The Minnesota Twins’ Faith in Michael Pineda is Paying Off So Far

Photo credit: David Berding (USA Today Sports)

The trade that sent Michael Pineda from the Seattle Mariners to the New York Yankees was a disappointment, given the caliber of players involved. Pineda was an All-Star as a 22 year old rookie in 2011. The next year Seattle traded him and Vicente Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi.

Montero hit .328/.406/.590 in 18 games as a 21-year-old rookie the year before he was dealt to the Mariners. He hit .260/.298/.386 with 15 home runs his first season in Seattle, but was suspended 50 games as part of the Biogenesis scandal and only hit .217/.255/.374 in 73 games across three seasons after that and has been out of the majors since 2015.

Noesi had a 5.98 ERA in his first two seasons with Seattle, was designated for assignment with a 27.00 ERA in his third year and was out of the majors by 2015 as well. Campos, who went to the Yankees with Pineda, pitched one game for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016 and is currently in Double A.

Pineda missed his first two seasons in New York with shoulder issues. He had a 1.89 ERA in 2014, but only made 13 starts due to a suspension for using pine tar he placed on his neck and an injury he sustained during the suspension. He owned a 4.56 ERA in the three seasons following that before tearing his UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2017 season.

Pineda never became the ace he looked like he could become after his rookie season. But now he’s a serviceable fifth starter for the Minnesota Twins, and struck out a season-high nine batters on Saturday.

“There’s no way to ever know what a guy is going to do, but he has a track record of being a highly successful Major League pitcher that can make adjustments and figure things out,” said manager Rocco Baldelli after his start on Saturday, which marked nearly the two year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery on July 18.

He started out slow this year, racking up a 6.21 ERA in April. But since then he’s gained increasing command of his fastball and slider, and mixed in his changeup more. Hitters are batting .236/.272/.403 against him in May and June, and he’s struck out 40 batters, walked two and only given up two home runs in his last 10 starts.

The Minnesota Twins signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract last season knowing he’d miss most of 2018 while rehabbing. He was expected to pitch late last year, but tore the meniscus in his right knee.

“[His return] encompasses a lot of different small things into the fact that he can just make adjustments and figure things out,” said Baldelli. “That’s why guys last so long pitching well in this game. It’s not by accident, it’s because they have the ability to do different things and Big Mike has that.”

“Everybody knows I’m a slider guy; I throw a lot of sliders during the game,” added Pineda. “But right now, I’m trying to focus and use more of my changeup, and the changeup is a pitch that makes it hard to see the heater. That’s why I’m focusing on the changeup right now.”

He says it’s also helping his slider.

“Before in my career, I’m not using a lot of changeups, and right now I’m using more and the changeup is really good, so it’s helping my slider, because I’m pitching on both sides (of the plate).”

While he can touch 97 mph when he reaches back, he’s no longer the fastball-slider guy he was when he was an All-Star or the same pitcher he was in New York. But he’s reinvented himself in a way that makes him an effective No. 5 starter this year.

“He’s not the exact same pitcher that he was five years ago, he’s a different pitcher,” says Baldelli. “But he’s an equally as good pitcher.”

Pineda’s career path is about as strange as the trade that sent him to New York after his rookie season. He looked like a potential ace as a rookie, but every time he seemed to be making progress, he’d run into an injury issue — missing his first two years with the Yankees, getting injured after smearing pine tar on his neck, and even having knee issues after recovering from Tommy John last year.

But like Jake Odorizzi, he’s a reclamation project that has paid off for the Twins so far. He may never be the pitcher he was projected to be, but he’s an important part of the Minnesota rotation right now.

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Photo credit: David Berding (USA Today Sports)

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