The Yankees have big expectations for Michael Pineda, which is fitting because, at 6’ 7” and 270 pounds, the right hander is a very big man, perhaps too big, according to some early skeptics. Ever since the young right hander reported to camp about 10 pounds overweight by his own estimation, there have been whispers about his conditioning, which have become more audible on the eve of his exhibition debut. Considering the high profile nature of the trade that brought him to the Bronx, such speculation in not particularly surprising.
Although the media’s skepticism about a young player coming to New York is par for the course, comments from Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have raised some eyebrows. Just after the trade was completed, Cashman went out of his way to describe Pineda as a work in progress who was in need of a third pitch, and more recently, Girardi stated that only CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda were guaranteed a spot in the rotation. That’s hardly the reaction you’d expect from a team unveiling its prized offseason acquisition, but it seems as if the Yankees are more intent on sending Pineda a message than building up his self esteem.
Michael Pineda is a major league pitcher. He proved that last season. Sometimes, however, early success can go to a player’s head, so perhaps the Yankees stern approach is their way of making sure Pineda doesn’t rest on his laurels? If so, you really can’t blame them for being cautious. Recent experiences with Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Ian Kennedy suggest that fostering entitlement isn’t the best way to handle young players, so Cashman and Girardi may be hoping to avoid making the same mistake.
The Yankees would not have traded Jesus Montero if they didn’t envision Pineda starting the season in the rotation. And, quite frankly, nothing has happened since the trade to suggest that won’t be the case. However, that doesn’t mean something can’t or won’t occur between now and the end of the spring training to change the team’s thinking.
If Pineda doesn’t go north with the team in April, the circumstances will have to be fairly dramatic. Simply struggling in his spring starts probably wouldn’t be enough to prompt a demotion. But, if he makes little or no progress developing his change-up and comes up lacking in terms of work ethic, the Yankees could opt to send Pineda a wake up call instead of allowing him to endure a nightmarish start to his Yankees career. Under this scenario, the Yankees could opt to send Pineda to the minors to not only round into shape, but tinker with his changeup, a process that would also serve the purpose of limiting his innings, which could be a concern if the team advances deep into the post season. Also, having Freddy Garcia start the year in the rotation could boost his trade value, allowing the Yankees to maximize a return should they decide to deal him upon Pineda’s inevitable return. Considering the beneficial externalities, it’s easier to accept a scenario that would have the Yankees leaving Pineda out of the Opening Day rotation.
If the Yankees decided to crack the whip with Pineda, it won’t be because of something inherently wrong with his character. In fact, the hypothetical scenario outlined above could just as easily apply to Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova. With potentially one of the youngest rotations in recent franchise history, the Yankees’ biggest challenge could be managing expectations…not only those of the team and fans, but of the pitchers themselves. If the Yankees’ long-term plans really do include the cultivation of young pitchers, they must be prepared to teach them valuable lessons, and sometimes that has to be done the hard way. So, although Pineda and Nova appear destined to be in the rotation, and even Phil Hughes seems to have an inside track, nothing should be taken for granted. At least, that’s the message the Yankees are trying to send.