An eventful trade deadline is now in the rearview mirror for the Minnesota Twins. They made a handful of trades as the deadline approached. Some moves were not surprising, such as dealing José Berríos and Nelson Cruz. Others were more surprising, like the St. Louis Cardinals wanting to trade for J.A. Happ. However, most perplexing may be that the Twins did not trade away right-handed pitcher Michael Pineda, a move that appeared to be nearly certain to happen by late July.
There are a couple of different reasons why Pineda stayed put. It could be that with all of the attention focused on putting together the finishing touches of the Berrios trade and talking about other tradeable players like Byron Buxton, Andrelton Simmons, Kenta Maeda took up too much time. Maybe a Pineda trade didn’t pan out before the deadline because trade talks were ongoing in multiple directions.
Another way the situation could be seen is that the Twins actually wanted to keep Pineda around and weren’t going to trade him just because his contract is up at the end of the season. That isn’t such a bad thing because Pineda can still be a valuable piece for Minnesota the rest of this season and beyond.
He might not be the first name that comes to mind when talking about most productive Twins pitchers, but “Big Mike” was a big reason why Minnesota’s pitching staff was so effective when they won the AL Central the past two seasons. They signed Pineda in 2018 knowing he would miss all of that season recovering from Tommy John surgery. But in 2019, Pineda threw 146 innings in 26 starts with a 4.01 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP before getting hit with a 60-game suspension in early September. Even after he was caught using a diuretic and had to miss the playoffs, the Twins prioritized bringing back Pineda with a two-year extension in the offseason.
Pineda continued to throw productive innings for the Twins after returning from suspension. Last year, Pineda started only five games but owned a 3.38 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a 22.5 percent strikeout rate in 26.2 innings. This year he’s continued giving the Twins a consistent stat line. Pineda has thrown 76.1 innings in 15 starts this season with a 3.89 ERA, 4.11 FIP, and a .250 opponent batting average. While those may not be ace numbers, he has been a steady middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, consistently giving the Twins at least five solid innings.
After trading away Berrios last week, the Twins rotation will lack veteran starters outside of Maeda for next season. Talented prospects like Jhoan Duran, Joe Ryan, and Simeon Woods Richardson are on the way, but they have no major league experience. So bringing in Pineda to fill another spot would help avoid rushing some of the pitching prospects that are getting close to the big leagues.
The free-agent market this offseason is also going to be loaded with big-name starting pitching talent. Noah Syndergaard, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman, and Justin Verlander could all be on the move. Given how many impact pitchers could be on the market, middle-of-the-rotation pitchers like Pineda can get lost in the mix. The current free agent outlook doesn’t bode well for Pineda, and the Twins can use that to incentivize him to come back.
Pineda is currently in the last year of a two-year, $20 million deal. Bringing him back on a one-year deal with a slight raise of around $11-13 million for next season would make sense for both sides, given that he will be entering his age-33 season next year. The short-term deal would give the Twins another season of his services while offering him a chance to “reset” and hit free agency again in 2023 without all of those big-name pitchers on the open market. Even if Pineda wants a longer-term deal, an easy fix could be a club option for 2023 that gives him more security.
However, a couple of areas could make the Twins pause when it comes to an extension. One would be his decreasing average fastball velocity. According to Fangraphs, Pineda threw his fastball on average just over 92 mph in 2019 and 2020. This year that number has dipped to 90.8 mph. Another area is that Pineda’s hard-hit (42.9 percent) and barrel (9.4) percentages are career highs.
Along with that, his 4.49 xERA is noticeably higher than his actual ERA this season. But even though his numbers in those directions have gone up, Pineda’s still been able to get outs and give the Twins productive innings in a season where they’ve desperately needed them.
Maybe the Twins really were willing to deal with Pineda, but the clock ran out, and nothing worked out in terms of a trade. But it’s also not hard to imagine that the Twins feel good about how Pineda has pitched for them and would like that to continue. Especially after keeping him under contract while recovering from Tommy John surgery and serving a suspension.
Even if they wanted to trade Pineda, there is still a great opportunity to keep him in Minnesota for the future as the team looks to build a new core for 2022 and beyond. Pineda is not a top-of-the-rotation arm, but he can still be a reliable pitcher who can bring experience to a team that’s rotation should eventually be filled by young starters from their farm system.
Don’t be surprised if the Twins make a serious attempt to keep Big Mike in the middle of their rotation as they look to bounce back from this disappointing season.