The new Michael Pineda is much bigger and stronger than the young pitcher I saw when he first came to the Mariners in 2007 from the Dominican Republic. That Pineda was a far cry from the current 6-foot-5, 250-pound right-handed starting pitcher, the one who will begin the season as the Mariners' fifth starter.
Although he has the rotation spot locked up, the Mariners could have chosen to delay Pineda’s arrival on the major league roster until the 11th game of the season. Such a delay would have allowed the Mariners to retain the rights to the big righty for another year without him being eligible for arbitration. I’m glad Seattle did not decide to go that route after Pineda beat out Luke French for the final spot in the rotation.
Pineda just turned 22 years old this past January. In addition to the change in his physical presence, his approach on the mound has developed as well. Pineda appears to be much more of a pitcher now than the thrower I saw in the past. He is a prototype for player development at its finest. The Mariners coaches have worked with him to improve his mechanics and mound demeanor.
Pineda would have had little to prove if he were to have been returned to the minor leagues. This past season, in Double- and Triple-A, he had an 11-4 record with a 3.36 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP. The most impressive statistics are his 154 strikeouts against only 34 walks in 139 innings pitched. Pineda is a power pitcher with a fastball that can touch 100 mph. He generally sits between 92-98 by adding and subtracting on the fastball. Regardless of the velocity, his pitches have late life with natural sink. The ball just seems to get lost in his huge hands before he delivers the pitch. His long, long fingers allow him to grip the ball with ease. The fact that the Mariners have a very good defensive team behind him will make Pineda even better. Factor in the pitcher friendly Safeco Field in Seattle and Pineda could not be pitching in a better environment. More about the defense later.
When I see Pineda on the mound he reminds me a great deal of the Indians' Fausto Carmona. (6-foot-4, 230 pounds.) Both Pineda and Carmona work very hard and expend a great deal of energy in their motions. While some might call Carmona’s delivery “violent”, he and Pineda can work up quite a sweat as they put themselves through lots of physical movement to throw every pitch.
Pineda’s motion and his effort as a power pitcher have caused him some problems with elbow tenderness in the past. In both 2009 and 2010 the elbow flared up and he missed some time on the mound. He has to harness some of that energy in his delivery and finish his pitches cleanly to avoid injury. Especially with the velocity and torque he spends on each and every pitch.
An explosive fastball followed in sequence by a very sharp and late breaking slider that Pineda throws in the high-80s is a devastating combination for hitters to time. He throws all his pitches from a three-quarters arm slot. Add a lower-80s changeup as the third pitch in Pineda’s arsenal and one can easily see why the Mariners are so high on their big rookie pitcher. His slider is good enough to use more often. His changeup needs refinement and work on his arm action so he doesn’t tip off the pitch. There are times his pitches flatten and straighten too much and he gets hit. It would be nice if Pineda had a fourth pitch, but he really has little to worry about with the fastball and slider being what they are and with some improvement on the changeup.
There are some scouts who feel Pineda would be best used in the bullpen as an eighth-inning setup pitcher with a chance to close in the future. The Mariners are so thin in starting pitchers that Pineda is likely to stay in that role for a while. The discussions about Pineda are similar to those about many power pitchers including Neftali Feliz and Aroldis Chapman. There is so much to like about all three of those pitchers that it is in the team's as well as the player’s best interest to make a decision and stick with it. Changing the pitcher’s role from year to year is very hard on everyone. In short, if you are looking for a quick comparison for Pineda, think of Feliz and Chapman in today’s current group of quality power pitchers.
Questions still remain about the potential success for Pineda in his freshman year with the Mariners. As a rookie, he will slot in the fifth position in the rotation. That means he will face off against other No. 5’s and occasionally he’ll see the ace of the other team. Can he hold his own? Without a doubt. He’ll keep his team in games by changing speeds. I’d like to see him change eye levels more often. Most of Pineda’s offerings are low in the strike zone until he loses command of his slider or changeup and he gets the ball up in the eyes of the hitter. His lower velocity pitches have a tendency to get hit hard. They are smacked up the middle and to the gaps.
With shortstop Brendan Ryan and second baseman Jack Wilson staffing the middle of the Mariners' infield and Franklin Gutierrez in center (when healthy) as well as Ichiro in right, the field is covered with players who can catch and throw the ball. They will save Pineda from any mistakes he makes in location. The defense behind him will see plenty of action, as Pineda may not miss too many bats the second and third time through the batting order.
While it’s easy to get very excited about a pitcher with the type of power arm Pineda possesses, it must be remembered that he is still a rookie. He’ll be pitching to major league hitters who haven’t really seen what he has to offer. Once those hitters adjust to Pineda, he will have to adjust in turn.
To date, Pineda hasn’t had to face the likes of Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera or Adrian Gonzalez day in and day out. His first year will give him the opportunity to learn the league and adjust to the thunder on a daily basis. For now, I remain very bullish on Pineda. He has the pitching repertoire, the velocity and the mechanics to become an impact pitcher. This is his golden opportunity and hopefully, it’s downhill from this point forward. Now he will get experience that will be invaluable in shaping his future. If I had to project today, I’d say Pineda becomes an impact pitcher by this time next season.