season was star-crossed for Pineda, as he missed time due to being suspended for having pine tar on his palm and wrist. While suspended, Pineda suffered a strain of his teres major muscle — near the rotator cuff/shoulder — while pitching in a simulated game to stay in shape. Ultimately, Pineda got into just 13 games for the Yankees that year, posting a 1.89 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 76.1 innings.
The home run issues didn’t start until 2015, as he’s allowed 1.4 homers per nine innings over his last three years with the Yankees. Over that stretch, Pineda made 76 starts — roughly 25 per year — with a 4.56 ERA. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story, as he posted a 3.82 FIP, more than a strikeout per inning (9.5 K/9) and stellar walk rates (2.0 BB/9).
Again, that’s where the home runs become problematic, but it’s worth noting that he really is good at everything else a pitcher needs to be good at. He’s induced grounders at a league-average or better rate in each of the last three years — peaking in 2017 at 50.9 percent — and is coming off a year with 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.0 walks per nine and a respectable 1.29 WHIP.
The home runs would be extremely problematic if there wasn’t any hope in his repertoire.
It’s hard to claim that’s the case with a fastball — it’s really a cutter — that averages just under 94 mph, a slider in the mid-80s and a changeup he’ll flash about 10 times per game that’ll tickle 90 mph at times.
The slider is good for a swinging-strike rate in the 20 percent range — very, very good for the uninitiated — while the cutter typically sits in the 6-7 percent range, which is also not too bad for a pitcher’s primary offering in the fastball family.
The switch to the cutter as his primary fastball has helped his groundball rate, and his slider has gotten progressively better at inducing worm burners as well. Theoretically, the more grounders he induces, the fewer homers he should allow, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. His home run rate was a career-worst 1.87 homers per nine in 2017, a jump from 1.38 the year before and part of a four-year trend upward. Now, of course, that last jump was part of a league-wide issue with homers, but he can’t survive at that rate. The 2016 mark is probably the high-water level of where he can be and still be an effective pitcher in the league over the long haul.
Making a change won’t be as simple as just reworking the existing pitches in his repertoire, either. He’s allowed 90 home runs in his career — 40 on his cutter, 35 on his slider, 10 on his since-scrapped four-seamer and five on a show-me changeup.
In short, it’s not that he’s falling into counts where he has to throw hittable fastballs that batters are hitting out of the park — as if his stingy walk rate didn’t sort of already hint at this — but rather, each of his pitches have ample swing-and-miss potential, but when they get squared up, they really take off.
It’s not a simple fix for this uber-talented righty, and that’s before considering he still has some hurdles to clear in his recovery from surgery. It’ll be intriguing to see how the Twins attack this over the time they have with him recuperating, especially in light of hiring pitching guru Josh Kalk away from the Tampa Bay Rays.